Passing | Nella Larsen #1929Club

The 1929 Club 24-30 October 2022

The 1929 Club is being hosted by the very lovely Simon and Karen during the week of 24th – 30th October 2022. The idea is to read and review a book, novella, short story, or poem first published in 1929. Finding something from 1929 to read from my TBR was a little harder than previous clubs, but I put two of them on my last CC Spin for the Classics Club to see if one would come up. One did!

The books from 1929 I’ve read to date: (most were pre-blog)

  • Emil and the Detectives | Erich Kästner
  • Tintin in the Land of the Soviets | Hergé (Georges Remi)
  • The Barrakee Mystery | Arthur W. Upfield
  • A Room of One’s Own | Virginia Woolf
  • Partners in Crime | Agatha Christie
  • Ultima Thule | Henry Handel Richardson

I929 books on my TBR pile:

  • The Last September | Elizabeth Bowen
  • Passing | Nella Larsen
  • The Lawless Frontier | Mary Gaunt (eReader)
  • The Bathe: A Grotesque | Henry Handel Richardson (short story)

Passing by Nella Larsen turned out to be a book that had the happy luck to fit into three reading challenges – the 1929 Club, my latest CC Spin for the Classics Club and Novellas in November.

NB: This review references a book whose title contains a racial slur.

Introduction:

  • By Christa Holm Vogelius (2020)
  • Assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Copenhagen.
  • She tells us that the book dedication to Carl Van Vechten and his wife Fania Marinoff reflected the close friendship they enjoyed.
  • The Passing character Hugh Wentworth was based on Carl.
  • She talks about the literary precedents for Passing – the the “tragic mulatto figure” of abolitionist fiction.
  • W.E.B Du Bois, ‘Review of Passing’, in Crisis (36.7), July 1929 was referenced.
    • He explained that the issues around “passing” are to do with “the psychology of the thing; the reaction of it on friend and enemy. It is a difficult task, but she attacks the problem fearlessly and with consummate art.

Epigraph:

One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

From the poem Heritage by Countee Cullen, collected in his first volume of poems, Color (1925) although originally published in The Survey, 1 March 1925. Carl Van Vechten also used this epigraph for his 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven. Vogelius in her Introduction says that it speaks to the “exoticized distance of heritage in the modern, mixed world” in an era of “both cultural pride and egregious discrimination.”

Opening Lines:

It was the last letter in Irene Redfield’s little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemd out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it. A thin sly thing which bore no return adsress to betray the sender.

For a fuller summation of the story, please read Sue @Whispering Gums excellent review from earlier this year. For my part, I read Passing with Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half very much front of mind.

I read The Vanishing Half two years ago with my book group. In the various interviews & articles around at the time, I first heard about Nella Larsen and the long history of books about ‘passing’. Historically, characters who were ‘passing’ found themselves living lonely, fearful lives, and in most of the early stories, things always ended badly for the one who was ‘passing’. Brit Bennett’s book was remarkable or noteworthy for the fact that she avoided this trope.

Or more accurately, she nodded in its general direction before reconsidering the issue from a more modern, #blacklivesmatter angle. Passing, was therefore an interesting example of racial stereotypes and attitudes in 1920’s USA. A time when the thought of ‘passing’ created hysterical newspaper headlines, like in the case of Rhinelander vs Rhinelander (see below). Bennett’s story reflected on how far we’ve come from that kind of thinking, while acknoweldging that it’s not really that far or far enough.

Irene “I don’t believe I’ve ever gone native in my life except for the sake of convenience, restaurants, theatre tickets, and things like that.”

For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.

Clare “Can’t you realise that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away.”

Facts:

  • Nella Larsen (13 April 1891 – 30 March 1964) Her mother was a white Danish immigrant and her father was from the Danish West Indies. he disappeared when she was young. Her mother then married a fellow Danish migrant.
    • First african-american female writer to win Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930
  • Harlem Renaissance – 1920’s New York – “an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship” (wikipedia)
    • Mostly funded by black patrons, but also included the patronage of white American like Carl Van Vechten.
    • Van Vechten wrote a novel in 1926 called Nigger Heaven, that was based in Harlem as opposed to a book set in the South about slavery and racism and lynchings. “It also split the black literary community, as some including Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen appreciated it, while others like Countee Cullen and W. E. B. Du Bois regarded it as an “affront to the hospitality of black folks“. The book fuelled a period of “Harlemania”, during which the neighbourhood became en vogue among white people, who then frequented its cabarets and bars.” (wikipedia)
    • Nella’s original title for Passing was, Nig in reference to Van Vechten’s controversial novel.
  • Countee Cullen (30 May 1903- 9 January 1946) married briefly, W. E. B. Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande in what was known as the social event of the year (1928). She had 16 bridesmaids and he had 9 groomsmen. 1200 people were invited, but over 3000 crowded into the church. They were divorced two years later after Cullen told her he was attracted to men.
    • Guggenheim fellowship 1928 allowed him to travel and study in France
  • 1896 Plessy v Ferguson was a  U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that racial segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution as long as the facilities for each race were equal in quality, a doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal”. (wikipedia)
    • The decision has never been specifically overruled, although more recent decisions have weakened it to the point of irrelevance.
  • 1925 Kip Rhinelander (wealthy white American) tried to divorce Alice Jones (working class daughter of immigrants. Her mother was white and her father was mixed race) in a very messy trial where Rhinelander succumbed to family pressure and claimed that Jones had deceived him by ‘passing’ as a white woman.
    • The trial last a year and attracted a lot of media attention. The judge eventually ruled in Jones’ favour.
  • A movie of the same name was directed by Rebecca Hall in 2021.

Favourite Quote:

Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked.

Favourite or Forget:

Reading Passing added contextual and historical relevance to The Vanishing Half. I’m glad I have read both.

Title: Passing
Author: Nella Larsen
ISBN: 9781529040289
Imprint: Macmillan Collector's Library
Published: 25 June 2020 (originally published 1929)
Format: Hardback
160 pages
Dates Read: 5 October 2022 -  15 October 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

33 thoughts on “Passing | Nella Larsen #1929Club

  1. Thanks for the link Brona. Tonight’s Monday Musings is on 1929 in Australian literature. I had found one of your 1929 book reviews, but not your other, so thanks! I can update that post with another review link.

    I still need to try to read The vanishing half. Glad you liked Passing. Love the “catlike” quote.

    Like

      1. I read the Upfield’s during my uni years, they were an easy read between assignments (& dancing!) The Tintin’s were my first year in highschool binge along with the Agatha Christie’s.
        I had hoped to get to the Gaunt as well, and may still, depending on how Voss & I get along 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve taken down off the shelf, A House is Built by Barnard Eldershaw, but I doubt I’ll get it finished this week for the club, more likely for AusReadingMonth. I’ve never looked at it properly before, 352 pages of very dense small print.

    Like

    1. That’s the one I’ve got down too Lisa. When this year was announced I was determined that this would be the time I’d read it, but once again I think I’ll be defeated! I have two copies – my Mum’s from 1954 and another second hand copy given to me by a Jane Austen group friend a decade or so ago. It looks easier to read – less dense in print.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yikes! Small print has become my bugbear in recent years. I often forget to factor in page count when planning my reading schedules (for the months I have a reading schedule that is – April, July & Nov seem to be the main months with lots on each year).
      Simon & Karen tend to be relaxed about late-ish reviews, but a month might be pushing it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love the small twist
    …Ms Larsen bookends her novella ( part 1 ch 1 -> part 4 ch 4)
    Did you discover how she did it!
    Great informative review, thanks!

    Like

  4. I’d hoped to read this for the 1929 Club but I don’t think I’ll have time, unfortunately. I do want to read it though and I’ll bear in mind what you said that it would be a good idea to read alongside The Vanishing Half.

    Like

    1. It took me longer to read than I thought, but it was a week I had quite a bit on and wasn’t reading much before bed. It is also one you want to take your time with to take in everything being said and done.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had never thought about ‘passing’ until I became aware of this book, no doubt from WG’s review. It takes someone who has been/is there to point out how having paler skin isn’t always a blessing. And only this year have I become aware of the ‘Harlem Renaissance ‘ about which I now want to know much more.

    Like

  6. This is so interesting. I read Passing First and then The Vanishing Half read very strongly as a modern riff on it; I know quite a lot of people who’ve gone the direction you have. I love both, although they have different strengths. Good strong read for 1929 Club (I’ve got a slightly random Golden Age mystery).

    Like

  7. Lovely review. I thought about reading this for 1929 club, but I don’t have a copy & didn’t get around to getting one. One of these days! It’s definitely on my list.

    I didn’t think about A Room of One’s Own being a 1929 book, but so it is! Maybe I’ll go back & edit my post to mention I’ve blogged about that one, too.

    Like

  8. This is a real classic. I will admit I picked lighter titles to read this week but I feel I learned a lot from your review. Have you read The Personal Librarian? My book group enjoyed that earlier this year.

    Like

  9. I am just catching up with the 1929 Club because I was on a cruise during it! I also forgot to post my usual list of other books I have read during 1929 but already reviewed. However, I lost that list. Too late! I at least got my books posted, but I am just getting around to reading other people’s posts.

    Like

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