Critical reception

"Passing" is effective and convincing attempt to portray certain aspects of a vexatious problem. The fact that it is by a girl who is partly of negro blood adds to the effectiveness.

—Anonymous, 1929[30]

Passing was published in April 1929 by Knopf in New York City.[31] Sales of the book were modest: Knopf produced three small print runs each under 2,000 copies. While early reviews were primarily positive, it received little attention beyond New York City.[32] Reviewers writing for mostly-black audiences praised the book much more than reviewers writing for mostly-white audiences.[1] Comparing it to Larsen's previous novel Quicksand, Alice Dunbar-Nelson's review in The Washington Eagle began by declaring that "Nella Larsen delights again with her new novel".[33]

Writer and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois hailed it as the "one of the finest novels of the year" and believed that its limited success was due to its treating a "forbidden subject," the marriage of a white man to a mixed-race girl who did not reveal her ancestry.[34]

A common criticism of the novel is that it ends too suddenly, without a full exploration of the issues.[35] Mary Rennels, writing in the New York Telegram, said, "Larsen didn't solve the problem [of passing]. Knocking a character out of a scene doesn't settle a matter."[36] An anonymous reviewer for the New York Times Book Review similarly concluded that "the most serious fault with the book is its sudden and utterly unconvincing close"/but otherwise considered it an effective treatment of the topic.[30] On the other hand, Dunbar-Nelson found that the ending confirmed to the reader that "you have been reading a masterpiece all along."[33]

In modern scholarship, Larsen is recognized as one of the central figures in the African-American, feminist and modernist canons, a reputation that is based on her two novels (Passing and Quicksand) and some short stories.[37] As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than 200 scholarly articles and more than 50 dissertations,[37][38] which offer a range of critical interpretations. It has been hailed as a text helping to "create a modernist psychological interiority ... challenging marriage and middle-class domesticity, complexly interrogating gender, race, and sexual identity, and for redeploying traditional tropes—such as that of the tragic mulatta—with a contemporary and critical twist."[37] However, literary critic Cheryl Wall summarizes the critical response to Passing as less favorable than to Larsen's first novel Quicksand.[39] On one hand, the significance of sexual jealousy in the story has been seen to detract from the topic of racial passing; conversely, even if racial passing is accurately treated in the novel, it is considered a historically specific practice and so Passing appears dated and trivial.[39]

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