This essay examines Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen’s career-long conversation with the fiction of Edith Wharton. Although Larsen cared little for the suggestion that she “had gone to Mrs. Wharton for her lessons in writing,” likely because the comparison cast doubt on the originality of her own oeuvre, the younger writer took Wharton’s work and made it new. One of Larsen’s most modernist gestures is the manner in which she consistently refers to, echoes, and resituates Wharton. These adaptations of Wharton’s fiction, especially of Sanctuary (1903) and Twilight Sleep (1927), which she deeply admired, involve not only subtle appropriations of turns of phrase, image, and point of view but also revisions of racial themes and subversions of narrative closure. Examining Larsen’s engagement with Wharton—particularly in Quicksand (1928), Passing (1929), “Sanctuary” (1930), and the novel that never saw print—makes clear the remarkable breadth of Larsen’s intertextual revisionary project.
Irreverent Intimacy: Nella Larsen’s Revisions of Edith Wharton
Emily J. Orlando is associate professor of English and codirector of the Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Fairfield University. She is the author of Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts and has published essays on literature and visual culture in American Literary Realism, Women’s Studies, New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance, Edith Wharton in Context, and other essay collections on American literature and culture. She codirected “Edith Wharton in Florence,” the June 2012 international conference of the Edith Wharton Society, and currently serves as president of the Wharton Society.
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Emily J. Orlando; Irreverent Intimacy: Nella Larsen’s Revisions of Edith Wharton. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 March 2015; 61 (1): 32–62. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-2885176
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