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  • A Lie of Omission:Plagiarism in Nella Larsen's Quicksand
  • Erika Renée Williams (bio)

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. [End Page 205] 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...


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