Nella Larsen's first published novel, appeared in 1928 and won the Harmon Foundation's bronze medal. The New York Times Book Review proclaimed it had more “dignity” than most first novels and praised it for having a “wider outlook upon life” than writings by most African Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois declared she had published “the best piece of fiction” by an African American since Charles Waddell Chesnutt.
Quicksand is the story of Helga Crane, whose mixed heritage (she is the daughter of a Danish American mother and an African American father) complicates her quest for security and self-realization. When the novel begins, Helga Crane has achieved high status as a teacher at Naxos (an African American college modeled after Tuskegee) and seems set for social success as the fiancée of James Vayle, a solid member of the Atlanta African American bourgeoisie. But she is dissatisfied. She quits her job, breaks off her engagement, and travels to Chicago hoping to be welcomed into the family of her Danish American uncle. Uncle Peter's new wife rebuffs Helga at the door. Alone and nearly broke, Helga finally obtains employment as a travel companion to Mrs. Hayes-Rore, an African American activist en route to New York. Hayes-Rore introduces Helga to Anne Gray, a wealthy Harlem widow who becomes her next benefactor. Though Helga lands a respectable job and is welcomed into Harlem middle-class society, she soon becomes dissatisfied again. Her quest this time takes her to Copenhagen, where her Danish relatives not only welcome but flaunt their dark family member, and for two years, Helga is feted. Alex Olsen, a socially prominent Danish artist, asks Helga to become his mistress, and when she rejects this proposition he proposes marriage; but Helga is now tired of being an exotic, rare specimen and returns to Harlem. Not long after her return, she discovers that Anne Gray is going to marry Dr. Robert Anderson, a man who has always provoked ambiguous but powerful passions in Helga. After an embarrassing incident with Robert, Helga despairs of ever finding happiness. Wandering about in a stormy night, she seeks refuge in a storefront church, where she has a conversion experience and meets the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green. She marries this uneducated country preacher and returns with him to Alabama, where she has three children in twenty months.
Some critics find the novel's conclusion weak and ambiguous, but they generally praise its narrative unity and lush, evocative detail. They variously describe the tone of Quicksand as “wistful,” “zestful,” and “bitter” but generally agree that the book offers a pioneering psychological portrayal of a modern woman from a perspective that recognizes the inextricability of race, class, and gender. Scholars recognize the book as revising the stereotypes of the tragic mulatta and as providing one of the first serious considerations of both the limitations and the privileges of aspiring to the African American middle class. In her concern with gender and class, Larsen is often compared to Jessie Redmon Fauset and Dorothy West. Her interest in the particularities of race and sexuality also places her in conversation with Jean Toomer and Claude McKay.