Passing is an incredible novel—Larsen is a very fine, keen, acute observer and a very subtle writer. The first few chapters in particular are perfectly handled; the movements in time are exquisitely executed for maximum effect. Her characters are strongly drawn, made to appear complex with a great economy of action and gesture. Her minor characters are especially vivid—Brian Redfield, the husband of the protagonist Irene; Felise Freeland, a brilliant and glamorous Harlem writer; Hugh Wentworth, the explorer/writer who's "lived on the edges of nowehere in at least three continents." These are people you like to hear speak, an achievement which is more consequential in a novel like this—that is, one that relies on subtlety to create melodrama—than even the creation of a well-balanced and finely wrought plot.
The mechanism of the story is beautifully precise, though; the springs and levers of action and reaction work in total harmony. If the broad trajectory of the plot seems obvious, its suspense is deftly localized scene by scene. Clare Kendry, the woman who is passing in the book, is a triumphant creation: a figure that seems to act on everything she comes in contact with. She is a presence and a performance, and the drama of her passing is magnetic and elusive, overwrought and coy. She is the second great dreamer of the Jazz Age, comparable only to Gatsby.
I would, however, like to compare her instead to a character created a mere three years after Passing's release. I don't mean to suggest an actual causal or inspirational link, or even to suggest that Larsen and Siegel/Shuster were responding to the same cultural impulses or conditions, but I am sort of electrified by the graphical similarity of the names Clare Kendry and Clark Kent.
I probably would not have noticed this little triviality if I had not recently (finally) gotten around to reading Elif Batuman's excellent essay on graphic novels in the London Review of Books from last April. The essay is extraordinarily insightful on a very large number of points, but I was particularly interested in her analysis of the relation between the capacity of the superhero to attain and maintain dual identities (Clark Kent/Superman, etc.) and the desire for assimilation or at least the desire for less identity-related restrictions held by the mostly Jewish writers of superhero comics. More bluntly, she says "the story of the superhero’s double identity is actually the story of American Jewish assimilation." She does some exceedingly interesting things with this idea, taking us back to Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories for an earlier (though not too much earlier) version of a Jewish tale of schlemiehl/übermensch dual identities, and bringing us to the present, where many non-Jews, particularly many Asian Americans like Adrian Tomine, now take the tropes and patterns of the stories of Jewish assimilation as their templates for new works about their own (often frustrated) attempts to assimilate.
Batuman doesn't specifically identify "passing" as an issue in any of this, though she does point out via a series of parentheticals that most Jewish comic book writers dropped their Jewish surnames for more "American" versions. In Grace Paley's short story "The Contest," however, this practice and related practices are more directly characterized as attempts to pass for Gentiles: the titular contest is a newspaper competition to figure out the names and professions of a hundred Jews, using a picture and two descriptions to identify them. The narrator remarks, "What's the idea, though? To uncover the ones that've been passing?" This isn't the idea, but nonetheless it isn't beside the point: "Peering over her shoulder, I would sometimes discover a three-quarter view of a newsworthy Jew or a full view of a half Jew. The fraction did not interfere with the rules. They were glad to extract him and be proud."
Batuman's account of the development of dual identities as a narrative technique is very good—"As both mythical hero and romantic-novelistic hero, Superman occupies two mutually exclusive kinds of time." These two mutually exclusive kinds of time are crucial to the nearly infinite deferral of "real" temporality—aging, etc.—that allows a character or group of characters to persist through the decades in roughly the same shape.
Yet the lack of consideration to the role of passing in all of this deprives this account of its real force: the tension of these narratives is precisely founded on the drama of passing; it is only because of the persistence of this drama that the story line can extend so long without complete attenuation. It is only because Superman must continue to "pass" as Clark Kent, it is only the non-resolution of this dilemma that allows the character to continue in a single form without any franchise "reboots" or "restarts." The drama of passing is the equivalent of unresolved romantic/sexual tension (in fact, it is also romantic/sexual tension) in a sit-com like "Friends." Once Superman is able to reduce his identities to a single "true" identity, the franchise loses steam and needs a restart or a re-imagining. Yet this reduction is always the goal of the superhero; the ability to assimilate and drop the "passing" identity is, even more than any conflict with a supervillain, more even than any interior conflict, the ultimate resolution of the superhero story. The narrative hopes to resolve itself in a new world that accepts the superhero completely, that obviates the need to pass.
The ultimate resolution of narratives of racial passing is not, however, usually about obviating the need to pass. Such a hope is simply too utopian for a realist narrative, melodramatic as it may become. What replaces this hope is typically a resolution consisting of a limited revelation of the "true" identity to one or a few other people. In Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator reveals the truth of his race to his white wife. In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk's death reveals to Zuckerman the truth of his background. This limited revelation is what the character hopes for and what the plot is constantly building toward, positioning the character incrementally in such a fashion that they achieve a situation where they can reveal their true identity to someone else. (This is a separate goal from what the novel hopes to achieve, which is, by the fact of publication, a general revelation. In this case, the novel and the story it tells diverge.)
Yet what is the "true" identity? Is it really about the fact that the character is of another race, or is it about the fact that the character has been "passing?" I think it is the latter—the character's primary identity, now revealed, is not that he is "black" but that he has been "passing." These identities are difficult to separate, but I think if we compare Larsen's novel to these other novels about "passing," we can see the distinction.
Clare Kendry does not try to keep her identities merged permanently; in fact, she selectively flaunts her interraciality, attending mixed-race parties in Harlem where she can display the ambiguity of her appearance to fullest effect. She does not attempt to avoid people who know her "secret;"in fact, she makes Irene a frequent accessory to her "passing." She surrounds herself with a racially open society that accepts her interraciality with little more than curiosity. The drama is not that she will be found out as a "passer" by society—she actively courts that. The danger of her actions is instead focused in the possibility that her virulently racist husband will find out that she is, indeed, a black woman.
In fact, the ultimate danger of her actions is that her black friends will come to see her as not interracial, but exclusively black; Irene's fears that her husband, who has professed to liking only darker women, will come to see Clare as a black woman— as dark enough—are what actually cause Clare's death. (I know the ending is ambiguous, but I think there's a clear enough weight to Irene's actions to establish my reading as valid.)
Let's contrast this with a more typical narrative of "passing," like Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, where the danger is not that individuals will see the narrator as a black man, but that society will find out that he is "passing." In fact, at the beginning of the story, when as a child he is unaware that he is black but the individuals around him—his teacher and classmates—are aware, he is still relatively free from the dangers that he faces when he begins "passing." (The narrator faces threats and hardships as he tries at first to achieve as a black man, but the narrative's tension derives exclusively from the constant possibility that he will be "found out" once he starts passing.)
So in a sense, I find that Clare Kendry is more like a superhero than she is like James Weldon Johnson's narrator. The superhero's vulnerability is rarely ever that society will discover that they are "passing;" the danger is that an individual will exploit the fact of their dual identity—threatening the ones they love or preventing them from operating freely. The fact that Batman or Spiderman or even Superman must have a separate existence—that some of the time, they are doing non-superhero things—is usually (I think) understood by the society they live in and by the villains they face. The peril is that this general knowledge will become specific knowledge—that their fluid alternate identity will be attached to a specific person with real attachments and direct consequences. Spiderman will be revealed not just as having a vague alternate identity, but as Peter Parker, and his aunt and Mary Jane will be targeted or threatened. The question "Who is Batman?" will be answered.
Nella Larsen's novel is, I think, a very interesting if surprising interlocutor for superhero comics. However—and in this exception lies Larsen's greatest triumph—unlike superhero comics, Larsen is able to make the question "Who is Clare Kendry?" ultimately unanswerable.