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What De Forest and some of his followers were urging Americans to write, Buell explains, was a very specific sort of book: the kind of panoramic, class-crossing, manner-marking, epoch-defining novel that Balzac and Thackeray and, in a more radical way, Dickens and, later, Zola had produced in England and France. A book that gets it all in, from working-class accents to eccentric aristocrats. It might simply be that, in a country dedicated to the proposition of the autonomous individual, books about people defined by their place in a social web will never fly, while books about autonomous agents will always have a market, even if their moral is that no agent is truly autonomous.

All the American types are there, but crowded in, not spaced out: the familiar platoon with the wise guy from Brooklyn, the towheaded boy from farm country, etc. Buell, a professor of American literature at Harvard, has many shrewd things to say about patterns in American fiction. Good ideas about books tend to be both simple and sticky. Thinking of the split-consciousness type, where the enfeebled narrator studies the active subject, one instantly adds to the list, with twists and turns, other good A.

Maybe it matters that the idea of an aristocracy, even if it exists only as a community of ghosts, persists in Alain-Fournier as it does not in Fitzgerald.

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The absence of a hovering aristocracy gives the American novel the urge to induce one—the fairy-tale energy derived from needing a princess, whether Daisy Buchanan or Brenda Patimkin. Still, the point of revisionist history of this kind is not to settle old arguments but to start new ones, and Buell does.

His view of books tends to be thoroughly sociological or historicizing. Paul upbringing than an account of the roaring twenties. Fiction departs from the truth to intensify it.

Buell is a passionately horizontal reader, looking across time from book to book, more than a vertical one, looking deep into a page. Tone, mood, and dramatic incident are largely taken for granted—the work, the will, the labor of writing is entirely invisible.

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You just end up studying your own sensibility. The sociological turn too quickly makes books into steps in career-building. What is meant to be a disabused view of literary culture becomes an enthralled view of literary commerce. The critical view of American literary commerce and the commercial view of American literary commerce end up looking oddly the same. She is not wandering in the interstices of black and white. For her, passing is a sport, and she is unrivaled in her technique.

Clare desires many things, among them to be among Negroes again. Clare is a gambler, playing the high stakes game of racial roulette. Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in in Chicago.

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Her mother was a Danish immigrant and her father an immigrant from the Danish West Indies. Her mother married a fellow Danish immigrant, Peter Larsen, with whom she had another child. Like many fiction writers, Larsen incorporated elements of her own life into her writing. She shared with Clare the experience of being unwanted by white family members; neither Peter nor her half-sister acknowledged the ties that bound them. Like Clare, Nella was born poor and on the wrong side of town.

Not only did Larsen spend her childhood in the vice district of Chicago, she was confronted by other dangers: a city in which the crossing of racial lines was unwelcome and cost those who disregarded them dearly. There was no room for individuals whose bodies failed to conform to convention. There she bristled at the strict codes of dress and conduct.

In her novel Quicksand, Larsen describes the disdain that the main character Helga Crane has toward the smug, insular world of the black elite at the fictional college of Naxos an anagram for Saxon. Ultimately Larsen was expelled from Fisk, most likely for violating dress code. Larsen went from Fisk to Denmark, where she had spent time as a child. She returned to the United States and enrolled in nursing school, taking a position as head nurse at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the incarnation of the vision of Booker T.

Washington, and along with Fisk, a model for Naxos. It had grown into a machine. A few years later, she married Elmer Imes, who was at that point one of two African Americans to have ever held a Ph. Du Bois. These men were architects of the Harlem Renaissance, authors of crucial philosophies that captured the concerns of black intellectuals of the moment. They were also central figures in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization for black progress that Du Bois helped to found in It is safe to say that both Nella Larsen and her character Clare Kendry would have had easier lives as mixed-race women in the 21st century.

According to the Census Brief, since , the population reporting multiple races increased by 32 percent. Already, the structure of the new census has enabled people with complex racial backgrounds to more aptly define themselves. Unfortunately, the script had already been written for Clare.

She was a woman who insisted on being free, and she paid for the crime of her hunger not only to defy racial convention but also the customs of gender, as well.

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Clare is the true adventurer, however. Her wanderlust is domestic but perhaps more dangerous in that it is not structured by travel or outlined in a map but rather a function of her everyday life. In blood, ancestry, or emotion? How can it be identified, much less quantified? Is it absurdity or a mystery?

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Race is a function of law, history, and politics, not science. It is this ineffability, the mystery that Clare embodies, that Irene cannot bear. But Clare Kendry is unforgettable. After all, when a fire goes out, one does not necessarily remember the ashes. Sign up for our newsletter to get submission announcements and stay on top of our best work.

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