The publication of An Intimation of Things Distant: The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen in 1992 furthered the resurrection of Nella Larsen’s reputation as a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Like her contemporary Jesse Redmon Fauset, Larsen was in the middle of the literary skirmishes between the champions of the Harlem Renaissance and those who saw the aestheticization of lower-class African American life as pandering to the Negrophilia of white Manhattanites.
Larsen’s subject matter was the light-skinned, middle-class African American woman who was “afflicted” and endowed with means, taste, and ambition. Larsen’s self-imposed limitations were decidedly unfashionable among the critics of the period, though popular with the general readership, but her works became anachronisms with the appearance of the works of Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, and Claude McKay. Against the rough-hewn world depicted by these writers, Larsen’s genteel angst fared badly, not least because her concerns seemed mostly those of middle-class African American women with too much time on their hands.
While some, like James Weldon Johnson, George Schuyler, and Jean Toomer, returned again and again to the peculiarly African American phenomenon of passing for white, only Larsen conflated the problem of racial and class boundaries with the problem of gender in asking what it meant to be a middle-class African American woman in the first half of the twentieth century. In Passing, Larsen simultaneously treats three seemingly intractable issues in a provocative, if melodramatic, narrative. For that reason alone, the book represents a significant landmark in the history of American literature. Beyond its important subject matter, however, Passing provides a concise, unelaborated story. Larsen’s prose is sparse but effective. With a few deft strokes, characters become believable humans with vices and virtues. The plot moves swiftly, and the dialogue fleshes...
(The entire section is 817 words.)