ISBN 10: 0393979164 / ISBN 13: 9780393979169
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Nella Larsen is a central figure in African American, Modernist, and women’s literature.

Larsen's status as a Harlem Renaissance woman writer was rivaled by only Zora Neale Hurston’s. This Norton Critical Edition of her electrifying 1929 novel includes Carla Kaplan’s detailed and thought-provoking introduction, thorough explanatory annotations, and a Note on the Text. An unusually rich “Background and Contexts” section connects the novel to the historical events of the day, most notably the sensational Rhinelander/Jones case of 1925. Fourteen contemporary reviews are reprinted, including those by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Mary Griffin, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Published accounts from 1911 to 1935―by Langston Hughes, Juanita Ellsworth, and Caleb Johnson, among others―provide a nuanced view of the contemporary cultural dimensions of race and passing, both in America and abroad. Also included are Larsen’s statements on the novel and on passing, as well as a generous selection of her letters and her central writings on “The Tragic Mulatto(a)” in American literature. Additional perspective is provided by related Harlem Renaissance works. “Criticism” provides fifteen diverse critical interpretations, including those by Mary Helen Washington, Cheryl A. Wall, Deborah E. McDowell, David L. Blackmore, Kate Baldwin, and Catherine Rottenberg. A Chronology and Selected Bibliography are also included.

Review: The heroine of Passing takes an elevator from the infernal August Chicago streets to the breezy rooftop of the heavenly Drayton Hotel, "wafted upward on a magic carpet to another world, pleasant, quiet, and strangely remote from the sizzling one that she had left below." Irene is black, but like her author, the Danish-African American Nella Larsen (a star of the 1920s to mid-1930s Harlem Renaissance and the first black woman to win a Guggenheim creative-writing award), she can "pass" in white society. Yet one woman in the tea room, "fair and golden, like a sunlit day," keeps staring at her, and eventually introduces herself as Irene's childhood friend Clare, who left their hometown 12 years before when her father died. Clare's father had been born "on the left hand"--he was the product of a legal marriage between a white man and a black woman and therefore cut off from his inheritance. So she was raised penniless by white racist relatives, and now she passes as white. Even Clare's violent white husband is in the dark about her past, though he teases her about her tan and affectionately calls her "Nig." He laughingly explains: "When we were first married, she was white as--as--well as white as a lily. But I declare she's getting darker and darker." As Larsen makes clear, Passing can also mean dying, and Clare is in peril of losing her identity and her life.

The tale is simple on the surface--a few adventures in Chicago and New York's high life, with lots of real people and race-mixing events described (explicated by Thadious M. Davis's helpful introduction and footnotes). But underneath, it seethes with rage, guilt, sex, and complex deceptions. Irene fears losing her black husband to Clare, who seems increasingly predatory. Or is this all in Irene's mind? And is everyone wearing a mask? Larsen's book is a scary hall of mirrors, a murder mystery that can't resolve itself. It sticks with you. --Tim Appelo

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