The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 46 He Wasn't There: Nella Larsen and the Harlem Renaissance's Great Atheist Novel

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He Wasn’t There: Nella Larsen and the Harlem Renaissance’s Great Atheist Novel

Quicksand, Nella Larsen’s first novel, is one of literature’s profound mysteries. It is an undeniable masterwork detailing a complicated story of racial identity, personal despair, and fundamental religious skepticism from an author who produced nothing of particular note before, and who, within three years of its publication, disappeared from the literary scene entirely, and stayed vanished for the remaining three decades of her life.

The book itself is just around 120 pages, but within it there is a secret universe for anybody with a stomach for hard truths. In those few pages, Larsen tells the story of Helga Crane, a woman born to a white mother and a black father. Helga is an educated and proud woman, a woman who can never be happy anywhere for any amount of time, and who can only find an end to her wanderings through a gradual annihilation at the hands of the South and its old time religion.

NellaLarsenIt’s hard to like Helga Crane, but as written by Larsen, it’s impossible not to understand her. Too smart and vivacious for the academic scene, too in love with freedom to be comfortable within the confines of American segregation, but too bound to that very community to find long-term contentment with her Scandinavian relations either, her life is a series of migrations followed by inevitable disillusionments until, broken and lonely, she stumbles into a makeshift church where the writhing, reptilian congregants wrap around her, beating her worn consciousness into submission until, tired with life, she relinquishes control and marries a Southern preacher.

And that’s when things get real. The ending of Quicksand is a tour de force of hopelessness in the Deep South as Helga tries gamely to give up her reason in order to fit in somewhere at last, only to have her body broken and broken again by the serial pregnancy that the community demands of its preachers’ wives. Lying in bed after a particularly difficult birth, her old spirit floods back into her and she rises up defiant against the religious system that has systemically ground her people to dust for so long:

The cruel, unrelieved suffering had beaten down her protective wall of artificial faith in the infinite wisdom, in the mercy, of God. For had she not called in her agony on Him? And He had not heard. Why? Because, she knew now, He wasn’t there. Didn’t exist.  Into that yawning gap of unspeakable brutality had gone, too, her belief in the miracle and wonder of life….Life wasn’t a miracle, a wonder. It was, for Negroes at least, only a great disappointment…With the obscuring curtain of religion rent, she was able to look about her and see with shocked eyes this thing that she had done to herself. She couldn’t, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew that He didn’t exist. No. No more than she could pray to Him for the death of her husband, the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green. The white man’s God. And His great love for all people regardless of race! What idiotic nonsense she had allowed herself to believe.How could she, how could anyone, have been so deluded? How could ten million black folk credit it when daily before their eyes was enacted its contradiction?

And then, there is the ending, so crushing, so powerfully bleak, that I can’t bring myself to ruin it for you other than to say it makes the whole “decades of frustrated roaming” part of the book seem a positive lark by comparison. This wasn’t the first or last time that the black and African-American literary community would put starkly critical religious skepticism on paper—W.E.B. Du Bois was a professed agnostic shading towards atheist, and Ann Petry’s mammoth bestseller The Street featured some scathing caricatures of traditional religious belief—but it is certainly the most uncompromising and nuanced portrait of the tensions between belief and community to emerge from the early twentieth century.

That it came from Nella Larsen is a puzzle for which we have a few definite pieces and a lot of educated guesswork to fill in the holes. We know, like Helga Crane, Larsen came from a biracial family. Her father left her mother when she was young, and soon her mother married a white man and left Larsen in the care of others whenever possible to avoid the stigma of having a biracial child. Too dark-skinned to be accepted by her own mother, but light-skinned enough to believe herself a cut or two above the darker-skinned children around her, she lived a youth of mixed shame and haughtiness that earned her no friends, and that is chronicled with all of its scales and warts in the restless progression of Helga Crane.

Larsen trained as a nurse, but some documents suggest she had such a problem getting along with the administration that she left the nursing profession and trained to become a librarian instead, putting herself at the very heart of the literary explosion that was to become the Harlem Renaissance. She married a man named Elmer Imes, a physicist who was utterly incapable of marital fidelity and more or less expected his wife to know about and accept his roving.

And Larsen did accept it for a while. During the late years of the Roaring Twenties, she lived Harlem’s high life, writing two short stories for pulp journals that contain some complex characterizations that sadly ruined by terrible, melodramatic endings. From there she went straight into Quicksand, which was published in 1928 to generally favorable reviews and totally unknown sales. In tone and character it was a perfect novel, and Larsen followed it quickly with Passing in 1929, a book about a black woman who passes herself off as white but who feels an increasingly dangerous and self-destructive pull towards her roots. It has moments that equal the punch and ferocity of Quicksand, but also has an ending as ridiculous as those of her short stories (you know that video recording of Hildegard Behrens in the opera Tosca where her grand suicide looks more like a leap into a YMCA pool? It feels kinda like that.)

However, Passing and Quicksand were both held in such regard that Larsen was able to parlay them into a Guggenheim grant to travel in Europe, even as her third major short story was revealed to be an unconscious plagiarism of a story by Sheila Kaye-Smith. The book that she wrote on that trip, Mirage, was considered by her publisher to be unremarkable, and it never saw the light of day. Larsen, frustrated and out of money, returned to the United States in 1932, divorced her husband, and returned to her old career as a nurse, a calling she conscientiously fulfilled until the day of her death, alone and largely unknown even to the people who considered themselves her closest friends. She left behind a hefty estate that devolved upon her stepsister, who didn’t know she had a sister until the day the check arrived. Larsen’s papers, however, disappeared without a trace, carrying with them any hope we had of learning what all Larsen wrote between Passing and her premature retirement from literature.

And, yes, it’s fun to speculate on what masterpieces might have been tucked away in the nooks and crannies of that forlorn nurse’s flat, but let’s not forget what we have: Quicksand, one of those rarest of books that never stops challenging and frustrating its readers, with a main figure you will never entirely wrap your head around, and delivering a message of such brave, stark renouncement of metaphysical hope that it will never cease to chill. The horror holds us still.

Further Reading

You can find all of Larsen’s non-juvenile works in a single handy volume, The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen. It has both novels, and all three stories in a nicely put together volume at a good price. Buy it. Buy two of it. For Larsen’s life the book I have is Invisible Darkness by Charles R. Larson. It’s a dual biography of Larsen and Jean Toomer, and has the odd characteristic that, while Larson is willing to go into every detail of all of Larsen’s fiction, he palpably does not want to deal with the end section of Quicksand. It’s buried in a quick sentence and, in spite of all that chapter’s richness and audacity, doesn’t get anywhere near its just allotment of attention. Still, he’s the man who did the legwork to lift the veil on Larsen’s last years, so it’s well worth it for that.