Nella Larsen (April 13, 1891 - March 30, 1964) was an African-American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote was of extraordinary quality, earning her recognition by her contemporaries and by present day critics.
Nella Larsen went by various names throughout her life, including Nellie Walker, Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen and, finally, Nella Larsen as well as by her married name Nella Larsen Imes. She was born in 1891 as Nellie Walker, the daughter of a Danish woman and an West Indian man of color. Her mother later married a white man. As a result, she grew up as the black child of a lower-middle class white household. Her family, perhaps ashamed of her race and anxious to get rid of her or perhaps interested in her education and future, enrolled her in Fisk University, a prestigious African-American school.
In 1912, Larsen enrolled in nursing school at New York's Lincoln Hospital. Upon graduating in 1915, she went South to work in Tuskegee, Alabama where she became head nurse at a hospital and training school. While in Tuskegee, she came in contact with Booker T. Washington's model of education and became disillusioned with it.
In 1916, she returned to New York to work again as a nurse. In 1919, she married Elmer Samuel Imes, a prominent African American physicist. In the year after her marriage, she began to write, publishing her first pieces in 1920. She left nursing in 1921 and, in 1922, took up work as a librarian.
In 1926, having made friends with important figures in the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen gave up her work as a librarian and began to work as a writer active in the literary community. In 1927, she published Quicksand (ISBN 0141181273), a largely autobiographical novel, which received significant critical acclaim, if not great financial success.
In 1928, she published Passing (ISBN 0142437271), her second novel, which was also successful.
In 1930, Larsen published "Sanctuary", a short story for which she was accused of plagiarism. Though the accusations turned out to be false, Larsen apparently never recovered from them and gave up writing, in spite of having been travelling through Europe on funds from a Guggenheim award to research a third novel. To make things worse, Larsen's marriage was falling apart due to the infidelity of her husband.
Larsen never wrote again, returning instead to nursing and disappearing from the literary circles in which she had travelled. Many of her old acquaintances speculated incorrectly that she, like some of her characters, had crossed the color line and disappeared.
Larsen attempted to visit white family members several times in her later years, but they refused to acknowledge her. Upon her death, her white relatives denied knowing of her existence. She died alone on March 30th, 1964.
For a detailed biography, see Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled by Thadious M. Davis (ISBN 0807120707).
Warning: Plot details follow.
Nella Larsen's first novel tells the story of Helga Crane, a fictional character clearly based on Larsen herself. Crane is the daughter of a Danish mother and a black father, who goes to various places and communities in search of somewhere she feels her home. Her travels bring her in contact with many of the communities Larsen herself knew: "Naxos", a Southern Negro school based on Tuskegee; Chicago, where her white relatives shun her; Harlem, where she finds a refined but often hypocritical black middle class obsessed with the "race problem"; Copenhagen, where she is treated as a highly desirable racial exotic; and finally the poor deep South, where she is disillusioned by people's blind adherence to religion. In each of these searches, Helga Crane fails to find fulfillment. The novel also tells the tale of Helga's search for a marriage partner: it opens with her engaged to a prestigious Southern negro man she does not really love, sees her turn down the proposal of a famous European artist, and ends with her seducing and marrying a Southern preacher. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic as Helga Crane sees what began as sexual fulfillment turn into an endless chain of pregnancies and suffering.
Larsen's second novel tells the story of two light skinned women: Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Both women are born African Americans but are light enough to pass. Clare passes and marries a racist white man who knows nothing of her heritage. Irene lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers around the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as Irene is fascinated and seduced by Clare's daring lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path which leads inevitably to the revelation of Clare's race to her husband and her sudden death by falling out of a window.
The end of the novel is famous for its ambiguity, which leaves open the possibility that Irene has pushed Clare out the window or the possibility that Clare has killed herself.
Many see this novel as an example of the plot of the tragic mulatto, a common figure in early African American literature. Others suggest that the novel complicates that plot by introducing the dual figures of Irene and Clare, who in many ways mirror and complicate each other. The novel also suggests erotic undertones in the two women's relationship, and some read the novel as one of repressed lesbian desire.
Recently, Passing has received a great deal of attention because of its close attention to racial and sexual ambiguities and to liminal spaces. It has now achieved canonical status in many American Universities.
A recent passing narrative is Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain (2000).