In the late 1920s, Nella Larsen emerged as one of the leading literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Larsen's novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) are formally sophisticated and psychologically subtle analyses of US racial ideology that also explore issues of class, gender, and sexuality. As the Renaissance waned in the early 1930s, Larsen withdrew from the literary scene and never published another novel. Her slim body of work largely disappeared from American literary history until the 1970s and 1980s, when it was rediscovered by black feminist critics who claimed Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston as literary fore-mothers for a new wave of African American women writers.
Nella Larsen – or Nellie Walker, as she was named on her birth certificate – was born in Chicago in April 1891 to immigrant parents: Mary Hansen, a dressmaker from Denmark, and Peter Walker, a black man from the Danish West Indies. Larsen's biographer George Hutchinson (2006) notes that, as Danish-speaking immigrants, Nellie's parents may not have fully understood the power of the taboo against miscegenation in the United States. When Walker died during Nellie's infancy, Hansen married a fellow Danish immigrant called Peter Larsen. However, Nellie's presence in the Larsen household was a hindrance to the family's chances of assimilating into mainstream society, and in 1907 she was sent to the all-black Fisk Normal School in Nashville. These traumatic events would inform the semiautobiographical Quicksand, in which the biracial protagonist, Helga Crane, is rejected by her white stepfamily and sent to a “school for Negroes” in the South – the start of Helga's lifelong and peripatetic struggle with US racial classifications.
Throughout her literary career, Larsen repeatedly stated that from about the age of 16, she spent three or four years living in Denmark. Though earlier biographers cast doubt on these claims, Hutchinson (2006) has provided conclusive evidence that Larsen visited Denmark at least twice in her childhood: in 1898 and again in 1909, shortly after she was expelled from Fisk. The likelihood that Larsen lived in Denmark for some time between 1908 and 1912 helps explain the remarkable veracity of Quicksand's portrait of Copenhagen after Helga Crane escapes US racial ideology by visiting her mother's family in Denmark.
In 1912, Larsen began training as a nurse in New York. In 1915, she had a fraught spell as head nurse at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This experience too informed Quicksand, which opens with a biting portrait of Helga's experiences of teaching at “Naxos,” a thinly disguised fictional double of Tuskegee. In 1920, Larsen published her first pieces of writing in the NAACP's Brownies' Book: both “Three Scandinavian Games” and “Danish Fun” drew on her Danish cultural heritage. As the Harlem Renaissance gathered steam, Larsen began to play a minor role through her new job as a librarian at Harlem's 135th Street branch.
In 1925, Larsen became friends with Carl Van Vechten, the celebrated white writer who in 1926 published the hugely controversial Nigger Heaven (one of that novel's central characters, Mary Love, is a librarian at Harlem's 135th Street branch). Van Vechten helped Larsen place Quicksand with Alfred Knopf, who published the novel in March 1928. Though some reviewers worried that Helga Crane was an unsuitable representation of black womanhood, others expressed a moral preference for Quicksand over Home to Harlem (1928), Claude McKay's recent and sensational novel about lower-class black life. W. E. B. Du Bois declared that Quicksand was the best African American novel since the heyday of Charles Chesnutt.
Larsen's second novel, Passing, opens with a surprise reunion between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two old friends who are “passing” as white: Irene only occasionally, Clare more completely as the wife of a white (and racist) businessman. Yet neither woman is identified as “black” until some way into the second chapter of Passing. This daring deferral of revelation challenges readers to consider the role of racial classifications in American society. Throughout Passing, Larsen mediates the reader's perception of events through the unreliable perspective of Irene Redfield. Irene's view of and relationship with Clare become increasingly unstable, eventually leading to a dramatic but ambiguous denouement in which Clare dies – probably by Irene's hand. If Passing examines the anxieties and absurdities of racial identity, it also explores class tension and sexuality. Irene is a member of Harlem's burgeoning black middle class, and is primly offended by Clare's transformation from the daughter of a poor mixed-race janitor to the flamboyant and flirtatious wife of a wealthy white man. However, as Deborah McDowell (1986) has observed, there is also a barely repressed sexual attraction between Irene and Clare.
In early 1930, Larsen's flourishing reputation was damaged when she was accused of plagiarizing the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith in a short story called “Sanctuary.” Though some scholars have argued that the plagiarism scandal destroyed Larsen's confidence and career, she continued to work on a third novel, and in March 1930 won a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Europe. More damaging was Larsen's 1933 divorce from physicist Elmer Imes (Elmer had been having an affair with a white woman). By 1937, Larsen had cut off contact with literary friends like Van Vechten; she never published again. In 1944, Larsen returned to nursing, working in two New York hospitals until she retired in 1963. She died in her apartment in March 1964.
Since the 1970s, Quicksand and Passing have reached a much wider audience than in Larsen's lifetime. Larsen is now widely regarded as not only the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but also an important figure in American modernism, and a pioneer analyst of biracial identity across what Du Bois termed “the color line.”
SEE ALSO: Du Bois, W. E. B. (AF); Ethnicity and Fiction (AF); The Harlem Renaissance (AF); Hurston, Zora Neale (AF); McKay, Claude (AF); Modernist Fiction (AF); Naturalist Fiction (AF); Van Vechten, Carl (AF)
- Quicksand. New York: Knopf. (1928).
- Passing. New York: Knopf. (1929).
- The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: “Passing,” “Quicksand,” and the Stories (ed. Larson, C. ). New York: Anchor. (2001).
- In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line. Cambridge, MA: Belknap. (2006).
- Introduction. In Larsen, N. , “Quicksand” and “Passing.” New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. xxiii-xxx. (1986).
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