At 90, Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) remains a deeply relevant novel for today’s readers. Yet, as Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s prescient quote suggests, Passing’s meaning, from its publication date onward, was never stable or concrete. In fact, the novel’s very brilliance, with its designed ambiguity and invitation for interpretation, has been its capacity to mean a myriad of things to a myriad of readers, now for almost a century. The history of Passing—or the story of Larsen’s story—then is its own compelling and instructive narrative, as each successive generation has actively and even literally projected its own needs, desires, and anxieties upon Larsen’s groundbreaking work. As a result, Passing’s history, with its radical swings in reception and reputation, has been as remarkable as that of any work in American literature. Over the past nine decades, Passing has gone from critically acclaimed (late 1920s) to totally obscure and out-of-print (1930-1969) to socially relevant but underappreciated (1970s-early 1980s) to massively significant and canonized (mid-1980s-present). Today Larsen’s novel is considered a landmark work in the fields of African American and American literature, feminism, queer studies, modernism, interracial literature, and the history of American race. Hundreds of books, scholarly articles, and dissertations have taken the novel as their focus. Yet, even within Larsen’s own compact catalogue, Passing has never held a fixed role. In the essay that follows, I will trace the rich history of Larsen’s novel, arguing that this record of publication and reading provides us with critical insight not just into the shifting interpretation of an important novel but also into how America has understood—and continues to understand, and will continue to understand—race, gender, sexuality, and ultimately, those who do not easily fit into its prescriptive categories.




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