Does “Liking” a Novel Affect Its “Greatness”: An Examination of ‘Quicksand’

© 2010

W. E. B. Du Bois hailed it as “the best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of Chesnutt” (qtd. in Shockley 432); the Amsterdam News classified it ultimately as “a disappointment” (16). Since its initial publication in 1928, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand has seen mixed reviews from the literary world, receiving equal amounts of praise and disdain. Is this the mark of a “great” novel? In the article from Bitch magazine, Anna North made a point that most compilers of “Great Literature” lists tend to “defend [their choices] with the argument of ‘this is just what we like’” (qtd. in Frochtswajg 58). So, must a novel be universally liked or disliked in order to be considered great? Does whether or not I “like” a novel influence my own opinion as to whether or not it is great? In the end, the answer appears to be both yes and no.

At the time of Quicksand’s publication, most critics praised Larsen’s style and mastery of language and nearly-consistently criticized the abrupt ending of the first-time author’s novel. The Amsterdam News, in particular, focused upon what its critic considered the weakest point of the novel. In his review, the writer states:

“The last part of the story, though interesting, is a disappointment. The reader has not been artistically prepared for it. Given such a character as Helga, he finds it hard to fit her into such a picture…If the plot were as good as the style, it would raise the story considerably.”

His opinion seems fairly harsh, yet, bears a relative amount of merit: within the span of ten pages and two chapters, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, regresses from an independent and cultured woman to the submissive wife of the backwoods preacher, Rev. Pleasant Green. In comparison to the rest of the novel, in which Larsen will often spend paragraphs and even pages delineating how circuitous and complex Helga’s thoughts are. For example, on page 77, when Helga internally begins weighing the differences between Denmark and America, Larsen spends a good deal of the page simply detailing her protagonist’s thoughts (“At first she missed…pricked her self-assurance.”). In sharp contrast to this already-established style, Helga’s decision to give up her independence and sign her life away into the contract of marriage is decided in a single sentence: “And she meant, if she could manage it, to be married today” (Larsen 117). It is because of this that I must agree with McDowell when she stated in the introduction to Quicksand that Larsen’s novels “sacrifice [their] heroines” as well as the Amsterdam critic for his disappointment in the novel. The author does not properly set up this sudden character change, therefore impairing the novel; the unexpected ending feels rushed in comparison to the already-established pace and manner of the story.

Despite this criticism in its time, Quicksand took second prize in literature in 1928 from the Harmon Foundation (McDowell ix), which had been established six years prior in order to create an awareness of African-American art (National Archives Online). However, Larsen did meet with a similar response when her second novel, Passing, was published in 1929: a creative style which becomes overshadowed by an abrupt and “melodramatic” (Chandler 106) ending. While many critics believed that the trouble Larson had with convincingly rounding off her narrative (McDowell xi) in Quicksand was due to inexperience—it being her first novel—the publication of Passing turned Quicksand’s plot problems from mere inexperience to a visible pattern: discontinuity. While in her own commentary on the book, modern critic Karen Chandler claims that this very discontinuity fits the realm of literary melodrama, she admits that the ending tends to have the reader feel “disengaged from Helga” (110).

Both Quicksand and Passing fell out of print and into obscurity for many years—most likely due to a plagiarism scandal which Larsen suffered in 1930 involving a story she wrote entitled “Sanctuary” (McDowell x). Criticism for her novel Quicksand disappeared as well; after the initial reviews in 1928 and an errant essay written in 1948, the next-earliest critical commentary I found on the novel was written in 1973. Operating under the hypothesis that the critics and their commentary shape whether or a not any particular novel is considered “great,” does their own lack of commentary delineate a lack in “greatness?” If a novel truly is considered “great,” should it be allowed to fall into utter obscurity? As I already stated, I do not believe Quicksand to be a “great” novel, but I do not believe the lack of commentary plays a role in this. After all, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is often considered a “great” novel received mixed reviews upon publication and also disappeared into obscurity until 1975 when Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston’s literature (Boyd 14).

Unlike past critics, modern examiners of Larsen’s works such as Barbara Johnson, Karen Chandler, and Jennifer Brody have a tendency to look at Quicksand more through what could be called a “feminist” lens; in fact, Brody states that any review of Quicksand (and Passing) must examine the issues of sex/gender in addition to the issue of race in order to properly analyze it (46). However, even so, the nature of the novel’s final third biases critics and readers alike by swiftly and suddenly changing the very nature of Helga Crane’s character. In her own examination of the book, Barbara Johnson asserted this by stating:

“Helga repeatedly reaches states of relative contentment—in Harlem, in Denmark, in Alabama—only to fall into depression again for no obvious reason. Chapter breaks often occur where psychological causation is missing. It is the lack of precipitating cause that calls for question.”

In particular, this quote, I believe, helps to illuminate some of the problems and differences of opinion I had with what some of Larsen’s contemporaries and even modern critics had to say about Quicksand. Larsen’s contemporaries in particular agreed that, while the novel had some problems in relation to its plot, its style and overall writing was mature and well done. However, I believe that the problems of Quicksand are not of the plot, but of style. The passages which Larsen writes are wordy, often containing sentences which make up almost an entire paragraph on their own—the first few pages of the novel are good examples. This writing style sets precedence for how the novel and both the narrator’s and Helga’s thought process are going to proceed. However, as Johnson states, once Larsen decides to uproot Helga to Alabama in the last third of the novel, the writing becomes much more sporadic and erratic in its construction.

Despite the fact that I disagreed with much of what Kantor had to say in her article, her point that literature should contain beauty (208) seems appropriate here. To me, a novel’s beauty should be apparent in its construction and overall written cadence. Larsen fails to maintain her own-established written cadence with the brusque nature of the final five chapters, thereby jading me, the reader, as to whether or not I believe this novel to be great. I think Jeffery Gray states this best (and most simply) in his 1994 essay, where he wrote:

“Criticism of Quicksand has seldom failed to mention the problem of its ending. The transformation of Helga from strong, independent, and charismatic world-traveler to born-again, rural, baby-making drudge is abrupt if not incredible.”

The discontinuity did not fit this novel, which seemed, to me at least, to originally fashion its writing in a style reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s descriptive-heavy prose in The House of Mirth; as well as its heroine’s plight of finding a place to belong and call home seemed similar to Lily Bart’s own quest. In comparison of the two, however, Larsen’s writing lacks the maturity and mastery of language which Wharton’s possesses. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I enjoyed The House of Mirth a great deal more than I did Quicksand; in fact, I did not enjoy the latter at all.

But does that dislike affect whether or not I consider this a great novel? It certainly jades my perspective with a negative bias, but my own dismissal of this novel as being considered “great” has more to do with its issues of written cadence, style, and, as already stated, the abrupt final third. In categorizing this book, I would certainly place it as wholly and uniquely American literature, as the narrative poignantly and aptly deals with, as Hugh Gloster wrote in 1948, “the disintegration and maladjustment wrought by miscegenation.” This issue in particular is unique to America (and its literature) as compared to other countries—particularly in Europe in which more standardized “great literature” repertoires seem to base themselves—for they have not had to deal with miscegenation at the level at which America, as a country and a people, has. Therefore, I will agree to categorize Quicksand as wholly and uniquely American.

However, in categorizing literature as “great” or “not great”, I believe that a piece needs to have something more than being merely unique to its home country; there must be, as Kantor argued, a beauty to the writing itself. A “great” novel should possess the three main components which Kantor describes:

“We come upon the truths and beauties we find in great literature as…glimpses that shine out from the particular incidents or words—a turn in the plot of a play, an arresting image in a poem. But any argument that a work of literary art is great inevitably appeals to one or another of these three qualities: to the work’s superior truth, or its moral value, or its piercing beauty—or to some combination thereof.”

Moral truths within Larsen’s novel seem scant, considering that one of the many “things” that Helga craves as a character is sex; this can be evidenced by the “riotous and colorful dreams” (Larsen 105) which she experiences after kissing Dr. Anderson. While this seems fairly innocuous, it is what she does next that seems to refute any sense of moral value that Helga, as a character, might have had: she very seriously considers having an affair with the now-married Anderson, going so far as to give an unspoken offer of her own body to him (Larsen 107). While Quicksand may not possess what could be considered “superior truth”—although Kantor does not efficiently define this term within her article—the first two-thirds of the novel seem to accurately describe and portray a young woman’s struggles with the overwhelming effects of miscegenation in both America and Europe.

Whether it was Larsen’s own inexperience as an author or simply a pattern and style of writing, the narrative does not possess a whole beauty to it. Within the narrative there is blatant discontinuity in the cadence of the writing, made most apparent in the last several chapters of the book. It is primarily for that egregious departure from Larsen’s earlier-established style and narrative flow that I cannot personally categorize and consider Quicksand as a piece of “great” literature.

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