“Structure Would Equal Meaning”: Blues and Jazz Aesthetics in the Fiction of Nella Larsen

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Boston College
Vol. 28, No. 2 (Fall 2009), 267-289

By illuminating the jazz and blues aesthetic of her prose, this essay contends that Nella Larsen took to heart Langston Hughes’s prescription for an African American literature derived from black musical forms. It argues that Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand draw their structures from blues and jazz music and that these novels employ the black oral tradition in order to convey the machinations of their characters’ minds as well as to achieve a voice that is both singular and plural, private and public. While critics have overlooked the musical aesthetic of her fiction, Larsen has been at the forefront of debates surrounding the relationship between black women’s writing and music. What opponents in this debate share is a tendency to read Larsen’s writing against female blues singers. Beginning with a reading of Passing’s blues aesthetic, the essay demonstrates that there is more common ground between Larsen and her musical contemporaries than has been previously thought. It goes on to discuss how Quicksand offers responses to the calls of the blues singers while employing jazz as an overall structuring voice. With both texts, Larsen participates in the debate about the criteria for black art that took place during the Harlem Renaissance.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]