Unsettled intimacies: revisiting Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country through Nella Larsen’s Quicksand
Scholars have highlighted Nella Larsen’s textual interventions into aspects of Edith Wharton’s major works. The interventions, they claim, not only unmask Wharton’s pointed operations of erasure against people of color but, in some cases, showcase her racism. None of these works, however, devote critical analysis to the interventions staged in Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913), the novel that, I argue, is her most definitive statement on the role of market-based capitalism on the fate of Western civilization. Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) shares many of Custom’s thematic concerns. Though writing from different class and racial perspectives, both writers must account for the social developments that spilled over from the previous century to articulate their implications for their heroines in terms of marriage, family, work, divorce, sex, and race relations on a trans-Atlantic scale. However, given that Custom almost entirely elides the presence of people of color, assessing it alongside Quicksand animates the specter of colonialism that haunts the text, inviting us to remember why not all bodies, as M. Jacqui Alexander argues in “Not Just (Any) Body Can Be a Citizen,” can be imagined as naturalized citizen subjects within the rubric of modern capitalism.
Keywords: Nella Larsen, Edith Wharton, colonialism, capitalism, motherhood, racism