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Quicksand and Passing

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  3,915 ratings  ·  151 reviews
"Quicksand and Passing are novels I will never forget. They open up a whole world of experience and struggle that seemed to me, when I first read them years ago, absolutely absorbing, fascinating, and indispensable."--Alice Walker

"Discovering Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt."  --Maya Angel
Paperback, 246 pages
Published April 1st 1986 by Rutgers University Press (first published 1928)
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Corryn Yes, it is. There's nothing explicit enough for a high school senior to not be able to handle.

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 ·  3,915 ratings  ·  151 reviews

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Nov 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Travelers to the Harlem Renaissance
Recommended to Cheryl by: Amanda & Aubrey
To lose oneself in the mire of identity crisis, discontented with life, love, and career. To seek true meaning and purpose, only to find that it eludes you:
Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolera
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Inderjit Sanghera
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Few writers are able to capture the sense of alienation engendered by the deeply-embedded racism of America like Nella Larsen. Larsen explores not so much the ostensible side of racial politics in America, but instead explores the more insidious nature of racism, of the deeply embedded prejudices in American society which stripped African-Americans of their humanity, of the links between this and the perpetuation of the dominance of the white population, of the little things, such as the affecte ...more
May 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: modernism
Passing is one of the best books I have ever read. The conflicts in that novel are so complex and tightly composed that while reading it, I feel so conflicted and torn I can barely breathe. Beautiful language, fascinating story, complicated and well-constructed characters. This book is excellent in every way possible.
Elena Sala
Jul 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929) are two short, intense novels by Nella Larsen, an unjustly forgotten author from the Harlem Renaissance until the 1970's.

Both novels feature strong, unconventional and daring heroines: in QUICKSAND, cultured and refined Helga Crane has a mixed racial heritage. An illegitimate daughter of a Danish mother and an African American father, she feels she doesn't belong to neither of those worlds. She experiences loneliness and isolation. I want to avoid spoilers so
Oct 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Coming-of-age, woman as child, young woman with all the potential of a child until she foolishly marries an ugly man for a house, for God, for the chance to give up responsibility for her own foolishness.

Helga Crane goes from Naxos, a prestigious school dedicated to Negro uplift - call it the nonprofit sector - to suddenly realizing that she hated the hypocrisy of do-good work. When she quits Naxos at 23, declaring how much she hates it, her boss calmly looks at her and says, " Twenty-three, I s
Jun 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
In many ways Larsen presents her female characters as Romantic heroines trapped in a Naturalist novel. As the poet W.B. Yeats has lyrically expressed, they’re “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” That dying animal is embodied in many ways in "Quicksand" and "Passing," from sterile or racist environments (such as Naxos and Clare's home life with Bellew), to the fragile limitations of the female body, to the institutions of marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood. In a brutal ...more
Erica Freeman
Oct 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
Read these novellas a number of times over the years. They were a big part of my master's thesis about mixed race Af-Am women and the concept of the "cyborg", a being existing within apparently contradictory identities.
Jul 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: rachel
After reading both of these novels I was so sad to find that after some scandal about plagarism Larsen abandoned her writing. I wish, I wish, I wish she had written more.
Daniel Sevitt
Jun 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Two novellas from 1928 and 1929. I thought I had an idea about Passing at least. I thought it was going to be a little melodramatic with a contemporary look at a complex racial issue. It was much more than that. Issues of race are not glanced upon or alluded to. They sit right at the heart of Larsen's writing. There are no gentle euphemisms, there are simply two societies sitting right next to each other in 1920s New York, Chicago and elsewhere, and the only way to move from one to the other is ...more
Lola Allen
Apr 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed reading both of Nella Larsen's stories and I love the way she writes. She is a very skillful writer, you only have to read a few of her well crafted sentences to see that writing comes naturally to her.

The way she created the 'tragic heroine' or 'tragic mulatto' as was the term attributed to such protagonists in those days, was very touching. You couldn't help but feel for the heroines and what they were going through. You're happy when they're happy, torn when they're torn and
Anne Rioux
Feb 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Not an easy read nor a happy one. Best not to read the introduction first (why do they always give away the ending?), but it helps you understand why Larsen made some of the choices she did. We had a great week in class discussing this book. It opened up a lot of students' eyes about the peculiar racism and sexism that mixed-race women have experienced (and continue to).
Mel Bossa
Great learning experience for me as far as being in the head and heart of a bi-racial woman living in Harlem during the Renaissance (20s and 30s), but though I fully appreciate the tenacity and talent it must have taken Nella Larsen to write such novels in those days and the sacrifices she had to endure later, dying in anonymity as a nurse in New York, I still found the books a little too forgettable for what I was expecting.

I disliked both narrators: Helga (Quicksand) and Irene (Passing), and f
May 13, 2008 added it
Recommends it for: all readers
I completed Quicksand months ago, and its taken me this long to process the lessons in this story. The main character's appetite for self-satisfaction is insatiable- this leads to indecision and confusion in many facets of her life. Often I think fear can dictate our sense of personal well-being and social acceptance of our choices; here, the fear of making a choice that would stun others was a constant reason behind many of our subject's decisions. Without living a life of her own from a very y ...more
Apr 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
After reading these two powerful short stories, Nella Larsen is now up there with one of my favorite authors. Both stories beautifully depict the restless and beleaguered spirit of smart, young, black women in 20th century America. What is so striking is how much I related to the feelings, emotions and internal battles of the characters. Despite it being of another time, I think many women, especially women of color, will resonate with the suffocating limitations of race, class and gender that t ...more
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
These two novels were really fascinating. They explored issues facing African-American women during the Harlem Renaissance era, particularly light skinned women. There is a tremendous emphasis on liminal figures in these books--African-Americans marginalized by race, lesbianism repressed and projected, and individuals passing between race and through sexualities.
Oct 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
the harlem renaissance is the only historical era i care one whit about, and these two novellas represent some of my favorite writing from it. i re-read them often. i think they're incredibly evocative and mercurial; for a long time, i've had a fantasy of writing a treatment of *passing* as a full-length film. but i'm too lazy.
Nella Larsen did not produce much fiction: these two novellas and some short stories comprise all of her published work. I felt that the novellas Quicksand and Passing were the work of a writer who had not quite reached the height of her powers. That being said, they're both very strong, Passing in particular. Quicksand meanders a little too much, without getting to the heart of its central character, but Passing is a deft, insightful piece of work, with a twist I wasn't expecting. Both novels, ...more
Grada (BoekenTrol)
Aug 31, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Grada (BoekenTrol) by: Vasha
What great books they are. Passing, the sevond novel in this book I read in one day. I was completely taken by the book, finding out this meaning of passing. Had no idea, really. It was a very interesting read, both because of the information, sphere of America in the 1920. A place and time completely foreign to me. And yet I felt strangely at home both with Passing, as well as with Quicksand. The emotions described seem to be universal, transgressing physical borders, time differences as well a ...more
William Sandles
Brilliant, especially Passing. I want followers to read Passing, and tell me how they feel, how they interpret the story. To say anything else might be a spoiler.
Derek Baad
Aug 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
I read Quicksand, the first novella in this book, as part of the MA exam reading list, and though I was a little resistant at first, it eventually won me over. Following Helga Crane as she escapes a prominent but stifling faculty position at a southern all-black school to move to Chicago, Harlem, Copenhagen, back to Harlem and finally to rural Alabama. With each new place she goes through the same emotional cycle of elation, irritation, then rejection as she moves on to a change of scenery and p ...more
Emi Bevacqua
Feb 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
The combination of these two powerful novels is perfectly amazing. I'm so glad I discovered Nella Larsen and saddened to learn that her extraordinary career (first black female creative writer awarded a Guggenheim!) was a short one.

Quicksand's Helga Crane is a (n autobiographical?) half-black, half-Danish young woman who feels alone in her otherness. Whether at an all-black academic campus, with relatives in Copenhagen, or surrounded by friends and admirers in Harlem, Helga Crane is a constant
Oct 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: black-authors, owned
I only read "Passing," because it was the one assigned for my Major American Writers class. Maybe sometime I will read "Quicksand."

This story was interesting. I thought the writing style was often hard to follow. It didn't really flow that naturally. But I did enjoy the descriptions, and there are a lot of beautiful sentences in it.

The ending was strange. Definitely left open to interpretation. Overall a fine story, nothing exceptional about it, but not bad.
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A light and yet incredibly intricate novel that throws into question every notion about identity -- the title is rather odd, in that in combines two separate short novels, the first mediocre, the second brilliant, but entirely appropriate, because Passing is a novel of intellectual quicksand, likely to trouble some your habitual ways of thinking and feel you are on slippery ground.
Sep 10, 2010 rated it liked it
Nella Larson was an author that was thought of as crazy, a liar, a plagiarist in which she simply vanished for awhile in her career. But this book is very insightful. Some believe that Helga, the protaganist in Quicksand, is a biography of Larson's life itself. But the two books are seen as a movement, filled with sexual desire and the representation of one's race. Overall a great read!
Apr 30, 2009 added it
Just wrote a 15-page final paper on this book, although I greatly enjoyed both stories, am happy to put my earmarked/post-it-noted/highlighted copy DOWN. :)
Feb 02, 2010 rated it liked it
Read this one in my first year working for a school. I liked it a lot and so did the 11th graders.
Oct 05, 2015 rated it did not like it
Someone shoot me if I ever express the desire to read this again
Jeanne McDonald
Sep 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
My heart ached throughout the whole of the novel. Both stories beautiful pieces of prose, reflective and thought-provoking.
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Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (first called Nellie Walker) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.

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“This great community, she thought, was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine. It was now a show place in the black belt, exemplification of the white man's magnanimity, refutation of the black man's inefficiency. Life had died out of it. It was, Helga decided, now only a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man's pattern. Teachers as well as students were subjected to the paring process, for it tolerated no innovations, no individualisms, Ideas it rejected, and looked with open hostility on one and all who had the temerity to offer a suggestion or ever so mildly express a disapproval. Enthusiasm, spontaneity, if not actually suppressed, were at least openly regretted as unladylike or ungentlemanly qualities. The place was smug and fat with self satisfaction.” 0 likes
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