115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

At the “Top of the World”: Urban Architecture and The Modern Gaze in Nella Larsen’s Passing 

Alexandra Meany, University of Washington

This paper argues that in her novella Passing, Nella Larsen relies on urban architecture to reveal the spatial implications of “passing” and to create cathartic moments, like the scene at the Drayton Hotel, and the final scene of Clare’s death, where racial hierarchies undergirded by space are disrupted and an arbitrating power is restored to the black female subject through a modern, aerial gaze.

Proposal: 

“The White City,”—according to David F. Burg, author of Chicago’s White City of 1893— was the most popular title for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Both a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America and an international showcase of industry and technology, the Chicago’s World Fair is considered the “crucial event in the historiography of modernism in America” (Bender 30). In addition to the propagation of culture on an international scale, it was at the Chicago World’s Fair that architects showcased the defining image of the modern American skyline: the steel-frame skyscraper. The cultural, industrial, and architectural influence of the World’s Fair reverberated from Chicago to New York and well into the twentieth century. The cultural impact of this Fair is a motivating force in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, which engages with the cityscapes of both major metropolises.

A footnote in the Norton Critical Edition edited by Carla Kaplan of the text cites one of Larsen’s discreet references to the Fair as a “practical joke,” identified by Thaddeus Davis, author of “Nella Larsen’s Harlem Aesthetic,” who believes Larsen was alluding to a building owned by Larsen’s family on “Maryland Avenue ‘whose name had been changed from Jackson at the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’” (Kaplan 25). At first glance, Larsen’s reference is an offhanded commentary on the fact that the urban landscape of Chicago was changed, in some small way, by the World’s Fair. However, upon closer examination, the Chicago World’s Fair occupies a much larger role in the novella; Chicago’s urban landscape was changed by the World’s Fair, but Larsen does not merely joke about its influence. Larsen, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, is asking a larger question regarding urban architecture, race, and modernity: how does the black body factor into “The White City?”

 

From the skyscraper, the modern subject saw the world anew—from a god-like perspective. This view from above, made possible by airplanes and skyscrapers, created the modern gaze—a perspective Larsen draws upon in the urban settings of her novella. This paper examines the modern gaze and the literal significance of tall buildings and skyscrapers to demonstrate how Larsen relies on urban architecture to reveal the spatial implications of “passing,” and to create cathartic moments, like the scene at the Drayton Hotel, and the final scene of Clare’s death, where racial hierarchies undergirded by space are disrupted and an arbitrating power is restored to the black female subject. In these moments, Irene, the self -identified black female, is the onlooker rather than the subject of a disarming gaze. In this way, Larsen not only practices a literal racial uplift, but she also intervenes to write the female into what is otherwise a predominantly masculine subject position and discourse as she firmly fixes the black female body in the “White City.” 

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