African-American Modernism in the Novels of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen

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Because early critical evaluations of the literary works of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen were superficial, their reading audience generally regarded both writers as sentimentalists and authors in the genteel tradition. A close analytical study of Plum Bun, The Chinaberry Tree, Quicksand, and Passing reveals the presence of a feminist sensibility not widely discerned. The themes which these two writers employ are typically mainstream modernist, whereas their strategies are African-American. Both Fauset and Larsen depict the mulatta as alienated, restless, and confused in her quest for autonomy and self-expression. Because the mulatta image is acceptable to a wide reading audience, it becomes an ideal narrative strategy for deflecting attention from issues of female sexuality, female subjectivity, and female spaces. Fauset and Larsen bring their writing into the modern era by conjoining the historical, African-American technique of masking with thematic strands which adhere to the modernist ideology. Such a literary plan requires a redefining of modernism to include race and gender. When the execution of that plan results in an empowering of oppressed groups and a heightened consciousness of the female presence in literature and in society, we have African-American modernism. Fauset and Larsen expand upon a sensibility which their literary predecessor Frances Harper suggested in her novel. These two writers of the Harlem Renaissance anticipate by approximately fifteen years the handling of feminist issues by such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, and Ann Petry. Fauset's and Larsen's novels, along with those of Hurston, West, and Petry, demonstrate the evolution of sexuality from a masked female issue for reasons of morality and respectability to the greater openness seen in later works. The mulatta's significance as a masking strategy diminishes as these writers exercise a female subjectivity. Fauset's reliance upon a female subjectivity results in greater use of material consumption while Larsen explores unconventional female spaces. Both writers display African- American modernist tendencies through experimenting with greater sexual expression, individuality, and displacement of the woman from a male-centered perspective. Fauset and Larsen use the mulatta in their novels to explore new and broader arenas for female expression. Likewise, a re-configuration of modernism to include empowerment of race and gender insures both Fauset and Larsen a less marginalized position in the literary world.