Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Towards a Transformative Feminist Aesthetics: Antagonism, Commodification, and the “Racial Contract” in Larsen’s “Sanctuary”


Antagonistic Autonomy, or How to  Do Feminist Aesthetics with Adorno?  

My approach to feminist aesthetics in modernism takes as one point of departure an ongoing critical negotiation with Theodor Adorno’s theory of heteronomous autonomy of art in the context of feminism and race theory.[1] This approach is not without its risks, as it has to confront and struggle with the persisting racial and gender exclusions even in the more progressive Western intellectual traditions. By contesting these exclusions, I nonetheless claim that feminist engagements with Adorno have important implications for both feminist aesthetics and feminist interpretations of modernism. For Adorno, the heteronomous autonomy of modern artworks means that they are both independent from (autonomous) and complicit with (heteronomous) political/economic structures of power.[2] This limited autonomy of women’s artistic practices does not imply transcendence of the political but, on the contrary, is intertwined with antagonistic relations to power, which operate on the level of both content and formal innovation. The emancipatory possibilities of women’s art, which I defend against easy dismissals of aesthetics and art merely as instruments of domination, emerge (or fail to emerge) from these antagonisms. It seems to me that this antagonistic autonomy characteristic of both institutional position and particular literary practices is worth recalling in order to complicate feminist desires for reparative reading practices in the wake of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s formulation of this term.[3] First of all, the negative and reparative practices need not be mutually exclusive since the reparative, or what I would prefer to call transformative, potential of artworks often emerges from antagonistic relations. Indeed, as Paul Gilroy argues, “the hermeneutics of suspicion” is a necessary element of what he calls “a redemptive critique.”[4] Second, the emancipatory/reparative potential of art coexists with its complicity with the changing forms of power. Such complicity manifests itself, for instance, in the unjust division of labor, racism and gender hierarchies shaping any artistic practice from both within and without, as well as in the commodification of art and racialized, gendered bodies. Even the most progressive feminist artistic and interpretative practices are marked by the exclusions of those who are prevented from participating in such practices by poverty, lack of access to education, and the multiple damages inflicted by white supremacy, homophobia, and imperialism.

Another implication of Adorno’s aesthetics that I still find helpful for feminist approaches to modernism, particularly in the context of the debates about formalisms old and new, lies in his famous claim that formal experimentation in literary works dialectically responds to historical/political antagonisms, which for me (in contrast to Adorno) include the antagonisms of race and gender as well as of labor. This is indeed one aspect of what Anne E. Fernald calls in her essay in this cluster a “mediated” character of literature, which transforms the historical world as well as female subjectivities. By reflecting the antagonistic relation to domination, the mutually constitutive relation between the form and the content of the artwork also witnesses the disavowed historical disasters and suffering, as Cherene Sherrard-Johnson so eloquently notes in relation to black feminist theatrical performance during the Harlem Renaissance. However, which conflicts a particular work of art addresses and how these antagonisms and suffering are materialized within its singular composition cannot be determined in advance either by a theoretical debate or by the “application” of feminist theories to literature. On the contrary, any creative feminist interpretation always struggles with the disjunction between a close engagement with a singular artwork—its aesthetic and historical specificity—and the more general philosophical and historical questions pertaining to feminist understanding of aesthetic practice, modes of reading, political antagonisms of race and gender, literary traditions, genealogies of power, and so forth.

Such a feminist reconfiguration of Adorno’s heteronomous autonomy of art in the context of race and gender politics of modernism resonates with what Madelyn Detloff calls the unpredictable “methodologically impur[ity]” and the heterogeneity of feminist interpretations of modern literature. By interpreting alienation—mobilized by Detloff through crip and queer theories—in terms of women’s antagonistic art practices, feminist interpretations of modernism aim to recover again and again the excluded or reappropriated “spirit of freedom” emphasized by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, even if this freedom is entirely free from complicity with multiple dominations. Ultimately, it seems to me that what our multilayered feminist interventions into the field of modernism show is that this antagonistic “spirit of freedom” in feminist women’s artworks is paradoxically inseparable from double, or perhaps triple, acts of recovery: archival recovery of the excluded or forgotten feminist women’s writers; ongoing interpretive labor struggling to keep these writers relevant to the current debates in modernism; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, reclamation of the experimental aesthetic and political acts of revolt enacted by diverse aesthetic practices. Indeed, as Cherene Sherrard-Johnson persuasively argues, reclaiming “black feminist avant-garde aesthetic” is an “invigorating and transformative” act for feminist literary and political theory and critical race theory as well as for modernist studies, which perhaps stands most in need of such transformation.

Larsen Before the Law: Black Intertextuality or Plagiarism?

This short essay is just one feminist inquiry into the unexpected racial, literary, and gendered transformations that the theory of the heteronomous autonomy of aesthetics might undergo in the encounter with Nella Larsen’s 1930 short story “Sanctuary.” What this story diagnoses is a pervasive complicity of literary property rights with the racist criminality of the law and the violent cultural and bodily dispossession of African Americans. By exposing such criminality and loss, Larsen’s final literary experiment probes the extent to which literary acts of negation, transmission, and translation can provide a temporary refuge where alternative possibilities of justice and literature can be imagined. Even though Larsen’s experiment in “Sanctuary” is, I would claim, of the same magnitude as Kafka’s “Before the Law” (1915)—a parable that also questions the “force” of the law—it has failed to generate the same amount of literary, theoretical, and philosophical debates. This simple fact speaks volumes about persisting racial and gender segregations in our interpretative, philosophical, and aesthetic traditions.

Portrait of Nella Larsen (1930), Beinecke Digital Collections. 

Any feminist discussion of Larsen’s aesthetic experiment in “Sanctuary” has to begin with the scandal of plagiarism it provoked and Larsen’s response to this scandal. Larsen was accused of plagiarizing “Mrs. Adis” (1929), a story about the British working class by the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith, and literary critics have offered several explanations of the remarkable similarities between these two stories. These explanations focus on Larsen’s “photographic memory”; her literary suicide and the unconscious paranoid relation to her white mother; her daring or failed modernist experiments with primitivism, collage, racial masquerade; and double racist standards pertaining to modernists’ intertextual techniques of appropriation.[5] However, what have not been sufficiently addressed are the implications of the suspicion of plagiarism for oppositional feminist aesthetics: what does it tell us about the antagonistic literary practice of the established black female writer at the peak of her career vis-à-vis the racist and sexist politics of her time?[6]

In the context of aesthetics, the real scandal of plagiarism is the complicity of art with commodification, since it shows that aesthetic values, which are supposed to transcend the market, are in fact inseparable from literary property rights. By reducing the aesthetic relations between the artworks to the economic relations of private property, any accusation of plagiarism exposes the fact that artistic autonomy and private property are mutually intertwined. However, when a black female writer is accused of plagiarism it is not only the commodification of art and property rights that are at stake, but also the destruction of black literary and political authority.[7] Consequently, a feminist confrontation with the charge of plagiarism calls not only for Larsen’s exoneration but also for the contestation of the aesthetic and political values that support such an accusation. How can we rethink an aesthetic relationship between the texts of two female authors, white and black, outside the paradigm of literary theft? Such rethinking is especially needed because both of these texts, despite their significant political and aesthetic differences, contest private property, expose its relation to death, and question the possibility of justice on the level of their respective plots.[8]

Such reformulation of intertextual relationships outside the model of individual property was at stake in poststructuralist and African American theories of intertextuality in the 1980s. Although, as B. J. Leggett writes, there is no unified theory of intertextuality, nonetheless the very term departs from the network of legal, aesthetic, and economic relations of ownership, property, and originality.[9] By rendering accusations of plagiarism inoperative, both black and white theories of intertextuality stress the fundamental interdependence of artworks on multiple cultural practices, whether by these we mean other texts (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michael Riffaterre) or broader anonymous discursive practices of a given culture and literary tradition (Gates, Jonathan Culler). In other words, what plagiarism designates as a “crime,” intertextuality transforms into a “law” of artistic production.

In Larsen’s case, however, these reversals between legality and criminality of artistic production have bigger stakes because they put on trial not only the legitimacy of literary acts but also the racist criminality of the law. Given Larsen’s concern with the criminality of the law, it is not surprising that her practice of black female intertextuality is characterized by oppositional force. Indeed, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues in his classic theory of African-American intertextuality, black literary practices negotiate between the negative, oppositional stance to racist culture and the expression of the specificity (or autonomy in Adorno’s terms) of black idioms, such as “signifyin(g),” for which negativity alone fails to account (Figures in Black, xxxii). The antagonistic aspect of black intertextuality performs the “negation of the negation,” that is, the negation of the racist claims about purported inferiority or the absence of black artistic traditions perpetuated since David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Historically, what has been at stake in such negation of “the two and a half millennia of . . . [the] figuration of [black literature] as an absence” is the assertion of black cultural and political authority, the expression of “the will to power as the will to write” (53, 48). While historically necessary, however, such negativity alone, according to Gates, fails to account for the specificity of the “black idiom.”

In the context of Larsen’s “Sanctuary” the specificity of “black idiom” refers most strikingly to black dialect and folk traditions, which are otherwise absent from her texts. On both sides of the Atlantic oral traditions explored within modernism are viewed as antithetical to the laws of literary private property. For Walter Benjamin, for example, what undermines literary property is the common creation and the transmission of stories; thus what constitutes “the perfect narrative” is not the original but, on the contrary, multiple anonymous “layers of a variety of retellings.”[10] Focusing specifically on black oral tradition, Zora Neale Hurston in her famous essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression” suggests a more antagonistic model of linguistic performativity contesting the imitation/originality binary. For Hurston, it is the “drama” and “action” of African-American dialect that stages the antagonistic “meeting of two opponents,” which in turn transforms English language into the “hieroglyphics” of African-American expression: “white man thinks in a written language and the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics.”[11]  For Gates this antagonism staged by black dialect is also intertwined with the impossible translation of the lost original: “Afro-American dialects exist between two poles, one English and one lost in some mythical linguistic kingdom irrecoverable. Dialect is our only key to that unknown tongue.” By performing “African antithesis” of the Standard English, this act of translation without the original preserves the memory traces of linguistic dispossession (Figures in Black, 172).

Larsen’s Genealogy of Black Female Aesthetics

The antagonistic relation to the racist criminality of the law, the transmission of black female oral and written traditions, and finally the role of dialect, which preserves the traces of the immemorial past and historical trauma, are all key elements of both “Sanctuary” and Larsen’s written response to the suspicions of plagiarism. In “Sanctuary,” robbery and accidental homicide figure as the symbolic exclusion of blackness from the white political fraternity legitimated by the law. Without knowing that he has just killed his best friend, Obadiah, Jim Hammer flees from the white law and seeks refuge at the house of Obadiah’s mother, Aunt Poole. Even when she learns that Jim is the killer of her son, Aunt Poole does not turn him in because she does not believe that the law can deliver justice to black people. This distrust of the law is further augmented in Larsen’s text by the historical genealogy of racist violence sanctioned by the law, ranging from the trauma of slavery to the contemporary genocidal violence accompanying the production of natural rubber, the raw material for the manufacturing of the car tires at the new tire factory, where the robbery and the fatal killing of Obadiah takes place.

In her explanation written to Forum, the journal where “Sanctuary” was originally published, Larsen cites two sources for “Sanctuary”: one of them is black folklore; and the other one is the former patient, Mrs. Christopher, who tells another version of the story of a black woman shielding the accidental killer, a young black man, from the white law. As Larsen explains, the story of the black mother sheltering the killer of her kin—father, son, uncle or any other relative—had so many variations that it belonged to “almost folklore.”[12] Although this particular tale has not been found in any folklore, nonetheless Larsen’s claim is crucial because it is calls our attention to the acts of negation and translation performed by dialect in “Sanctuary.” By suggesting that the unlocatable source of her short story recedes to an immemorial past of an “almost folklore,” Larsen experiments with variations and radical changes of the meaning of art, crime, justice, and kinship once virtually the same narrative plot—a mother sheltering the killer of her son from the law—undergoes multiple trans-Atlantic displacements.[13] We are asked to speculate about the possible ways this paradigmatic black oral tale could have been transmitted to and reappropriated by the white female writer in order to illuminate class conflict in modern Britain. Then we are compelled to consider the radical change of the relations between law, race and gender once the traces of black oral tradition in the white woman’s text are transposed back from the rural Britain to the American South, from white working class to the history of anti-black racism, translated from English to black dialect, and, as Hildegard Hoeller argues, from nineteenth-century realism to twentieth-century modernism.[14]

If we read “The Author's Explanation” not only as the explication of the “sources” of “Sanctuary” but as Larsen’s parable of black female aesthetics, then the complex genealogy of this aesthetics opposes translation and transmissibility to literary property and shows that these aesthetic oppositions are deeply implicated in racial antagonism and black female solidarity, Collective creation of “almost folklore” goes hand in hand with the notion of black solidarity embodied in Larsen’s figure of the old black female storyteller, represented by Mrs. Christopher, and “her oft-repeated convictions were that if the Negro race would only stick together, we might get somewhere someday, and that what the white folks didn’t know about us wouldn’t hurt us” (“The Author’s Explanation,” 157). Thus racial solidarity is inseparable from the antagonistic force of black story-telling, which in Larsen’s parable contests the racial and gender neutrality of the law and shows the impossibility of justice in the hospital—a kind of microcosm of all other American institutions, including literary and legal institutions—where supervisors and doctors are white and the nurses and patients black. In fact the most important element in Larsen’s parable is the distrust of the legal apparatus, which is implicated in institutional racism and therefore constitutes an instrument of further harm for the most vulnerable population—black patients—rather than a source of justice.

In Larsen’s genealogy of black female aesthetics, plagiarism has to be rethought as one of the unexpected manifestations of the racist criminality of the legal apparatus. Underlying the aesthetic, economic and political laws of property, racial violence is implicated not only in the commodification of art but also in the atrocities of slavery, the theft of land and bodies, and the massacres of indigenous peoples. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the criminality of the law is inscribed in the often forgotten etymology of the word “plagiarism.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “plagiarism” is derived from the Latin plagiarius, which means “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer, the one who kidnaps the child or slave of another,” and perhaps from “root *plak- (1) ‘to be flat’ [see placenta].”[15] What this uncanny etymology of plagiarism bears witness to is that literary property rights are implicated in the disasters of slavery and kidnapping as well as in the suppression of the remote traces of the maternal. The criminality of the law disclosed by the etymology of plagiarism and Larsen’s genealogy of black aesthetics bears a close resemblance to what the African American philosopher Charles Mills theorizes as the racial contract. As Mills argues, the racial contract legitimates the racist violence of the law by restricting rights, freedom and equality to white men alone and by perpetuating an epistemology of ignorance that allows the privileged groups to disregard systemic domination. Reinforced by ignorance, this exclusion from the law creates in turn a social ontology based on the hierarchy between white persons endowed with rights and racialized sub-persons deprived of citizenship.[16]

Racial Contract and Larsen’s Creation of a Feminist Sanctuary

In “Sanctuary” the contestation of the criminality of law, racial contract and epistemology of ignorance that legitimates it is dramatized first of all on the level of language, by the disjunction between the Standard English of the narrator and the black dialect of the main characters. Larsen’s unusual use of dialect can be read as the negation of what Zora Neale Hurston calls the abstraction of English language, which for Hurston is analogous to the abstraction of money (“Negro Expression,” 830). However, in “Sanctuary” dialect can also be read as the exposure and the contestation of the racial contract on the level of language, characters, and dialogue. Consider, for example, the exchange between Jim Hammer and Aunt Poole at the key moment of the narrative when she decides to shelter him from the white law: “[A] look of irony, of cunning, of complicity passed over her face. . . . ‘Still, ’siderin’ all an’ all, how Obadiah’s right fon’ o’ you, an’ how white folks is white folks, Ah’m a-gwine hide you dis one time.”[17]

What kind of “cunning,” “irony” and, “complicity” is at stake in these linguistic exchanges? On the level of the conflict between characters, Aunt Poole overcomes her personal aversion to Jim not only because she honors her son’s friendship but more significantly because she feels far greater distrust of the white folks and their law. On the level of language, the contrast between the Standard English of the third-person narrator and the dialect of black characters pits the acts of solidarity even among antagonistic black speakers against the hegemonic language of law, state and literature. Dialect marks the sonic/linguistic difference between the letter of the law and the speech of the black characters opposed to that law. And it is in dialect that the opposition between white folks, law, and black folks is doubly expressed, both through the convictions of the characters and through linguistic form: “An’ Ah’m a-tellin’ you ef dey warn’t white folks an’ you a po’niggah . . . Ef de Lawd had gib you a white face ’stead o’ dat dere black one, Ah shuah would turn you out” (Larsen, “Sanctuary,” 23–24). By exposing and disrupting the analogy between language, money (associated primarily with the tire factory), and the racial contract, the action of dialect in “Sanctuary,” reinforced by the judgment of the black mother, reveals the murderous violence that makes law operative: it bears witness to what Gates calls “an oral remnant of slavery” and the traces of “a white parody of black sentiment” in minstrelsy (Figures in Black, 182, 180). In “Sanctuary,” the struggle with minstrelsy is evoked through the bitterly ironic signifying on the key figure of “the black face”—at once a signifier of racial authenticity, solidarity, and a trope of the degradation of black culture in minstrel shows. By contrast, the traumatic traces of slavery are conveyed by the juxtaposition of the visual remnants of the plantation economy inscribed in the very first sentence of the story—“old fields of ruined plantations”—and the sonic expression of the maternal pain: “Obadiah, chile . . . He ain’t daid, is he? Mistah Lowndes! Obadiah, he ain’t daid?” (Larsen, “Sanctuary,” 21, 25–26).

By exposing the genealogical formation and the contemporary racist violence of the law, Larsen’s linguistic experiment in “Sanctuary” poses a question about the possibilities and limitations of literary practices in relation to the racial contract. At the core of her experiment is the relation between theft and death, ownership and dehumanization, in the racist history of American letters. Hortense Spillers calls these crimes the “primary narrative” of African-American history, in which the theft of bodies and social death of slavery are indistinguishable: “the socio-political order of the New World . . . with its human sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples the scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile . . . [and] a theft of the body.”[18] The stolen bodies become severed from their names (for instance, Jim Hammer’s name makes him indistinguishable from a tool), kinships, political and cultural belonging. This “primary narrative” of the brutalized flesh, the traces of which are preserved in the “hieroglyphics” of the dialect and in the ruin of the landscape, is precisely what constitutes the main intertextual framework for “Sanctuary.”

This primary intertextuality situates Larsen’s literary experiment in relation to a tragic double contradiction of the racial contract. The first contradiction shows that crimes of robbery and homicide both break the law and reveal the violence of the racial contract, which makes the law operate. Because the law itself is a tool of racist violence, it makes justice impossible. The second contradiction points to the impossible position of the black mother, who is subjected to both racist and sexual violence. According to Spillers, the black mother recalls the still enduring trauma of the matrilineal descent of slave law, which did not recognize black kinship and yet claimed that the child followed the condition of the mother. Through this superimposition of the racial and the homosocial contracts, the black mother is placed outside the law of the white father, excluded from both kinship and political citizenship. As Spillers points out, however, this double historical dispossession of black motherhood is reversed in the white racist imaginary into the “pathological” power of the black mother, who is blamed for the destruction of the black family (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 66). In “Sanctuary,” this “pathological” power of the black mother is evoked through the associations with incestuous sexuality—it is not by accident that Aunt Poole hides Jim in her own bed, which he pollutes with his dirty presence. At the same time, however, this maternal power reclaimed as the source of the antagonistic and inventive possibilities of black female aesthetics.

Because within the racial and homosocial contract law itself is an instrument of violence, the oppositional aesthetic in “Sanctuary” both contests this contract and explores possibilities of literary/political existence outside the law. Needless to say, it is a dangerous experiment, because being outside the law constitutes what Giorgio Agamben calls, in a different context, a state of exception and extreme danger.[19] However, deprived of full citizenship, racialized subjects inhabit a permanent state of exception, in which they are exposed to brutality and murderous violence without recourse to justice. In this context, Larsen envisions an impossible role of a black literary practice: can such practice transform violent exception, which for racialized subjects becomes a norm of everyday life, into at least a temporary refuge? As the title of her story suggests, in order to perform such an impossible transformation, her text draws upon another legal/political tradition of the exception to the law, which, instead of violence, offers a possibility of a sanctuary and associates it with the power of black motherhood. In contrast to the expulsion from the protection of the law, authorized by the racial contract, the maternal sanctuary provides protection from the criminality of the law for fugitives and non-fugitives alike. By pitting these antithetical meanings of being outside the law—the sanctuary and the state of exception—against each other, Larsen’s text transform the racialized exclusion from citizenship into refuge.

In so doing, the literary act in “Sanctuary” usurps and suspends the central prerogative of sovereignty, namely the sovereign decision on the state of exception or the state of emergency, in which laws are suspended.[20] In the American political context, this prerogative of sovereignty is, according to Mills, coextensive with white supremacy. Operating within the racial contract, sovereignty not only exercises the right over life and death and suspends the law in the state of emergency, but also establishes and reinforces the division between citizens and racialized sub-persons, between political life and social death. In Larsen’s story, however, this sovereign decision is mimicked and usurped by the black mother of the dead son, who offers sanctuary to the fugitive from the law. Such literary negation and mimicry of sovereignty allows black femininity to claim, or perhaps invent, a different meaning of political/cultural authority. By undermining sovereignty and literary property alike, the political authority of the black mother and the literary authority of Larsen’s own story emerge instead from her audacious acts of translation of the available standard English legal and literary discourses into the hieroglyphics of past traumas and a promise of a different future.

In the confrontation with the epistemology of ignorance, which reinforces overwhelming brutality of the racial contract, it is perhaps the role of literary practice to excavate and retranslate the violent founding fictions of politics and aesthetics, such as the racial contract and literary property. Complicit with each other, these violent fictions are nonetheless operative, damaging, and determining the limits of the possible. In Larsen’s case, aesthetic acts of negation, mimicry, and translation invent a kind of sanctuary, where counterfactual, and perhaps still impossible, political relations, literary practices, and alternative modes of belonging can be imagined.


[1] See for example, Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 4–14, 42–56, and “Feminist Aesthetics: Transformative Practice, Neoliberalism, and the Violence of Formalism,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 25, no. 2 (2014): 101–115

[2] Theodore W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 1–8, 225–28.

[3] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feelings: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–51.

[4] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 71.

[5] Charles R. Larson, Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 98; Beverly Haviland, “Passing from Paranoia to Plagiarism: The Abject Authorship of Nella Larsen,” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 2 (1997) 295–318; Hildegard Hoeller, “Race, Modernism, and Plagiarism: The Case of Nella Larsen's ‘Sanctuary’,” African American Review 40, no. 3 (2006): 421–37;  see also Kelli A. Larson, “Surviving the Taint of Plagiarism: Nella Larsen's ‘Sanctuary’ and Sheila Kaye-Smith’s ‘Mrs. Adis,’” Journal of Modern Literature 30, no. 4 (2007): 82–104.

[6] For Hoeller, Larsen's “Sanctuary” is “a piece of black activist art” in so far as it contests the rules of plagiarism and originality (434); for Kelli A. Larson, Larsen challenges the dehumanization of black people (99).

[7] For the historical genealogy and the critique of the correlation of black artistic excellence and black political authority, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 3–60.

[8] In “Mrs. Adis,” the main character, a “poacher,” catches illegally a rabbit and, in a flight from the “keepers,” accidentally kills his friend, Tom, who is Mrs. Adis’s son.  Not knowing whom he killed, he seeks refuge at Mrs. Adis’s house.  Despite the similarity of the plots, the title of Kaye-Smith’s story places more emphasis on the mother sheltering the killer of her son, whereas, Larsen’s title directs readers’ attention to the flight and the protection of the law.

[9] For a useful introduction to different theories of intertextuality in the context of modernist poetry, see B. J. Leggett, Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 20–21.

[10] Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83–110, 93.

[11] Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Library of America, 1995), 830–74, 831. The rich debate about Hurston and about black dialect is beyond the scope of this essay.

[12] Nella Larsen, “The Author's Explanation,Forum, Supplement 4, no. 83 (April 1930), 41–42. Reprinted in Nella Larsen, Passing: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, ed. Carla Kaplan (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 157–58.

[13] For an insightful analysis of the theft of freedom in the context of transatlantic history of oppression in  Larsen’s story, see Laura Doyle, Freedom’s Empire: Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640–1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 409–12.

[14] As Hoeller argues in “Race, Modernism, and Plagiarism,” “Mrs. Adis” belongs to “19th-century realist regionalism,” whereas “Sanctuary” exposes modernist “assumptions about originality, authenticity, and authorship” (430, 433).

[15] Online Etymology Dictionary, November 2015, s.v., “plagiarism (n.)”

[16] Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 9–19.

[17] Nella Larsen, “Sanctuary,” Forum 83 (January 1930): 15–18. Reprinted in An Intimation of Things Distant: The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen, ed. Charles R. Larson (New York: Anchor Books, 1992) 19–27, 23.

[18] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64–81, 67. Emphases omitted.

[19]  Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 71–74.

[20] See Agamben, Homo Sacer, 15–29.