Printer Friendly

A Lie of Omission: Plagiarism in Nella Larsen's Quicksand.

Nella Larsen, one of the Harlem Renaissance's most critically acclaimed writers, had authored two novels, Quicksand (1928), and Passing (1929), when her short story "Sanctuary" called into question her legitimacy as an author. Purportedly, her story, which appeared in the January 1930 issue of Forum, too greatly resembled one by Sheila Kaye-Smith, which had been published in the January 1922 issue of Century. Larsen was supported by her publishers, to whom she provided the four detailed drafts of her manuscript believed to confirm her innocence. Yet as many critics have noted, the shadow of criminality haunted her and likely hastened the demise of her literary career: she published nothing after the controversy. The probability that Larsen borrowed from Sheila Kaye-Smith has been well documented, but I have discovered another instance of plagiarism by Larsen: her nearly verbatim copying from the opening passage of John Galsworthy's short story "The First and the Last," in order to formulate the opening passage of her novel Quicksand. (1)

In some of the most recent analyses of Larsen's copying from Kaye-Smith's story, her textual appropriation has been recast as something other than plagiarism--namely, a kind of aesthetic innovation. (2) Such defenses of Larsen and her plagiarism implicitly contribute to a prevalent critical discourse that plagiarism in general no longer proves viable in the wake of postmodernism's deconstruction of conventional authorship. (3) In contrast, I believe that no rhetoric of formalist innovation can mitigate the error of an author's verbatim copying from another author, especially when it involves pointed linguistic echoes. Indeed, as I will go on to detail, Larsen's appropriation of Galsworthy's text is too liberal--and too literal--to constitute a successful literary adaptation or allusion--especially when placed in the context of her capacity for genuine allusion that did not involve verbatim linguistic repetition.

Moreover, there is trouble to be gleaned from the fact that Larsen's appropriation of Galsworthy appears as a secret to unearth and not a treasure to cull, as Larsen neither cited Galsworthy as a source, nor signaled her invocation of him in any palpable way. Although it was a known fact that the Harlem Renaissance writer admired the Edwardian author, who first came to the American literary scene as a playwright and is best known for The Forsyte Saga, the extent of Larsen's admiration for and emulation of Galsworthy is perhaps greater than what has previously been understood. Indeed, my desire to posit a fuller history of Larsen drives me despite misgivings and regret about revealing a second instance in which she likely plagiarized a text--to proceed with such delicate and potentially damning information about an author whose contributions to African American literature I continue to cherish.

I am compelled to disclose as well as analyze what I learned about Larsen for a number of reasons. First, I think it germane as a matter of literary history--especially given that my discovery of another instance of plagiarism by Larsen troubles the recent inclination to read Larsen as a misunderstood practitioner of inter-textual poetics. It suggests a pattern of unattributed borrowing on Larsen's part. Indeed, as scholars and critics of Larsen, we benefit from having the fullest possible picture of this complicated author and her body of work, even if that picture disturbs us. Second, as I have said, I resist the claim of some contemporary theory that postmodernism's disavowal of the sovereign text precludes all charges of plagiarism.

In fact, the plagiarist, by obfuscating some of the history of her own text, actually denies the diverse sources that furnish the proof of its multivalent nature. The high modernist and postmodernist techniques of pastiche and inter-textual allusion call forth the reader's recognition of them, and also rely upon a critical delineation of the aesthetic protocols by which they might be legitimately employed by an author. In contrast, the plagiarist's illicit and derivative use of source texts exploits her fellow authors by enacting violence upon their texts, whose fragments she lifts only to bury in the confines of her own literary output. To acknowledge a source text is to decline, both to wrest it from its initial context, and to reduce it to only some of its parts. But as such, it need not be read as a reactionary submission to narrow formalism; rather, eschewing plagiarism is a way to respect the labor of the author, as well as the fruit of that labor. (4)

Eschewing plagiarism also allows an author to avoid obscuring some of the layered context for her own work. As Alexander Nehamas observes, "To interpret a text is to place it in a context which accounts for as many of its features as possible ..." (144), and surely, a text's intertextual sources are among its constituent elements. Moreover, maintaining an aura of secrecy about one's artwork begets an aura of secrecy about the self for which such work is metonymic. By drawing considerably from Galsworthy for the opening passage of her novel, and then, passing as an originating author, Larsen neglected to honor the text she covertly misappropriated, to be sure, but she also neglected to honor her own text, and therefore, herself. Plagiarism is a lie of omission that marks an author's deceptive self-presentation: plagiarists are not simply an affront to the others (authors and texts) they exploit, but also, to themselves--to the depth and breadth of self-expression curtailed by their own dissimulation. Like her character Helga Crane, Nella Larsen was no doubt driven to misrepresent herself by her long-standing feelings of insecurity, which, as her principal biographers note, stemmed in part from the way American racism and racialism dismantled her interracial family structure. (As a teenager, Larsen was effectively removed from her white, working-class family and placed into a black, middle-class life.) (5) Thadious Davis observes that, "For Larsen, secrecy manifested in mystery as a boundary of self resulted in an isolation from that which she hoped to achieve ..." (6). George Hutchinson declares that "Like her most captivating characters, she [Larsen] grew to prefer a certain invisibility and mysteriousness as a form of self-protection" (11). Hutchinson further describes the way Larsen's family trauma and interracial identity engendered her "alienation" from blacks as well as whites (50), suggesting that such alienation was mitigated yet not entirely overcome by Larsen's entrance into the black literati of Harlem: "She did not at all 'count' until after the acceptance of her first book in 1927" (168).

Thus, as some of her apologists have intimated, even if Nella Larsen was inclined to press at the familiar and perhaps limiting structures of Harlem Renaissance poetics, or simply to make use of the more innovative rhetorical structures which were at her disposal, she was not likely to do so in a manner that openly challenged the Harlem Renaissance's overarching aim to advance the authenticity and originality of a patently black intelligentsia. Beverly Haviland remarks that for the African American "generation" to which Larsen's peers belonged, "being able to identify oneself as an author was as necessary to social advancement as literacy had been for the generation of slaves." Haviland believes that Larsen's 1930 plagiarism scandal "threatened these newly gained (copy)rights" (305). I further surmise that had Larsen, upon publishing her debut novel, overtly avowed not just her appreciation for, but also her technical reliance upon Galsworthy--like Kaye-Smith, a white, British writer not as central to the salons of Harlem as William Dean Howells or Gertrude Stein--she might have called such "(copy)rights" even more thoroughly into question. (6) Yet in Cheryl Wall's incisive phrase, by not "acknowledge[ing] her debt" (134) to Galsworthy's work, Larsen could only break a given rule--not offer a new one. Driven to be affirmed by the elite vanguard of the Harlem Renaissance, both as a sufficiently virtuosic and a sufficiently black writer, she did what Wall ascribes to her protagonist, Helga Crane: she "play[ed] herself false," proffering a portrait of herself as a wholly 'original' author that was at worst, "fraudulent" and at best, only partially true, in order to "succeed on the terms she [was] given" (96). The brilliant yet vulnerable Larsen surely deserves our empathy, especially since the strict parameters and goals of the Renaissance may have pushed her to make use of Galsworthy's text in a less-than-appropriate manner. But ultimately, she must be held--gently but firmly--responsible for her error, and as I go on to show, her thematic treatment of misappropriation in Quicksand points to her own capacity for self-critique.

It must be said that my analysis of Larsen's plagiarizing acquires added significance as it is informed by the very themes of Quicksand. First, as Anna Brickhouse points out in her essay, "Nella Larsen and the Intertextual Geography of Quicksand," Larsen specifically invokes the act of plagiarism by having Helga accuse her mentor, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, of such discursive fraud (533). In addition, Larsen implicitly invokes plagiarism by illustrating how her protagonist suffers from its twin errors: exploitation and dissimulation. In Axel Olsen's fetishistic treatment of Helga Crane, we see the plagiarist's inclination to lay claim to someone else's narrative. And in Helga Crane's tragically ineffectual desire to hide from others those parts of herself they may find unacceptable, we see the plagiarist's inclination to dissemble. By not only explicitly, but implicitly, critiquing plagiarism in Quicksand, Larsen perhaps signaled her own anxiety about her method of producing some of her novel's prose. In creating Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who plagiarizes outright and Axel Olsen, who engages in figurative plagiarism, taking elements from a narrative of being not his own, and then distorting them for his own nefarious purposes, Larsen replicated in fiction her real-life act of misappropriation. And by demonstrating the way her protagonist Helga Crane succumbs to the occupational hazard of the plagiarist, i.e., obfuscating or misrepresenting an identity not guaranteed to elicit affirmation, Larsen placed in relief her own abdication of the responsibility to present both her work and herself, a woman of multiple allegiances and an author with diverse and perhaps unanticipated literary investments, with a sufficient measure of transparency.

The Sins of "Misappropriation"

"Following Larsen's life, and forced in doing so to open doors I did not know existed, I came ... upon unexpected sidelights.... " (Hutchinson 10)

The seeds of this project were sown one summer day, as I did research in a favorite hometown bookstore--one with a sizeable selection of classic, used books. Craving more information about Larsen's literary interests and influences, I sought out the fiction of John Galsworthy, a modern British writer I knew to have been one of her favorites. My eyes scanned the shelves, looking for his infamous The Forsyte Saga. And then, for some reason I cannot fully recall--perhaps The Forsyte Saga was unavailable--I plucked The Apple Tree and Other Tales, a collection of Galsworthy's short stories originally published in 1917 as Five Tales. The first story was entitled "The First and the Last," and as I began to read it, I was astonished to find this opening passage, which seemed uncannily familiar:
 It was a dark room at that hour of six in the evening, when just
 the single oil reading-lamp under its green shade let fall a dapple
 of light over the Turkey carpet; over the covers of books taken out
 of the book-shelves, and the open pages of the one selected; over
 the deep blue and gold of the coffee service on the little old
 stool with its Oriental embroidery. Very dark in the winter, with
 drawn curtains, many rows of leather-bound volumes, oak-panelled
 walls and ceiling. So large, too, that the lighted spot before the
 fire where he sat was just an oasis. But that was what Keith
 Darrant liked, after his day's work--the hard early morning
 of his 'cases,' the fret and strain of the day in court; it
was his
 rest, these two hours before dinner, with books, coffee, a pipe,
 and sometimes a nap.... (3) 

As the reader familiar with Larsen's writing has perhaps now perceived, this passage from Galsworthy was clearly a source text for this, the beginning passage from her novel Quicksand: (7)
 Helga Crane sat alone in her room, which at that hour, eight in the
 evening, was in soft gloom. Only a single reading lamp, dimmed by a
 great black and red shade, made a pool of light on the blue Chinese
 carpet, on the bright covers of the books which she had taken down
 from their long shelves, on the white pages of the opened one
 selected, on the shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored
 nasturtiums beside her on the low table, and on the oriental silk
 which covered the stool at her slim feet. It was a comfortable
 room, furnished with rare and intensely personal taste, flooded
 with Southern sun in the day, but shadowy just then with the drawn
 curtains and singled shaded light. Large, too. So large that the
 spot where Helga sat was a small oasis in a desert of darkness. And
 eerily quiet. But that was what she liked after her taxing day's
 work, after the hard classes, in which she gave willingly and
 unsparingly of herself with no apparent return. She loved this
 tranquility, this quiet, following the fret and strain of the long
 hours spent among fellow members of a carelessly unkind and
 gossiping faculty, following the strenuous rigidity, of conduct
 required in this huge educational community of which she was an
 insignificant part. This was her rest, this intentional isolation
 for a short while in the evening, this little time in her own
 attractive room with her own books.... (35-36) 

Although Quicksand and "The First and the Last" share no substantive plot points, their respective opening passages have nearly identical diction. (8) Larsen appears to have copied from Galsworthy's story in two ways: by replicating phrases verbatim and by barely altering phrases or sentences. (9) The phrases "at that hour"; "in the evening"; "large, too"; and "the fret and strain" and also, the word "oasis" are direct--and sequential--echoes of Galsworthy's text. To be sure, Larsen displays her imagination and skill, as she takes yet ever so slightly turns some of the key phrases from "The First and the Last": "a single-oil reading lamp" becomes, by Larsen's hands, "a single reading lamp"; and the lamp's "green shade let[ting] fall a dapple of light over the Turkey carpet" becomes "a great black and red shade, ma[king] a pool of light on the blue Chinese carpet." Nevertheless, she reproduces the central imagery (again, in sequential order) of Galsworthy's prose, and in so doing, repeats too much of the specific language he used to concretize it: In a dark room, a reading lamp casts its half-light upon a carpet, an array of books, a stool draped in "Oriental" fabric, and ultimately, a disconsolate soul, attempting to abstain from life rather than to confront it. (10) Larsen replaces "the deep blue and gold of the coffee service" in Galsworthy's passage with her "shining brass howl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums," but save for that small substitution, the room in which she frames her protagonist, Helga Crane, is essentially that of Galsworthy's Keith Darrant--ironically so, since Quicksand's narrator avers that Helga's room was decorated "with rare and intensely personal taste." This is a point to which I will shortly return.

One could argue that what Larsen does with Galsworthy's text is better understood as allusion or pastiche than as misappropriation. Yet, while a certain, postmodern view would have us believe that what Andrew Offenburger terms "intertextuality" (174) is so prevalent as to be inevitable, as South African novelist Zakes Mda instructs us, the presence of a literary allusion depends upon its being recognized by a reader: "For intertextuality to function successfully it is important that those readers who are familiar with the original text should be able to identify its influences as it interplays with the new text" (202-03). (11) A writer who wants to make certain that her readers, even ideal ones, will "get" her allusions should advertise them in some fashion: acknowledging or citing a source text outright is one option, especially if the appropriated text is not part of a common, cultural repertoire, such as, for example, Shakespeare's Hamlet, a Greek myth or even, a body of well-known and well-trafficked texts in one's literary circles. Another option is to court one's reader, offering clues about the intertexts couched within one's work. For example, Larsen could have had Helga reading a work by Galsworthy (surely one of the many books on Helga's shelves could have been authored by him, in addition to or instead of Marmaduke Pickthall). Or she might have had her narrator acknowledge, rather than obscure, the resemblance of Helga's room to that of Keith Darrant. (12) Arguably, by asserting that Helga's room is a by-product of her "rare and intensely personal taste," and thus by implication, of Larsen's own imagination, Larsen misleads her readers. Citing or acknowledging Galsworthy would have created a bridge between his text and Larsen's, whereby their relation, but also their distinction as separable units would have been rendered, thus lending credence to the idea that Larsen's use of "The First and the Last" was something she hoped would be recognized. (13)

Notwithstanding an author's responsibility to lead her readers and critics to the water, so to speak, there is the matter of deciding at what point an allusion becomes such a voluble echo of a source text or passage as to devolve into plagiarism. In fact, neither any proponent of allusion nor any apologist for Larsen (or, indeed, for any plagiarist) can fully account for why an author--even one compelled to play with tropes, recast folklore, or engage in other types of intertexual play--need take so liberally, so literally from another's work in order to do so. The evidence I offer for how closely Larsen's prose resembles Galsworthy's, for the way her nearly exact recall of his language reproduces not simply his ideas, but the very images he uses to convey them, compels us to consider the protocols of allusion, which may, if not genuinely or successfully accomplished, constitute plagiarism. If the point of making an intertextual allusion is to foreground the dialogic relationship between one's text and another, ancestral text, then what must be present is some intellectual material common to both: ideas that are transferable from one literary context to another. In the case of Larsen's copying from Sheila Kaye-Smith, one can at least see the transference of a trope, a theme, and a plot from one story to another, but in the instance of copying from Galsworthy under my purview, Larsen takes nothing significant from her exemplary author but his language. Such exact replications of language are not transferable, as in the case of allusion, by being transliterated, but only by being, in the rather euphemistic term often used to describe plagiarizing, "borrowed"--but with the caveat that they elicit no returns, either for their originator or for the readers of the new text in which they lay hidden.

In her essay "Nella Larsen and the Intertextual Geography of Quicksand," Anna Brickhouse briefly mentions that Larsen's copying from SheBa Kaye-Smith was likely "misunderstood" as plagiarism (534). Yet in her analysis of what she terms "intertextual revision" in Quicksand, the critic provides examples of Larsen's successful adoption of transferable literary material, which helps me to distinguish between her genuine literary allusions and her plagiarizing of Galsworthy. Brickhouse analyzes the way Larsen's Quicksand "invert[ed]" the tragic mulatta trope, as figured in William Dean Howells's novel, An Imperative Duty (1892). In Brickhouse's formulation, Larsen deliberately drew on the "self-pitying" Rhoda Aldgate for her Helga Crane: as Howells's Rhoda "seemed to see herself and hear herself stopping some of these revolting creatures [in a "crowd" of black folk], the dreadfulest of them, and saying, 'I am black, too' (193), Helga repeats over and over to herself, 'They're my own people, my own people' (86)" (Brickhouse 546). Brickhouse's juxtaposition of these lines by Howells and Larsen points out what their two novels share in common, but although Larsen attributes the same sentiment to her Helga Crane as Howells does to his Rhoda Aldgate, she does so in her own configuration of language. Brickhouse provides further evidence for my contention that an echo of theme or imagery need not necessitate an echo of language, when she juxtaposes two scenes by Howells and Larsen in which their respective heroines undergo religious conversion. Summarizing the resemblance between Larsen's work and that of Howells, Brickhouse offers: "Revising the melodrama of Rhoda's racial self-recognition, Larsen depicts the psychological reverberations of Helga's sexual awakening in the same church milieu, accompanied by the same sense of vileness and horror, and even certain shadows of specific images, from the 'goblin' speaker and the 'frog-like' congregation in Rhoda's scene, to the 'grotesque ebony figure' and the reptilian women who frighten Helga" (546-47). The language Brickhouse uses to describe Larsen's recall of Howells is important because it underscores the fact that Larsen culled themes and ideas from Howells, but not the precise diction he used to express them. Rhoda is held "rapt" by the music of the church, while Helga remains "motionless." Even where similar ideas are betokened by similar imagery in the two passages, as Brickhouse observes, there is only a "shadow" of images drawn from Howells in Larsen's text. Howells's "goblin" is not synonymous with Larsen's "grotesque ebony figure," and while a "frog" might be "reptilian" in a figurative sense, it is not in fact a reptile (but rather, an amphibian). Larsen may recall the spirit of Howells's characterization of churchgoing black folk as rather serpentine, yet she does not do so with the kind of derivative precision at work in her reproduction of Galsworthy in the opening passage of Quicksand. The fact that Larsen did make genuine allusions--those that recall imagery without too closely reproducing the diction articulating it--foregrounds her less successful use of Galsworthy's "The First and the Last." For, while ideas, themes, and tropes, such as that of the "tragic mulatta," are broad enough to be translated across texts and contexts, narrow, specific configurations of language are not. (14)

Although Galsworthy's "The First and the Last" has remained--until now--a hidden presence within Quicksand, the novel bears traces of its author's ambivalence about her covert method of literary production: for Larsen not only explicitly addresses plagiarism but also, implicitly addresses the pitfalls of the misappropriation and dissimulation at its basis. As Anna Brickhouse keenly observes, Larsen references plagiarism in Quicksand, when she has her protagonist Helga Crane silently accuse her new boss and would-be-mentor, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, of discursive fraud (533). While helping Mrs. Hayes-Rore organize her speeches about "the race problem," Helga observes the following:
 These speeches proved to be merely patchworks of others'
 and opinions. Helga had heard other lecturers say the same things
 in Devon and again in Naxos. Ideas, phrases, and even whole
 sentences and paragraphs were lifted bodily from previous orations
 and published works
 of Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Booker
 T. Washington, and other doctors of the race's ills. For variety
 Mrs. Hayes-Rore had seasoned hers with a peppery dash of Du Bois
 and a few vinegary statements of her own. Aside from these it was,
 Helga reflected the same old thing
. (70; emphasis added) 

Brickhouse argues that Helga errs in her initial dismissal of her mentor for "lift[ing] bodily" the "ideas," "phrases," "sentences," and "paragraphs" of others, and the critic offers as evidence for this reading, Helga's description of plagiarism with a "culinary metaphor" that likens the "pleasures" of textual appropriation to those of cooking (533). But while I share Brickhouse's inclination to place Larsen's textual borrowing within the context of the ideas expressed in her novel, I fred Helga's use of a culinary analogy for plagiarism to be insufficient evidence that Larsen wished to reverse her protagonist's antiplagiarism stance in part because she describes Mrs. Hayes-Rore's own contributions to the speeches she proffers as both meager (her statements are only a "few") and unpalatable ("vinegary"). Moreover, Helga compares plagiarizing to cooking before she ultimately comes to this emphatic conclusion about Mrs. Hayes-Rore's discourse: "it was, Helga reflected, the same old thing" (Larsen 70). Larsen's staging of how Helga reflects upon, yet ultimately rejects plagiarism points to the author's anxiety about her own act of misappropriation, an anxiety that is further embedded within Larsen's implicit critique of the figurative plagiarism to which Helga is subjected throughout the course of the novel.

While sojourning in Denmark, Helga is first victimized by the fetishizing designs of her Danish relatives, who despite sheltering Helga from the provincial constraints of bourgeois Harlem, nevertheless regard her as a tool whose status as a woman of African descent might broker their access into a more elite social set (120). Yet she is rendered most vulnerable by the dandy painter Axel Olsen. From the moment Olsen meets Helga, he begins to recast her according to his selective vision of her presumed properties and features. Larsen writes that, upon viewing Helga, Olsen is "as unaware of her omission as of her desire. His words flowed on and on, rising and rising. She tried to follow, but his rapid Danish eluded her. She caught only words, phrases, here and there. 'Superb eyes ... color ... neck column ... yellow ... hair ... alive ... wonderful ...'" (101). Olsen's "appraisal" of Helga effectively reduces her to certain of her perceived elements: her neck, her hair, and other properties with the air of the art historian. Although the piecemeal figuration of Helga that she hears Olsen offer about her is, through Larsen's nuanced characterization, partly the result of a language barrier between them, it nevertheless serves to underscore how the painter simultaneously exploits and distorts her for his own benefit. Like the plagiarist who lifts parts of a given text from its initial historical and cultural contexts and then reduces it to the context of his own enterprise, Olsen uses Helga to enrich his artwork. Thus, Olsen's selection--and attendant distortion--of some of Helga's presumed features, what Wall describes as his "abstraction" of her perceived essence "as a commodity" (102), is akin to Larsen's selection and parallel abstraction of some of Galsworthy's prose. The plagiarist and the exploitative artist are united as they wrench text from its initial context and then, traffic it for their own questionable purposes.

Initially, Helga responds to her misappropriation with merely passive aggression: In the face of Olsen's preliminary recasting of her, she assumes a "fixed aching mask" (101). But then the artist takes his misappropriation of her to its ultimate conclusion: painting and next exhibiting a portrait of her that bears little resemblance to its model. Larsen does not provide a precise description of the painting, but the reader may infer its primitivist aspects from Helga's account of the artwork as some disgusting sensual creature with her features. (15) Failing to secure Helga as either his mistress or his wife, Olsen nevertheless succeeds in wielding his portrait to claim and define her, declaring that it marks "the true Helga Crane." At this point, Helga manages an audible protest that is also an articulation of her own sense of self. To Olsen's avowal that his version of her is "the true Helga Crane," she responds "It isn't, it isn't at all"--a statement that she later repeats inaudibly: "Anyone with half an eye could see that it wasn't at all like her.... Yes, anyone with half an eye could see that it wasn't she" (119). Helga not only asserts the faulty vision of the painter but also, her right to represent--to frame--herself. While Helga's rejection of Olsen's depiction of her might be read as indicative of her internalized racism and paradoxically, of her subtle capitulation to the "New Negro" strategy of uplift that she had earlier decried (84), it is more fruitfully read as an incisive, righteously indignant response to a racist and racialist distortion of her identity. Moreover, it points to Larsen's implicit critique of the plagiarist's reductive exploitation--and parallel distention--of a given narrative of being (despite the fact that she is implicated in such a critique). If Olsen's misappropriation of Helga can be read as a figurative form of plagiarism, then Helga's rejection of such is ineluctably a rejection of plagiarism in its literal form. (16)

Having begun to lay claim to her own identity (i.e., to protest its being distorted and otherwise exploited), Helga is nevertheless unable to convert this insight into the necessary fuel that could propel, in Jay Prosser's terms, her own "narrative of becoming" (32). Just as Olsen exhibits the plagiarist's exploitation of the "text" of another, so does Helga exhibit the plagiarist's inclination to dissimulate in order to be accepted. When she returns to the United States and to Harlem, she again allows herself to be defined by others' perceptions of and expectations for her. Thus, while Helga's identity crisis is partly derived from others' misrepresentations and misunderstandings of her, it is also enabled by her own inclination to dissemble, which renders her unable to fully express those parts of herself that others may not understand or affirm.

Indeed, Larsen establishes Helga's propensity to withhold aspects of her identity in order to increase her chances for acquiring social acceptance--and the steep price of doing so--early on in Quicksand, through this poignant exchange that she has with Mrs. Hayes-Rote. On their train ride from Chicago to New York, the Harlem "race woman" urges Helga to explain her background--specifically, why she "ha[s]n't any people" (71). Her defenses up, Helga hesitates, but eventually, yields to Mrs. Hayes-Rore's entreaty that she unburden herself: "Passionately, tearfully, incoherently, the final words tumbled from her quivering petulant lips" (bid). Larsen takes care to point out how Mrs. Hayes Rote withdraws from Helga as she tells her story, a fact not lost on Helga:
 During the little pause that followed Helga's recital, the
faces of
 the two women, which had been bare, seemed to harden. It was almost
 as if they had slipped on masks. The girl wished to hide her
 turbulent feelings and to appear indifferent to Mrs.
 opinion of her story. The woman felt that the story, dealing as it
 did with race intermingling and possibly adultery, was beyond
 definite discussion. For among black people, as among white people,
 it is tacitly understood that these things are not mentioned--and
 therefore they do not exist. (72) 

The suggestion that some things are better left unsaid is affirmed when Mrs. Hayes-Rore advises Helga that, as a condition for her entrance into the bourgeois black society of Harlem, she should keep her background--her story--to herself." "And, by the way, I wouldn't mention that my people are white, if I were you. Colored people won't understand it, and after all it's your own business.... I'll just tell Anne that you're a friend of mine whose mother's dead. That'll place you well enough and it's all true. I never tell lies." Mrs. Hayes-Rore's counsel to Helga to dissimulate--to occlude those parts of herself (specifically, the "white" parts) that others may find unpalatable--evinces the same praxis of lying by omission that is adopted by the plagiarist, who neglects to be forthright about her influences and sources. Unfortunately, Helga accepts the terms set out for her by Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who now proves herself guilty, not simply of fraud, but also, of recommending such fraudulent behavior to others. As a protege of Mrs. Hayes-Rore, Helga hides her interracial identity in order to cross more seamlessly the threshold of Harlem society that is marked by Anne Grey's house, and in so doing, "feel[s] like a criminal" (74), underscoring the fact that thwarting one's own process of narration is as palpable a detractor from one's integrity as is perverting the narrative of another.

Caught between others' misrecognitions of herself and her own incomplete narration--marked by shameful omissions--Helga neglects to find more flexible and expansive ways in which she might express her complex identity, and instead, embraces what K. Anthony Appiah calls "life scripts" that are no less restrictive because of her own choosing; she seeks matrimony, motherhood, and religion-and nearly "asphyxiates" in the process (Larsen 160). (17) Moreover, the fact that Helga suffers, both as she is analogous to the plagiarized text whose parts are ill-used by another, and as she is analogous to the plagiarist, whose "lie of omission" occludes key sources--not simply for her fictive tales but also, for her own story--delivers a double blow to plagiarism: as an act that simultaneously breaches one's ethical responsibility to another and undermines one's sense of integrity and corresponding sense of self. By schooling her readers in the regrettable consequences of misappropriation and dissimulation, Larsen implicitly persuades us to reject the practice to which they are endemic: the plagiarism of which she, herself, has been guilty.

Nella Larsen achieved levels of professional success and personal satisfaction--as a librarian, a writer, and as both nurse and nurse supervisor (Hutchinson 473)--that eluded Helga Crane. Yet one wonders what more she might have achieved had she felt less pressured by the implicit demands imposed during the Harlem Renaissance to prove the virtuosity of African American writers, and more emboldened to acknowledge and explore her complex identity, especially that marking her European heritage and cosmopolitan interests. Perhaps she would have brought to fruition such apparent works-in-progress as "Fall Fever" and the novel "Adrian and Evadne," an adaptation of the Evadne tale from Virgil's Aeneid, which she worked on with friend and emerging writer Edward Donahoe (Davis 404). Would she have published more novels or other texts, perhaps those reflecting, in more positive ways, her apparently keen interest in British writers like Kaye-Smith and Galsworthy? Would she have remained in the field of arts and letters rather than resurfacing in the field of medicine? Might she have expanded her sphere of influence beyond its ethnic and even national boundaries (as ultimately, her diverse critics have done)?

There are no conclusive answers to such questions, and it remains to be seen what else might be revealed about the scope and significance of Larsen's literary travails. But in addition to avowing the indisputable value of Larsen's work, I offer the following two conclusions. First, the unfortunate instances of Larsen's plagiarism offer a measure of redemption, in that they contribute paradoxically to the ongoing critical discussion about plagiarism and the ensuing reflection upon the requisite protocols by which authors might make literary allusions that honor their work, the work of others, and the overall integrity of artistic endeavor. Second, only by acknowledging Larsen's plagiarism, by daring not to, in Larsen's words, avoid "mention" of untoward "things" and thus, maintain the pretense that "they do not exist (72)," might we mitigate the ethos of secrecy that sustains errors in judgment and acts of self-deception alike. Nella Larsen committed plagiarism, yet in Quicksand, she offered a cautionary tale about the dangers of the very misappropriation and dissimulation at its basis.

Works Cited

Appiah, K. Anthony. "Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction." Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.

Brickhouse, Anna. "Nella Larsen and the Intertextual Geography of Quicksand." African American Review 35.4 (Winter 2001): 533-60.

Buranen, Lise, and Alice M. Roy, eds. Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Albany: SUNY P, 1999.

Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP, 1994.

Fusco, Coco. "The Other History of Intercultural Performance." The Drama Review 38.1 (Spring 1994): 143-67.

Galsworthy, John. "The First and the Last." The Apple Tree and Other Tales. New York: Scribner's, 1918. 3-4.

Haviland, Beverly. "Passing from Paranoia to Plagiarism: The Abject Authorship of Nella Larsen." Modern Fiction Studies 43.2 (Summer 1997): 295-318.

Hoeller, Hildegard. "Race, Modernism, and Plagiarism: The Case of Nella Larsen's 'Sanctuary.'" African American Review 40.3 (Fall 2006): 421-37.

Hutchinson, George. In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2006.

Larochelle, Gilbert. "From Kant to Foucault: What Remains of the Author in Postmodernism." Buranen and Roy 121-30.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. An Intimation of Things Distant." The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen. Ed. Charles R. Larson. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992.

Larson, Kelli A. "Surviving the Taint of Plagiarism: Nella Larsen's 'Sanctuary' and Sheila Kaye-Smith's 'Mrs. Adis.'" Journal of Modern Literature 30.4 (Summer 2007): 82-104.

Mda, Zakes. "A Response to 'Duplicity and Plagiarism in Zakes Mda's The Heart of Redness' by Andrew Offenburger." Research in African Literatures 39.4 (Fall 2008): 200-03.

Nehamas, Alexander. "The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal." Critical Inquiry 8.1 (Autumn 1981): 133-49.

Offenburger, Andrew. "Duplicity and Plagiarism in Zakes Mda's The Heart of Redness." Research in African Literatures 39.3 (Fall 2008): 164-99.

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana UP, 1995.

Woodmansee, Martha. The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

--, and Peter Jaszi, eds. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.


The author wishes to thank Herman Beavers, Sarah Rowley, and the anonymous reviewers at African American Review for their interest in, support of, and incisive contributions to this essay.

(1.) See, for example, both principal biographies of Larsen: Davis and Hutchinson. A select list of additional texts providing information about and analyses of Larsen's presumed plagiarizing of Sheila Kaye-Smith include Wall, Brickhouse, Haviland, Hoeller, and Larson.

(2.) For example, Larson argues that Larsen's apparent "plagiarism" of "Mrs. Adis" is better regarded as an adaptation of it, one that reflects Larsen's engagement of a "widely recognized literary mode particularly common to African-American theater of the period" (83). And Hoeller offers that Larsen's appropriation of "Mrs. Adis" does not constitute plagiarism, but rather her particular instantiation of modernist poetics--specifically, "the modernist strategies of racial masquerade, primitivism, and collage" (421). As my argument will make clear, I am obliged to deviate from both these defenses of Larsen, since I do not concur with their overarching premises: that Larsen's participation in certain kinds of formalist practices (chiefly "adaptation" and "collage") precludes her having committed plagiarism. For example, adaptation, which cannot even be rightfully applied to Larsen's plagiarizing from Galsworthy, since she transfers not the plot, but only the language from his story into her novel, is arguably best accomplished with those narratives famous enough to be recognizable (such as Hamlet). Allusion, or "collage," need not require either verbatim linguistic repetition or unattributed borrowing. However, I do find Hoeller's discussion of the relationship between textual appropriation and the modernist interests in "primitivism" and "racial masquerade" to resonate with my project here: this is a point to which I will return in the later portions of my argument.

(3.) See, for examples of this critical view, Buranen and Roy; Woodmansee; and Woodmansee and Jaszi.

(4.) Even in the context of challenging the classical conception of authorship, Larochelle avers that, even after postmodernism, "the notion of responsibility [to the author] must be reinvested, not denied on the pretence that the author may not be the creator. It is therefore necessary to reinvent a functional conception of plagiarism that, taking into account humanist criticism, is capable of escaping the traps of nihilism, and of the idealism that it implies" (130).

(5.) Although Davis and Hutchinson differ on the exact details of Larsen's childhood and family life, they both underscore the way Larsen's private family structure was informed by the public, social conventions of American racism. See Davis and Hutchinson.

(6.) Although Galsworthy was respected and considered "modem" by the editors of the literary journal The Bookman as well as by Larsen, herself, who cited him in a defense of Walter White's novel Flight and named him as a "favorite author" in an interview with Mary Rennels (Hutchinson 208, 321), he did not have the standing or connection to the Harlem Renaissance as writers like Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein, or William Dean Howells. He was neither a white patron of the Renaissance, nor a "high" modernist, nor an American writer treating racial themes.

(7.) In his biography of Larsen, Hutchinson attributes the particular style and method of Quicksand's opening to Jens Peter Jacobsen's Marie Grubbe (226). Although she may have been stylistically influenced by Jacobsen, she clearly used Galsworthy's text as a source here; as I go on to explain, Larsen's imagery and diction are nearly exact replicas of Galsworthy's.

(8.) Galsworthy's story is one in which a lawyer, in the process of helping his younger brother avoid criminal charges, must come to terms with his own moral frailty. To create her opening passage, Larsen reproduces Galsworthy's diction and also draws significantly on his presentation of character--like Galsworthy's Keith Darrant, Helga Crane steels herself in a room to escape pressures from the outside world, but this is where the similarities of plot end.

(9.) My analysis of the manner in which Larsen borrowed from Galsworthy is significantly informed by Offenburger's analysis of the way Mda is presumed to have borrowed from Jeff Peires's The Dead Will Arise. See his mention of "paraphrasing, borrowing sections sequentially, [and] copying..." (168), and his elaboration of these techniques (168-70).

(10.) In writing this description of the two passages, I found myself searching for small ways to change the language (as Larsen likely did), finding synonyms for some of Galsworthy and Larsen's words: casting a half light instead of making a pool of fight (Larsen) or letting fall a dapple of light (Galsworthy). I used fabric instead of "embroidery" (Galsworthy) or "silk" (Larsen), and my "array" of books describes their number rather than calling attention to their "covers." It was difficult to do so, and I am pleased with my attempt, but wish to observe that were my sentence not a summary of the language common to Galsworthy and Larsen, it too would merit a footnote acknowledging that I had paraphrased. For even though I avoided some of the linguistic repetitions of Larsen in describing what Galsworthy and Larsen share in common, I still used nearly all of Galsworthy's initial language: the room, the lamp, the light, the books, and the stool.

(11.) I must note that Mda's statement about the importance of making transparent one's literary allusions is made in the context of his own defense against charges of plagiarism. To Mda, the fact that he openly acknowledges his use of Jeff Peires's The Dead Will Arise for his novel The Heart of Redness means that he has not committed plagiarism. I attach much importance to Mda's effort to be forthright and feel that had Larsen been so, she might have avoided some of the pitfalls of appropriation; yet I maintain that even acknowledging a source does not entirely mitigate one's copying verbatim from it.

(12.) For example, Larsen might have qualified the narrative's assertion of Helga's decorating skills with a line like: "Of course, Helga's taste was remarkably like that of a beloved literary figure--Keith Darrant-but it was her own nevertheless."

(13.) In researching the publication history of "The First and the Last," I was surprised to find that the story was not quite as obscure as I had imagined it would be. "The First and the Last" appeared in Five Tales in 1917 and in The Apple Tree and Other Tales in 1918 (both published by Charles Scribner's Sons). In addition, it was referenced in a brief review of Five Tales (with no specific quotation of its prose) in The Bookman Advertiser 47.2 (April 1918), and in a lengthier review--still with no citation of the passage copied by 'Larsen--by Joseph J. Reilly in a 1926 issue of The Catholic World. (According to this review, the greater part of Galsworthy's short stories were also published by Scribner's in the 1925 volume Caravan.) "The First and the Last" does not appear to have been reproduced in a literary journal until 1932, when it appeared in The Golden Book Magazine 16.91 (August 1932). I have come to the conclusion that "The First and the Last" was sufficiently circulated so that Larsen may have read it, but not so widely circulated or popular as to have been read or remembered by Larsen's readers and peers within the Harlem Renaissance community. My supposition is supported by the fact that the presence of Galsworthy's story in Quicksand was not recognized by its readers (critics included), and not even once the 1930 plagiarism scandal broke--until now.

(14.) Such specific configurations of language correspond to what Johann Fichte defined as resistant to appropriation and "inalienable." As Larochelle explains, extrapolating from Fichte, "contrary to the usual disrespect for rhetoric, form, phrasing, and artful devices of language equally belong to the particularities of subjectivity and are consequently subject to copyright" (qtd. in Larochelle 124).

(15.) For an example of the prevailing critical reading that Olsen commits the fetishistic exploitation practiced by some European modernist artists, see Wall's analysis of Quicksand in her Women of the Harlem Renaissance. For further study regarding modernism's complicity with European appropriation of Africana, see Fusco. My reading of Olsen extends the common wisdom about his fetishistic interest in Helga in order to draw a connection between the misappropriation wrought by Olsen and that wrought by Larsen, in her role as plagiarist.

(16.) As part of her defense of Larsen's plagiarizing of "Sanctuary," Hoeller submits that Larsen's invocation of a European artist interested in "primitive" representations of black subjectivity in Quicksand reflects her own interests, both in primitivism in general (even the European variety found in Kaye-Smith's story) and in the modernist practice with which it is twinned: "racial masquerade" (429-31). While Larsen's appropriation of Galsworthy cannot be said to reflect her interest in primitivism (whose tropes do not register in "The First and the Last"), it might certainly be read as her ventriloquizing of a cultural "other," and thus, as Hoeller states, as her inverse instantiation of a practice common to European American modernists. But the analogy I draw between Larsen as plagiarist and Axel Olsen as exploitative artist (an analogy implicitly drawn by Hoeller) complicates the rhetorical move of absolving Larsen from the responsibility to respect the work of her fellow authors, not simply because, as I have already argued, her tweaking of modernist convention would not preclude her having committed plagiarism, but also because in Quicksand, Larsen tenders a critique of the very artistic exploitation of which she and Olsen are culpable. A black writer appropriating or otherwise reductively treating white texts may mark a reversal of a familiar equation of power, but Larsen's powerful critique of such exploitative behavior, which marks her capacity for self-appraisal, dissuades me from believing that Larsen's dalliance with appropriation--modernist or otherwise--should be leveraged as a way to excuse her plagiarism.

(17.) Appiah defines "life scripts" as prescriptions for the "proper" way of embodying a particular collective identity (161-62).
COPYRIGHT 2012 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Williams, Erika Renee
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Previous Article:Performing the Past to Claim the Future: Sun Ra and the Afro-Future Underground, 1954-1968.
Next Article:Travels with Paul.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters