Larsen, Nella 1891-1964
Nella Larsen 1891-1964
Novelist, nurse, librarian
When Nella Larsen’s two novels, Quicksand and Passing, were republished in 1986 after decades of literary neglect, editor Deborah E. McDowell questioned “why a career with such auspicious beginnings had such an inauspicious ending.” Still, that Larsen passed into literary obscurity after earning a reputation as one of the most promising writers of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance should not be particularly surprising given the fate of other black American women writers. One need also consider Larsen’s own withdrawal from New York City’s literary and social life in the late 1930s.
Very little is known about Larsen’s early life. Arthur P. Davis, author of From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900–1960, suggested that Larsen was “the most elusive” of Harlem Renaissance writers. Mary Helen Washington, author of Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860–1960, has called her the “Mystery Woman of the Harlem Renaissance.” Because of Larsen’s reticence to reveal details about her life, an Amsterdam News interviewer labeled her “Madame X.” Larsen herself revealed only that she was born in 1901 in Chicago to a white Danish mother and a black Danish West Indian father who died when Larsen was very young. Larsen’s mother remarried, this time to a white man, and gave birth to another daughter.
Larsen and her white half-sister attended private schools in Chicago and associated mainly with other children of German and Scandinavian backgrounds. At some point during her childhood Larsen adopted her stepfather’s name. Some sources have suggested that Larsen became alienated from her family because she was a mulatta, or, of mixed heritage, and her step-father thus viewed her with “disfavor.”
The extensive research of author and Larsen scholar Thadious Davis, however, revealed that Larsen was born Nellie Walker in Chicago on April 13, 1891. Davis speculated that Larsen’s father, who was apparently light-skinned, did not die, but assumed a different name and remarried Larsen’s mother in order to live with their second daughter as a white family. But even Davis concluded that “the matter of Nella Larsen’s family is generally problematic.”
In her introduction to Quicksand and Passing, McDowell wrote that it was Larsen’s search “for a sense of
Born Nellie Marian Walker, April 13, 1891, in Chicago, IL; known variously as Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen, and Nella Larsen); daughter of Mary Hanson and Peter Walker; died of heart failure c. March 30,1964, in New York, NY; married Elmer Samuel Imes (a physicist), 1919 (divorced, 1933), Education: Attended University of Copenhagen, 1909–12; graduated from Lincoln School for Nurses, Bronx, NY, 1915; attended New York Public Library training school, 1921–23.
Superintendent of nurses, John A. Andrew Hospital and Nurse Training School, Tuskegee, AL, 1915–16; assistant superintendent of nurses, Lincoln Hospital, New York City, 1916–18; worked for New York City Department of Health, 1918–21; children’s librarian, New York Public Library, 1924–26; worked at Gouverneur Hospital, New York City, 1944–1961 ; worked at Metropolitan Hospital, New York City, 1961–64. Assistant secretary, Writers’ League Against Lynching.
Awards: Harmon Foundation Bronze Award for distinguished achievement among Negroes in literature, 1929, for Quicksand; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1930.
belonging” that led her first to an all-black southern environment, Fisk University’s Normal (High) School in 1907, and then to Copenhagen, Denmark, where she probably lived with her mother’s family while attending classes at the University of Copenhagen from 1909–1912. Washington noted that Larsen’s “racial ambivalence” was exemplified by her attempts “to negotiate two very separate worlds” and commented on Larsen’s simultaneous expressions of racial pride and detachment.
Except for a couple of brief periods, New York City became Larsen’s permanent home after her return from Denmark in 1912. There, in addition to her writing career, she worked alternately as a librarian and nurse. She entered New York’s Lincoln Hospital and Home Training for Nurses in 1912 and graduated three years later. After working as a head nurse at Tuskegee Institute for a year, Larsen returned to New York to become a supervising nurse at Lincoln School for Nurses; she married Elmer Samuel Imes, a physicist, in 1919.
By 1920, Larsen was a contributor to the children’s periodical Brownies Book, which had been conceived by Crisis literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset. In 1921 she began working as an assistant at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, and in 1922 she was accepted into the Library School of the New York Public Library; she received her certificate in June of 1923. Larsen’s work as a librarian at the 135th Street library; marriage to Imes; and associations with Fauset and white author and patron of black arts Carl Van Vechten; plunged her into the midst of the literary, artistic, and political activities of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand, was published by Knopf to enthusiastic reviews in 1928. In a Crisis review, educator, editor, and writer W. E. B. Du Bois called it the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of [Charles] Chesnutt,” and From the Dark Tower author Davis considered the character of Helga Crane the “most intriguing and complex character in [Harlem] Renaissance fiction.” In many ways, Quicksand combines autobiography and fiction to produce what Jacquelyn Y. McLendon, contributor to African American Writers, considered a critique of “a society in which self-expression and autonomy are not allowed, especially for [black] women.”
Like Larsen herself, Helga Crane is a mulatta, born to a Danish mother and West Indian father. Crane’s quest for both a cultural/racial and personal/sexual identity takes her, as it did Larsen, first to the South, where Crane teaches at Naxos, an all-black college, then to Chicago and New York City, and ultimately to Denmark and back to New York. Larsen’s biographer Thadious Davis remarked that the “episodic” construction of the novel parallels Crane’s “search for changes in her emotional and psychological states by moving to different geographical locations.” But, as Davis went on to observe, “No single place measures up to her expectations and needs, and as a result, Helga travels from place to place searching for something in the external world that will bring her inner peace, satisfaction, and happiness.”
At Naxos, which resembles Tuskegee Institute, where Larsen was superintendent of nurses from 1915 to 1916, Crane grows increasingly disheartened by the hypocritical efforts of her black colleagues and students to “uplift the race” by imitating whites and by the school’s rigid restrictions on women’s conduct. When Crane leaves Naxos for Chicago, only to be rejected by the maternal uncle who has educated her, the source of her conflicts change. As McDowell noted of Crane’s move: “Here, unlike in Naxos, her conflicts are not with a repressive environment, but rather with herself.” She returns to New York and the novel describes Crane as resonating with a passion and sexuality that is mirrored in the music and exoticism of Harlem’s cabarets, but she does not allow herself to enjoy or express those feelings freely and instead feels ashamed of them.
To retreat from the sexual feelings that Harlem life arouses in her, Crane takes the money her uncle sends her and “escapes” to Copenhagen. And though being in Copenhagen means being free from racism, Crane finds herself objectified as an “exotic foreigner,” and she begins to yearn to associate once again with black people. She rejects the proposal of a Danish painter and returns to New York. As Thadious Davis has commented, “The Harlem segments [of Quicksand] contain a richly detailed portrait of place with a specific cultural context, the emergence of modern black New York.”
After being rejected in New York by Dr. Anderson—a former Naxos colleague—Crane, the novel states, burns with “desire.” She finds what to her is an acceptable outlet for her desire through a religious conversion experience, marries the revival preacher, Reverend Green, and goes with him to the deep South. The novel ends with Crane giving birth to her fifth child, a symbol of “being buried alive,” as McDowell wrote.
Many themes are embedded in this novel, the foremost of which is the idea of black women’s sexuality. McDowell has argued that Larsen explored “black women’s sexuality obliquely” by “permitting it only within the context of marriage, despite the strangling effects of that choice on both her characters and her narratives.”
Another important theme, that of the mulatto/mulatta, is established by Larsen’s epigraph to Quicksand, taken from Langston Hughes’s poem “Cross”: “My old man died in a fine big house./ My ma died in a shack./ I wonder where I’m gonna die,/ Being neither white nor black?” In referencing Hughes, one of the most prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen’s epigraph places the novel within the Renaissance and evokes the work’s “thematic core,” or what Thadious Davis has called the “ideas of conflict with heritage and quest for place or identity…. Helga’s two visible heredities become the sign of her dual cultural allegiances and her often contradictory impulses.”
Invented Lives author Washington observed that Larsen’s second novel, 1929’s Passing, continues to address “the problem” of “the marginal black woman of the middle class who is both unwilling to conform to a circumscribed existence in the black world and unable to move freely in the white world.” In her assessment of this novel, Washington concluded, “The very choice of ’passing’ as a symbol or metaphor or deliverance for women reflects Larsen’s failure to deal with the problem of marginality.”
In Passing, Larsen’s main character, Clare Kendry, is able to “pass” as a white woman and thus achieve middle-class status because she is married to a white man. The conflict of the novel, however, revolves around a renewed friendship between Kendry and her childhood friend Irene Redfield. Through Redfield, who is involved in middle-class black society in Harlem, Kendry rediscovers her black cultural roots, while her husband, John Bellew, discovers his wife is, in his words, “a damned dirty nigger.”
The climatic scene depicts Kendry accompanying Redfield and her husband Brian to a Christmas party. Redfield’s jealousy of Brian and Kendry “[presses] against her”; she begins to perceive Kendry as a threat to the security of her middle-class marriage. During the party, Kendry “falls” to her death from a sixth-floor window. Critics like Deborah McDowell and American Women Writers contributor Cheryl Wall have questioned whether Clare indeed fell or was pushed by Redfield.
In an essay in Black American Literature Forum, Claudia Tate explained the novel’s ending by suggesting that “the real impetus for the story is Irene’s emotional turbulence, which is entirely responsible for the course that the story takes and ultimately accountable for the narrative ambiguity.” Recognized by many writers as the novel’s “central consciousness,” Irene Redfield controls the narrative point of view, and it is through her eyes that the complexity of Kendry’s character evolves. Ironically, both women have participated in a kind of passing: Kendry into the white world, Redfield by adopting the values of white middle-class America. African American Writers contributor McLendon noted the “ironic similarity” between Redfield and Kendry’s circumstances and labeled the two characters “psychological doubles.”
In recognition of Passing, Larsen was awarded the Harmon Foundation’s bronze medal for literature in 1928, and in 1930, on the basis of both novels, she was the first black American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in creative writing. It was during this period that Larsen’s marriage began to fall apart, her husband having left New York to form the physics department at Fisk University in Nashville in 1929. Larsen resisted the conventional role of faculty wife, and the Guggenheim award provided her an acceptable excuse to leave for Europe, where she began work on two more novels, which were never published.
Before Larsen left for Europe in 1930, she was accused of plagiarism in her short story “Sanctuary,” which had been published in the January 1930 issue of Forum magazine. Readers of the story wrote letters commenting on the similarities between “Sanctuary” and “Mrs. Adis,” a short story written by Shelia Kaye-Smith that had been published in Century magazine in 1922. Larsen’s editor, who had seen numerous drafts of “Sanctuary,” defended Larsen, and she herself wrote a reply to the accusations in the April 1930 supplement to Forum.
In her response, Larsen explained that she had heard the story of “Sanctuary” from an elderly patient at Lincoln Hospital and Home, adding that the “tale is so old and so well know that it is almost folklore … [even though] it has many variations.” Thadious Davis concluded that the support of her editors “helped to clear the air, but it could not completely restore Larsen’s credibility.” Davis herself, after carefully studying both stories, rejected the explanations of those who supported Larsen and “gave her the benefit of the doubt”: “The similarities of the two stories … all are too exact to be merely parallel story lines. Larsen apparently followed Kaye-Smith’s work in both overall pattern and specific detail. Even a cursory reading reveals as much.”
When Larsen returned from Europe, she tried to resume her life with Imes in Nashville, but after their divorce in 1933. she returned to New York, forsaking Harlem for the East Village. During the mid-1930s, she continued to write and move among the “interracial,” “bohemian,” and “intellectual” literary circles of Greenwich Village, but by 1939, she dropped out of all aspects of New York City’s literary and social scenes and, as Thadious Davis has observed, “tried to conceal her whereabouts and activities” by, among other exaggerated acts, faking a voyage to South America and moving from one Second Avenue apartment into one across the street.
After the death of Elmer Imes in 1941, Larsen’s alimony was finished, and in 1944 she returned to nursing, at Gouverneur Hospital in Lower Manhattan. Her only reported contact during this time was her friendship with a fellow nurse, Alice Carper, and Caper’s family. In 1961, at age 70, Larsen left Gouverneur Hospital for Metropolitan Hospital after Gouverneur became part of Beth Israel Medical Center and Hospital. She also decided to travel to Santa Monica, California, to visit her sister, Anna Gardner, from whom Larsen had been estranged for over 30 years.
According to Thadious Davis, the trip must have been disappointing, and Gardner would later deny Larsen’s existence. Davis provided some details of Larsen’s “depression” and “decline” during the last three years of her life, revealing, “Her last months revolved around sleeping and reading during the day and working at Metropolitan at night.” Larsen died while reading in bed during the last week of March, 1964; her body was discovered on March 30th after she had not reported to work for a week; she was buried on April 6, 1964.
More than 30 years after her death, Larsen’s novels were reissued, and Larsen began to achieve recognition as one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Feminist scholarship has begun to recognize that underlying the themes of race is an important exploration of gender and that both themes serve Larsen’s larger concern with “personal identification.” Thadious Davis in particular has commented on Larsen’s ability to capture “the spirit of a unique time for modern African-American writers.”
Quicksand, Knopf, 1928.
Passing, Knopf, 1929.
“Sanctuary,” Forum, January 1930, pp. 15–18.
“The Author’s Explanation,” Forum, April 1930, pp. 41–42, 73.
Quicksand and Passing, edited, and with an introduction by, Deborah E. McDowell, American Women Writers Series, Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Larsen’s letters are housed in the James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, and the Carl Van Vechten Collection, New York Public Library, Rare Book and Manuscript Division.
Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, pp. 109–12.
Black Literature Criticism, volume 2, edited by James P. Draper, Gale, 1992, pp. 1240–50.
Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1958, revised edition, 1965, pp. 95–107.
Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, Routledge, 1993, pp. 167–85.
Carby, Hazel V., Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 163–75.
Davis, Arthur P., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900–1960, Howard University Press, 1974, pp. 73, 94–8.
Davis, Thadious M., “Nella Larsen,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 51, Afro-American Fiction Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, Gale, 1987, pp. 182–92.
Davis, Thadious M., Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Davis, Thadious M., “Nella Larsen’s Harlem Aesthetic,” The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, Garland, 1989, pp. 245–56
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 157–61.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1979.
McDowell, Deborah È., introduction, Quicksand and Passing, American Women Writers Series, Rutgers University Press, 1986, pp. ix-xxxvii.
McLendon, Jacquelyn Y., “Nella Larsen: 1891–1964,” African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith, Scribners, 1991, pp. 263–72.
Sato, Hiroko “Under the Harlem Shadow: A Study of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen,” The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps, Dodd/Mead & Co., 1972, pp. 63–89.
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746–1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, G. K. Hall, 1988, pp. 432–40.
Singh, Amritjit, The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923–1933, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
Stadler, Quandra Prettyman, “Visibility and Difference: Black Women in History and Literature—Pieces of Paper and Some Ruminations,” The Future of Difference, edited by Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine, G. K. Hall, 1980, pp. 239–46.
Wall, Cheryl, “Nella Larsen,” American Women Writers, volume 2, edited by Lina Mainiero, Unger, 1980, pp. 507–09.
Washington, Mary Helen, Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860–1960, Anchor Press, 1987, pp. 159–233.
Whitlow, Roger, Black American Literature: A Critical History, Nelson Hall, 1973, pp. 92–6.
African American Review, Spring 1992, pp. 173, 183; Fall 1992, p. 475; Winter 1993, p. 599.
Amsterdam News, May 23, 1928.
Belles Lettres, Spring 1989, p. 14.
Black American Literature Forum, Winter 1980, pp. 142–46, 153–59; Spring/Summer 1986, pp. 97–111.
CLA Journal, March 1973, pp. 285–301; December 1974, pp. 235–41; June 1977, pp. 475–86. Crisis, June 1928, p. 202.
Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1985, pp. 547–53.
Ms., December 1980, pp. 44–50.
PMLA, January 1990, 35–46.
Studies in Black Literature, Winter 1976, pp. 1–7.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen (1893-1963) received the Guggenheim Award in 1930 to support her continued work on the psychological novel at a time when the novel of social realism overshadowed her genuine literary talent.
Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in 1893 to a Danish mother and a Danish West Indian father, both of whose names have been obscured by history. Nella's father died when she was two, and her mother remarried a man of Danish origin while Nella was still quite young. All biographical references indicate that Nella's step-father was a source of racial tension in Nella's childhood home, which resulted in her alienation from him as well as her mother.
At 16 Nella went to Denmark for three years to visit her mother's relatives. When she returned to the United States she went to Fisk University, but her stay only lasted one year. Evidently she was dissatisfied with both Fisk and the United States, because when she left Fisk, she left the country as well, going to Copenhagen, where she audited classes at the University of Copenhagen for two years. She returned to the United States late in 1914, but this time she went to New York City, where she earned a nursing degree in 1915 from Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses. Immediately after receiving her nursing degree, she went to Tuskegee Institute, where she was employed as superintendent of nurses. She must have been dissatisfied with Tuskegee, because within one year she left the institute and returned to Lincoln Hospital.
She abandoned nursing in 1918 and began studying to become a librarian. In 1921 she became the children's librarian at the 135th Street branch (Harlem) of the New York Public Library, where she remained until 1929. During this interval she married Elmer S. Imes, a physicist. The couple lived in Harlem, and in all likelihood they were part of upper class African American society. Meanwhile Larsen wrote two novels.
In 1919 Larsen had won the Harmon Award for distinguished achievement among African Americans, and in 1930 she became the first black woman—and probably the first person of color—to win the Guggenheim Award. The prize money was to permit her to study in Europe and free her time to write a third novel, but she never did. When she returned, she and her husband were divorced, and she disappeared from public life. She did no more writing, devoting herself exclusively to nursing at Bethel Hospital in Brooklyn. In 1963 she died in Brooklyn, virtually unknown.
Larsen's novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), depict the mulatto theme which had become popular in American literature. In such works the male or female protagonist, who is light enough to pass for white, finds that all personal ambitions (education, employment, social mobility in general) are severely limited when one is held to the racial restrictions which typified the early 20th century in the North as well as in the South. To remedy the problem, the protagonist chooses to pass for white and move into the white world, only to find even greater dissatisfaction. Torn between two worlds, one white and the other black, and alienated from them both, the protagonist becomes a tragic figure.
Quicksand, Larsen's first novel, dramatizes Helga Crane's constant dissatisfaction and longing, which seemed to reflect the details of Larsen's own life. Helga, a sensuous mulatto woman of questionable birth, feels contempt for the pretentiousness of African American middle class society, while at the same time feeling her inability to release her own sensuality (a symbol for sexual repression). The story begins with Helga resigning a teaching job at a Southern African American institution. She leaves the United States to visit her mother's relatives in Denmark, where she becomes involved with a Danish painter. Longing to return to African American culture, she moves to Harlem, where she becomes involved with a travelling minister whose religion and passion release her sexual repression. The novel concludes with Helga's strength and spirit taxed to the point of exhaustion by a rapid succession of pregnancies and childbirths.
Passing recounts the reacquaintance of two childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. Clare disappears from her childhood home when she marries a well-to-do white man and passes into the white world, while Irene lives a life of comfort in Harlem, married to an African American doctor, Brian Redfield. The two women begin to socialize together when they happen to run into one another while shopping. As the story unfolds, Irene becomes convinced that Clare and her husband, Brian, are having an affair. The novel comes to a tragic end when Clare falls to her death through an opened window, and Irene cannot remember whether she pushed Clare or whether she fell.
Larsen's work appeared during an African American literary flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance, 1919-1929. The artists of this period, such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Zora Neal Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Wallace Thurman, reflected affirmation of African American culture in their writing. But they also depicted intense personal and social conflicts, many of which originated in their attempts to be both black and American.
Although to date there is no full-length study on Larsen's life and work, there are numerous articles and portions of books about her work. See Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (1965); Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists (1980); Hugh Glouster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); and Amritjit Singh, The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance (1978). See also articles by Hortense E. Thornton, "Sexism as Quagmire: Nella Larsen's Quicksand," in C. L. A. Journal 16 (March 1973) and Claudia Tate, "Nella Larsen's Passing: A problem of Interpretation," in Black American Literature Forum 14 (Winter 1980).
Davis, Thadious M., Nella Larsen, novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: a woman's life unveiled, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.