Sexual desire, modernity, and modernism in the fiction of Nella Larsen and Rudolph Fisher

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Abstract

Critics of the Harlem Renaissance often pair Nella Larsen with Jessie Fauset, but Nella Larsen and Rudolph Fisher make a better literary pair than do Fauset and Larsen. Like Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman, both Larsen and Fisher believed that sexual desire is a primary force in human nature but one shaped by the ubiquitous presence of modernity. One manifestation of modernity, of course, is popular culture – cabarets, film, and pulp fiction. And as modernists, Larsen and Fisher saw that popular culture was a source of modernism, especially American modernism. For instance, as murder mysteries, Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies (1932) are indebted to a modernist conception that a lowbrow literary genre like a detective novel might reveal, in Raymond Chandler’s famous phrase, a “hidden truth.”1 In Quicksand (1928), Larsen makes use of another aspect of popular culture (both cinematic and literary), the sensational story of the “tragic mulatta,” but her allusion to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) reinterprets that story as an examination of love in a post World War I universe. Finally, in Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies, the clue to the murderer’s identity lies not in rational analysis (which presupposes Newtonian order) but in a comic blues song about sexual desire heard daily on Harlem’s streets. Echoing Plato’s Symposium, all three novels treat sexual desire as the engine in the human machine that can either destroy the self or create the possibility for transcendence, either personal or communal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages155-169
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781139001595
ISBN (Print)9780521856997
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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    Scruggs, C. (2007). Sexual desire, modernity, and modernism in the fiction of Nella Larsen and Rudolph Fisher. In The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (pp. 155-169). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL052185699X.012