Helga Crane

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Nella Larsen (1891—1964)

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868—1963) American writer, sociologist, and political activist


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Is the protagonist of Nella Larsen's 1928 novel Quicksand. An intelligent, sensual, beautiful, searching, and ambitious woman, Helga's quest for security and satisfaction takes her between black society and white society, between the folk and elite cultures of the rural South, the urban North, and even Copenhagen, Denmark. Many have noted the autobiographical similarities between Crane and Larsen. Both are mixed-race women reared by their white mothers from whom they became estranged and who moved (with ambivalence) into black communities. Helga teaches at Naxos, a school modeled after Tuskegee—where Larsen briefly taught. Though biographers have found no supporting evidence, Nella Larsen claimed to have lived in Copenhagen, where Helga spends two years during her search for self-knowledge. And both Nella Larsen and Helga Crane have been noted as daring representatives of modern African American middle-class women. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, wrote that Helga was “typical” of the New Negro woman “on whom the shadow of ‘race’ sits negligibly and Life is always first.”

Contemporary critics recognize Helga Crane as an innovative case study especially open to psychoanalytic interpretations. Some see Crane's quest to be a search for happiness, peace of mind, social status, sexual fulfillment, and racial identity. Others see her as the “marginal black woman of the middle class” and as the embodiment of Du Bois's “double consciousness” that even the “New Negroes” could not reconcile.

Frances Smith Foster

Subjects: Literature.

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