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“Things. Things. Things”: Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and the Beauty of Magazine Culture

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Communal Modernisms
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Abstract

Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand (1928) opens with an epigraph from Langston Hughes’s poem “Cross”:

My old man died in a fine big house.

My ma died in a shack.

I wonder where I’m gonna die,

Being neither white nor black?

In this poem, the reader knows the race of the “old man” and “ma” based on where the “old man” and “ma” live, in a “fine big house” and a “shack” respectively. There is an emphasis not only on gender as a defining characteristic that inscribes the fate of the “old man” and “ma” but, by clarifying where they live, Hughes demonstrates who these people are without having to literally express their race. Magazine culture of the 1920s and 1930s shows a similar emphasis on place: though removed from the horrors of slavery, these publications operated with the principle that where one lives defines one’s socio-economic position. It is through these publications that we can read Larsen’s main character, Helga Crane. Considering Quicksand in the context of these publications, specifically fashion magazines and publications produced by and for black readers in this period, affords us a unique opportunity to explore connections between mass visual culture and the Harlem Renaissance novel in the late 1920s.

This title comes from Quicksand when Helga Crane begins to settle into her new life in Denmark: “Always had she wanted, not money, but the things which only could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things. Things” (97).

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© 2013 Lauren M. Rosenblum

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Rosenblum, L.M. (2013). “Things. Things. Things”: Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and the Beauty of Magazine Culture. In: Hinnov, E.M., Harris, L., Rosenblum, L.M. (eds) Communal Modernisms. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137274915_4

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