Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), born Nellie Walker in Chicago was an American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance movement. Her body of writing was modest, but she was considered a respected voice of her time.

Larsen was the first African-American woman to graduate from library school and to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. The theme of her life, and in effect, her work, was a sense of never belonging — not to any community, nor even to an immediate family.

 

Nella Larsen biography highlights

  • Larsen was the mixed-race daughter of a white Danish immigrant mother and a mixed-race father from the Danish West Indies. A sense of not belonging to either world informed her life and work.
  • She attended Fisk University, a historically black college, then spent a few years in Denmark. Upon her return she trained as a nurse and worked at Tuskegee Institute.
  • A connection with NAACP notables gave her and her husband, the African-American physicist, an entry into the world of the Harlem Renaissance. There, too, she felt out of place with the cultural elite.
  • In the late 1920s, Larsen wrote the two novels that put her on the literary map, Quicksand, which has strong autobiographical elements, and Passing.
  • Divorced, depressed, and constantly struggling, Larsen dropped out of the literary scene in the 1930s and went back to nursing in the 1940s.
  • Interest in Nella Larsen’s modest body of work has grown in recent years. Academic interest in race, history, and women’s studies have helped shed a new light on her achievements.

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Nella Larsen, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Nella Larsen photo by Carl Van Vechten

RELATED POSTS

Insightful Quotes from Passing by Nella Larsen
Quotes from Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Passing (1929): An Introduction
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A sense of non-belonging

Nella Larsen’s mother, Marie Hansen, was a white Danish immigrant; her father, Peter Walker, was likely of mixed race and from the Danish West Indies. He may have died when Nella was quite young. Her mother remarried Peter Larsen, another white Danish immigrant, with whom she had another daughter; Nella took his surname.

To be the only non-white member of her family put her in a precarious position at the time. The family moved to a mostly white neighborhood, and thus began a life in which Nella never felt a sense of belonging.

 

Education and nursing career

Nella attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee in 1907. For the first time, she was part of an all-black community. Not having any real connection with the students, who were primarily from the South, she once again felt out of place and dropped out after a year. She then spent four years in Denmark with relatives.

Upon returning to the U.S. in 1914, Nella enrolled in a nursing school program in New York City. After completing the one-year program, she worked as head nurse at the renowned Tuskegee Institute (Alabama).

The poor working conditions, coupled with a disappointment with Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington’s educational philosophy, made this sojourn short-lived. She returned to New York and resumed work as a nurse.

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Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

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Marriage and divorce

Nella Larsen married Elmer Imes, a physicist, in 1919. He was notable as the second African-American to earn a doctorate in physics. The following year, her first short stories were published.

The couple moved to Harlem shortly thereafter. A connection with NAACP notables gave her entrée into the world of the Harlem Renaissance. Their peers and colleagues were highly educated blacks, a cultural elite, and with her lack of formal education and mixed ancestry, Nella once again felt a keen sense of being out of place.

During the marriage, Nella sometimes wrote under the name Nella Larsen Imes. The marriage was not a happy one, and the couple divorced in the early 1930s.

 

Career as a librarian

In the early 20s, Nella volunteered at the legendary Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, which was a hub of cultural activity. She was encouraged by head librarian Ernestine Rose to get training, and received certification from the NYPL’s own school. Pausing her nursing career, she began working as a librarian on the Lower East Side before returning to the Harlem branch.

1925 was a turning point for Nella. Though she had to take a sabbatical from work for health reasons, she used the time to start her first novel, and made an effort to become more engaged in the cultural activities of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Insightful Quotes from Passing by Nella Larsen
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Quicksand and Passing

Quicksand (1928) was Nella Larsen’s first novel, published in 1928. Though it was well-received critically, its sales were modest. The story was partially autobiographical.

Like Larsen, Helga Crane, the main character, is the mixed-race daughter of a white Danish mother and a mixed-race father from the Caribbean. She travels back and forth from Denmark, teaches at “Naxos,” a thinly veiled episode base on Larsen’s Tuskegee experience, and lives in Harlem. Everywhere Helga goes, she never finds a comfortable place for herself.

Passing (1929), her second novel, was also well-received, if not a best-seller. It’s the story of two friends, Irene and Clare, both of mixed race. Both have a mostly white appearance, but Clare has crossed over the color line to live as white, even getting married to a white man who turns out to be a bigot.

Irene “passes” when convenient, but lives as black, with her black doctor husband and two sons. The women reunite after an absence of twelve years from their friendship, with dramatic consequences.

Both novels are eminently readable and fascinating snapshots of the painful racial divisions of 1920s America and the harm they caused individuals as well as society. Though Passing came out just a year after Quicksand, it is considered a more mature and nuanced story.

 

Leaving the literary world for good

Nella Larsen’s stories of young women of mixed race growing up in a prejudiced world, grappling for a sense of identity and belonging, mirrored her own life. Larsen struggled mightily for most of her life, never feeling quite at home in either the European community of her mother, nor back in the United States; neither in the black world or the white at a time when the “color line” was strictly drawn.

Nella lived on alimony until her ex-husband’s death in 1942, but subsequently returned to nursing and medical administration. She moved to the Lower East Side, abandoned her literary circles, and never ventured back to Harlem. She struggled with depression, and stopped writing. In the course of her lifetime, her work had been all but forgotten. She died at age 72 in Brooklyn in 1964.

 

Revisiting Nella Larsen’s life, literary work, and death

In 1992, Anchor Books Doubleday issued An Intimation of Things Distant: The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen, an anthology. It presented three short stories: “The Wrong Man,” “Sanctuary,” and “Freedom,” as well as Larsen’s iconic short novels Quicksand and Passing. Margaria Fichtner, writing about Larsen’s death and immediate legacy upon this book’s release (for the Knight-Ridder newspaper syndicate, February 9, 1992) noted that its publication restored “Larsen’s vital early perspective to the ephemeral canon of African-American literature.” Fichter also wrote this  elegy to Larsen, touching on how much she had been forgotten by the literary world at the time of her death:

“Sadly, not one of the fifty or so mourners who showed up for Nella Larsen’s funeral that spring day in 1964 could have told you much about her. Most had been Larsen’s co-workers at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, and they had come to regard their sad, elegant former nursing supervisor as the most undefinable of treasures, a dedicated and caring public professional plagued to the core by private mysteries.

And in death, Larsen gave up nothing. Her passing merited to newspaper obituaries [though since, The New York Times has righted that omission in their “Overlooked” feature], no regretful reminiscences of her long-forgotten triumphs at the soirees of the Harlem Renaissance, rubbing shoulders with intellects like Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and other stars of the most important black literary movement of the twentieth century.

By the time Larsen died, there was simply no one left to recall that this poignant and complex writer had ignited her own bright spurt of fame. In 1930 she became the first Black woman to with a Guggenheim Fellowship. And then the fire went out.

In 1933, stung by charges of plagiarism and personal woes, Nella Larsen simply evaporated from the literary scene and retreated into the reclusive anonymity that veils her still.”

In the foreword of An Intimation of Things Distant, Marita Golden, a founding member of the African-American Writers’ Guild and author in her own right observed: “The angst, the tension that rivets the lives of Larsen’s heroines make their dilemmas completely contemporary and timeless. Inevitably, any writer whose female protagonists resist the expected, the traditional, the ‘correct’ is dialoguing with the literary legacy of Nella Larsen.”

Nella Larsen was featured in the New York Times’ Overlooked series of obituaries for deserving people who were never written up at the time of their death. It stated:

“When Passing was reissued in 2001, the Times’s book critic Richard Bernstein wrote that ‘reading it and knowing that its author wrote very little after it imparts a sense of loss, giving as it does a glimpse of an original and hugely insightful writer whose literary talent developed no further.’”

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In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson

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In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson

George Hutchinson’s biography, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (2006) delves into Larsen’s experience as a mixed-race woman in a society obsessed with identity. This factor weighed in on Larsen’s unique perspective on the world, showing up as themes in her two novels, Quicksand and Passing.

Hutchinson pays homage to Larsen’s influence in the world of African-American art; namely the era of the Harlem Renaissance as she progressed as a writer despite the boundaries of race.

Reviews of the biography provide readers with constructive criticism to consider throughout the chapters of the literary world’s third attempt to bring justice to Larsen’s life work.

It is important to notice that while Hutchinson’s accounts of Larsen’s journey are at times in depth, there are still details that have not been surfaced which potentially can provide insight necessary to understand her position in middle-class America during the 20th century.

In his review of In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson, Darryl Pinckney wrote:

“As a member of a white immigrant family, she had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church. If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up.”

Hutchinson highlights previous writers’ tendency to pathologize Nella Larsen’s identity along the lines of the popular trope of the “tragic mulatto.” She was studied with the perspective of an outsider, trapped in the internal conflict created by the pressure to fit in with both black and white communities.

While In Search of Nella Larsen would benefit from the publishing of a revised second edition, the biography has updated previous notions of Larsen’s legacy, providing readers with a solid overview and a motivation for continuing the search for Nella Larsen.

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen page on Amazon
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A revival of interest in Nella Larsen and her work

Passing was reissued in 2001. Richard Bernstein, a New York Times book critic, wrote: “reading it and knowing that its author wrote very little after it imparts a sense of loss, giving as it does a glimpse of an original and hugely insightful writer whose literary talent developed no further.”

Fortunately, interest in Nella Larsen’s writings, modest though her body of work was, has grown over the years. Academic interest in race, history, and women’s studies has shed a new light on her work, and has been reconsidered in numerous academic studies.

According to The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction (2011), Nella Larsen is described as “not only the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but also an important figure in American modernism.”


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