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  • Passing from Paranoia to Plagiarism: the Abject Authorship of Nella Larsen
  • Beverly Haviland (bio)

Nella Larsen’s brilliant and brief literary career came to a sudden end when she was accused of plagiarizing a short story by a little-known British writer. This act that ended her publishing life gratified her detractors at the time and has puzzled her champions ever since. After the scandal, Larsen never published again and wrote very little before disappearing from the world of the Harlem literati in which she had flourished for several years. The recovery in the last decade of her two novels, Quicksand and Passing, and the publication of a full-scale biography have restored to Larsen posthumously the recognition that she enjoyed briefly during her life when she won two Harmon Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Like other African American and women writers of the time, she faced many obstacles to realizing her desire to be an artist, but the irony is that it was just when she seemed to have overcome them that she herself put an end to her life as an author by plagiarizing the work of another writer.

Larsen’s story is complicated. The sympathetic reader of her work wants to understand this act of literary suicide because the loss of this talented writer is regrettable. The strands of the story of her life and the stories that she wrote can be woven and unwoven to figure various [End Page 295] patterns, especially since much of her fiction is autobiographical and much of her autobiography is fictive. There is a storyline that I want to trace, one that passes from her art to her life to suggest that already in her second novel, Passing, it is possible to detect the psychological dynamic in play that assumed a more self-destructive form when Larsen published the ironically titled “Sanctuary,” the story that ended her career. The central character of Passing can be analyzed as paranoid, but it is Larsen the author who assumed the abject position of plagiarist that insured the end of her career as a writer.

What paranoia and plagiarism have in common is an instability in the recognition of and respect for boundaries between self and other. Larsen represents the paranoid version of this narcissistic disorder in the character of Irene in Passing; she acts out a more self-destructive version of this transgression of boundaries in her appropriation of the work of another writer. The similarities between “Sanctuary” and Sheila Kaye-Smith’s “Mrs. Adis” would, I think, strike any reader schooled to be vigilant for such things as more than coincidental. Both instances of this disorder of boundaries can be understood as attempts by Larsen to imagine a more intimate relationship with her origins, familial and social. In the former case, it is a desire for union with the maternal (same-sex) object that animates Irene’s paranoia; in the latter case, it is a desire to identify herself as an African American writer that self-destructs when Larsen takes an English story and recasts it with American blacks. Larsen had speculated earlier in her career that she might make similar changes with another story she liked (Davis 165). It is this convoluted play of identification and rejection that can be traced by following the progression from paranoia to plagiarism in Larsen’s life/work.

Such passing from life to work raises difficulties for the psychoanalytically inclined critic in these postmodern times. The kind of psychobiography that Freud himself enjoyed writing and that flourished in mid-century has come under scrutiny because the temptation to read texts as if they were analysands has too often been used to simplify that which must be more complex. Nevertheless, I would risk some passages from life to art in this essay (keeping in mind that interpretation is a matter of persuasion and not of proof) because Larsen’s situation opens up questions about authorship, the interest of which does not depend on whether this analysis of her particular situation is conclusive. [End Page 296] Reading “Sanctuary” and the story of its aftermath in the context of Larsen’s biography may or may not give an accurate...

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pp. 295-318
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