Critical Context

When Larsen’s novel about the life of Helga Crane appeared in 1928, the Harlem Renaissance was at its height. Works by African American writers were in great demand, especially those stories that depicted the fantasies of white men and women about the sexual freedom and happy excitement they associated with the black experience. Despite the white public’s expectations, however, many African American literary artists, including Larsen, wrote novels and poems that presented fuller and more accurate portraits of black men and women. When Quicksand was published, it received praise from critics of both races. W. E. B. Du Bois, the great black intellectual writer and editor, reviewed the book and called it the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of [Charles] Chesnutt.” In 1929, Larsen published her second novel, Passing, which was also well-received; her career foundered in the ensuing years, however, and she stopped writing.

Like the work of many other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen’s work was largely forgotten until she was rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970’s. Since then, her novels have been republished numerous times and have received serious scholarly analysis. Larsen’s work was seen in the 1920’s as a variation of the “tragic mulatto” theme in literature; however, most critics now value Helga Crane as a probing study of a woman’s conflicts along the intersecting lines of race, class, and gender. As a result, years after her death, Larsen has gained more widespread respect and appreciation than she ever attained during her brief literary career.