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  • Character Defects: The Racialized Addict and Nella Larsen’s Passing
  • Lisa Mendelman (bio)

1929 saw the publication of two novels about racial passing that feature potent portrayals of addiction. In Vera Caspary’s The White Girl, a light-skinned woman is spurned by her white boyfriend because he fears passing down his father’s gambling addiction. Meanwhile, her white roommate succumbs to heroin addiction, all the while believing that she will marry her lover and live happily ever after. In Nella Larsen’s Passing, the daughter of a biracial alcoholic passes over the color line and marries a wealthy white man. Her choices throw into relief the bid for racial respectability embodied by her childhood friend, who has married a doctor and insisted that they stay in Harlem as pillars of the New Negro community. Both novels use female friends from either side of the color line to play out popular narratives about the racially-determined ends of individual desire. Discourses of racialized addiction—and thus aberrant desire—allow each author to explore the impossibly multiple and inherently contradictory demands attendant on the representation of racial character.

The White Girl features two common profiles of racialized addiction: the white subject’s moral decadence and the black subject’s biological degeneration. The narrative trajectories of these subjects reflect typical accounts of racial destiny in the period. Protagonist Solaria Cox’s stoic beau fears addiction’s hereditary impact: transmitting “the danger of [my father’s] weakness to another generation,” he asserts, “wouldn’t be fair, you know, to the kids. I mean, it wouldn’t be right.”1 Solaria’s corrupted roommate, meanwhile, dramatizes addiction’s physiological as [End Page 727] well as psychological effects; initially a bubbly working girl from rural Pennsylvania, she transforms into a manipulative, mercurial, and destructive-yet-fragile user. Solaria remains sober to the novel’s end, but, having unwittingly exposed her own genealogy, her final moments also suggest a Dorian-Gray-like alteration: “As she stood staring in the mirror at her pale, delicate face, she saw it blur as if a shadow had crept across it. She thought she saw the face change, the white skin seemed to darken, the lips to become thick and coarse” (Caspary, White Girl, 305). The White Girl thus depicts race as a matter of perception, while addiction is first and foremost a biological mechanism. The novel aestheticizes race and geneticizes addiction. Such reversible characterizations evidence the contemporaneous ambivalence inherent in each of these concepts. Caspary ascribes modern ills to racialized bodies, yet also recognizes that race itself is a style. Larsen takes these conclusions a step further. Passing diagnoses unrestrained wanting as a form of white privilege.

In 1920s and ’30s America, race and addiction were each understood as, on the one hand, a matter of inherited biology and, on the other, a matter of individual character. These alternate models of individual agency and biological determinism appear in a number of interwar novels centered on African American identity, including Passing, The White Girl (which we leave here), and the novel I take up in closing, Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932). Depictions of white addiction in 1920s and ’30s America have been astutely explored by modernist scholars like John Crowley and Eion Cannon.2 Portrayals of black addiction, however, have been largely hiding in plain sight. Our current scholarly omission, I suggest, owes in part to our focus on other stories of desire and disorder in New Negro / Harlem Renaissance narratives, as well as to the difficulties of discussing addiction’s biopsychosocial matrix without reproducing enduring and erroneous stigmas.3 With that caveat in mind, I seek to repopulate our understanding of American interwar fiction with the vividly wanting human beings who have been there all along.

As scholars often observe, Passing dramatizes the morally-inflected expectations of literary types (e.g., death for the tragic mulatta) while also repudiating efforts to identify standard, stable categories for the inner workings of human beings.4 I extend this line of argument by examining the novel’s rendering of the racialized addict as the New Negro’s intimate antagonist.5 This characterological approach offers a new way to read...


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pp. 727-752
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