Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

In and Out of Touch : Fabricated Histories in Nella Larsen's Passing and James VanDerZee's Studio Portraiture

Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF


Attribute NameValues
  • Author Nella Larsen and photographer James VanDerZee are two of the most canonical figures of Harlem Renaissance studies, whose respective novels and portraits have been explored extensively, if separately, by scholars. Both Larsen's 1929 novel Passing and VanDerZee's studio portraiture of the 1920s and 1930s have been read in terms of black middle class values and the visuality of race, and Passing in particular has spurred illuminating discussions on the intersections between race, visuality and sexuality embedded in its narrative. Yet these modes of reading, however attentive to detail, tend to translate close readings into major critical conversations of race, gender, sexuality and class. This project offers an alternative methodology that foregrounds the surprising formalistic textures in Larsen's and VanDerZee's works. These inconsistencies are integral to the texts and the histories they reference, but are at risk of being smoothed over by both uplift values that mine a static notion of the past to project a single vision of the future, as well as critical readings that try to uncover "meaning" rather than attune to the dynamism of the text's composition. Through an unlikely pairing of bourgeois narratives with a queer theoretical genealogy, I trace what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls "middle ranges of agency"--moving moments rather than momentous movements--to recognize the ways that these texts are both products of the Harlem Renaissance and invested in more personal relationships that might exist alongside and in collision with well-intended but singular notions of progress and prosperity. Specifically, I close read traces of Larsen's and VanDerZee's craft--including but not limited to physical correspondence, corporeal language and photo processing manipulations--to illuminate how touch operates through different forms to rearrange normative notions of progress, and how contact manifests physically, emotionally and temporally to produce moments where curiosity, uncertainty or imagination interrupt naturalized ideologies that shape collective histories.
Resource Type
Date Available
Date Issued
Degree Level
Degree Name
Degree Field
Degree Grantor
Commencement Year
Committee Member
Academic Affiliation
Non-Academic Affiliation
Rights Statement
Peer Reviewed



This work has no parents.

In Collection: