Nellallitea "Nella" Larsen, born Nellie Walker (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, she earned recognition by her contemporaries.
Nella Larsen in 1928
April 13, 1891
|Died||March 30, 1964 (aged 72)|
Brooklyn, New York
|Other names||Nellallitea Larsen, Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen, Nella Larsen Imes|
|Alma mater||Fisk University, Lincoln Hospital nursing school, NYPL Library School at Columbia University|
|Occupation||Novelist, librarian, nurse|
|Employer||Tuskegee Institute, Lincoln Hospital, New York City Bureau of Public Health|
|Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929)|
|Parent(s)||Peter Walker, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies and Marie Walker, née Hansen|
A revival of interest in her writing has occurred since the late 20th century, when issues of racial and sexual identity have been studied. Her works have been the subjects of numerous academic studies, and she is now widely lauded as "not only the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but also an important figure in American modernism."
Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in a poor district of Chicago known as the Levee, on April 13, 1891, the daughter of Peter Walker, believed to be a mulatto Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies, and Marie Walker, née Hansen, a Danish immigrant. Her mother was a seamstress and domestic worker. Her father was likely a mixed-race descendant of Henry or George Walker, white men from Albany, New York, who settled in the Danish West Indies about 1840. In that Danish colonial society, racial lines were more fluid and Walker may never have identified as "Negro." He soon disappeared from the lives of Nella and her mother; she said he had died when she was very young. At this time, Chicago was filled with immigrants, but the Great Migration had not begun from the South. The black population of the city was 1.3% in 1890 and 2% in 1910, near the end of Walker's childhood on the South Side.
Marie married Peter Larsen, a fellow Danish immigrant, by whom she had another daughter, Anna. Nellie took her stepfather's surname, sometimes using versions spelled Nellye Larson and Nellie Larsen, before settling finally on Nella Larsen. The mixed family moved west to a mostly white neighborhood of German and Scandinavian immigrants, but encountered discrimination because of Nella. When Nella was eight, they moved a few blocks back east. The author and critic Darryl Pinckney wrote of her anomalous situation:
as a member of a white immigrant family, she [Larsen] 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.
Most American blacks were from the South, and Larsen had no connection with them.
As a child, Larsen lived for a few years with relatives in Denmark, possibly in Jutland. While she was unusual in being of mixed race, she had some good memories of that time. After returning to Chicago, she attended a large public school. As migration of blacks increased to the city, so had European immigration, and racial segregation and tensions had increased in the immigrant neighborhoods. Her mother believed that education could give Larsen an opportunity and supported her in attending Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1907-08, for the first time Larsen was living within an African-American community; but she was still separated by her own background and life experiences from most of the students, who were primarily from the South, with many descended from former slaves. Biographer George B. Hutchinson found that Larsen was expelled for some violation of Fisk's strict dress or conduct codes. Larsen went to Denmark for four years and then returned to the US, but continued to struggle to find a place where she could belong.
In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the nursing school at New York City's Lincoln Hospital and Nursing Home. The institution was founded in the 19th century in Manhattan as a nursing home to serve black people, but the hospital elements had grown in importance. The total operation had been relocated to a newly constructed campus in the South Bronx. At the time, the hospital patients were primarily white; the nursing home patients were primarily black; the doctors were white males; and the nurses and nursing students were black females. As Pinckney writes: "No matter what situation Larsen found herself in, racial irony of one kind or another invariably wrapped itself around her."
Upon graduating in 1915, Larsen went South to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she soon became head nurse at its hospital and training school. While at Tuskegee, she was introduced to Booker T. Washington's model of education and became disillusioned with it. As it was combined with poor working conditions for nurses at Tuskegee, Larsen decided to leave after a year or so.
She returned to New York in 1916, where she worked for two years as a nurse at Lincoln Hospital. After earning the second-highest score on a civil service exam, Larsen was hired by the city Bureau of Public Health as a nurse. She worked for them in the Bronx through the 1918 flu pandemic, in "mostly white neighborhoods" and with white colleagues. Afterward she continued with the city as a nurse.
Marriage and familyEdit
In 1919, Larsen married Elmer Imes, a prominent physicist; he was the second African American to earn a PhD in physics. After her marriage, she sometimes used the name Nella Larsen Imes in her writing. A year after her marriage, she published her first short stories.
The couple moved to Harlem in the 1920s, where their marriage and life together had contradictions of class. As Pinckney writes:
By virtue of her marriage, she was a member of Harlem's black professional class. She and her husband knew the NAACP leadership: W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson. However, because of her low birth and mixed parentage, and because she didn't have a college degree, Larsen was alienated from the life of the black middle class, with its emphasis on school and family ties, its fraternities and sororities.
Her mixed parentage was not itself unusual in the black middle class. But many, such as Langston Hughes, had more distant European ancestors and belonged to a mixed-race elite, some of whom had ancestors who had been free people of color well before the American Civil War. In the 1920s, people in Harlem were emphasizing their black heritage.
The Imes couple had difficulties by the late 1920s, when he had an affair, and divorced in 1933.
Larsen and Ime's divorce left her with a generous alimony that gave her the financial security she needed until Imes's death in 1940. However, the alimony soon ran out leaving Larsen to have to return to nursing. Larsen took a break from writing literature to work as a nurse. Many literary scholars viewed her decision to take time off as "An act of self-burial, or a "retreat" motivated by a lack of courage and dedication.". People had their speculations and interpretations as to why Larsen decided to return to nursing. What they failed to realize is that during that time period it was difficult for a woman of color to find a stable job that not only would hire, a woman of color but also provide financial stability. For Larsen, nursing was a "labor market that welcomed an African American as a domestic servant". Nursing was something that came natural to Larsen as it was "one respectable option for support during the process of learning about the work". During her work as a nurse, Larsen was noticed by Adah Thoms who at the time was an African American nurse who co founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Thoms saw potential in Larsen's nursing career and further helped strengthen Larsen's skills. Once Larsen graduated in 1915, Adah Thoms made arrangements for Larsen to be given the opportunity to work at Tuskegee Institute's John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital.
Larsen's medical background appears in Passing in the character of Brian, the main character's husband. Brian, like Larsen, works in the medical field. However, in the novel, Brian is a doctor whereas Larsen is a nurse. Larsen's novel describes Brian's ambivalence around the medical field. Brian's character likely connects to Larsen's husband Elmer Imes who was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Physics. Like Brian, Imes was a successful doctor, but the difference between the two is that Imes later on divorced Larsen and remarried a white woman.
Librarian and literary careerEdit
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In 1921 Larsen worked nights and weekends as a volunteer with librarian Ernestine Rose, to help prepare for the first exhibit of "Negro art" at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Encouraged by Rose, she became the first black woman to graduate from the NYPL Library School. It was run by Columbia University and opened the way for integration of library staff.
Larsen passed her certification exam in 1923. She worked her first year as a librarian at the Seward Park Branch on the Lower East Side, which was predominantly Jewish. There she had strong support from her white supervisor Alice Keats O'Connor, as she had from Rose. They, and another branch supervisor where she worked, supported Larsen and helped integrate the staff of the branches. Larsen transferred to the Harlem branch, as she was interested in the cultural excitement in the African-American neighborhood, a destination for migrants from across the country.
In October 1925, Larsen took a sabbatical from her job for health reasons and began to write her first novel. In 1926, having made friends with important figures in the Negro Awakening (which became known as the Harlem Renaissance), Larsen gave up her work as a librarian.
She became a writer active in Harlem's interracial literary and arts community, where she became friends with Carl Van Vechten, a white photographer and writer. In 1928, Larsen published Quicksand, a largely autobiographical novel. It received significant critical acclaim, if not great financial success.
In 1929, she published Passing her second novel, which was also critically successful. It dealt with issues of two mixed-race African-American women who were childhood friends and had taken different paths of racial identification and marriage. One identified as black and married a black doctor; the other passed as white and married a white man, without revealing her African ancestry. The book explored their experiences of coming together again as adults.
In 1930, Larsen published "Sanctuary", a short story for which she was accused of plagiarism. "Sanctuary" was said to resemble the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith's short story, "Mrs. Adis", first published in the United Kingdom in 1919. Kaye-Smith wrote on rural themes, and was very popular in the US. Some critics thought the basic plot of "Sanctuary," and some of the descriptions and dialogue, were virtually identical to Kaye-Smith's work.
The scholar H. Pearce has disputed this assessment, writing that, compared to Kaye-Smith's tale, "Sanctuary" is ' ... longer, better written and more explicitly political, specifically around issues of race - rather than class as in "Mrs Adis"." Pearce thinks that Larsen reworked and updated the tale into a modern American black context. Pearce also notes that in Kaye-Smith's 1956 book, All the Books of My Life, the author said she had based "Mrs Adis" on a 17th-century story by St Francis de Sales, Catholic bishop of Geneva. It is unknown whether she knew of the Larsen controversy in the United States.
No plagiarism charges were proved. Larsen received a Guggenheim Fellowship in the aftermath of the controversy, worth roughly $2,500 at the time, and was the first African-American woman to do so. She used it to travel to Europe for several years, spending time in Mallorca and Paris, where she worked on a novel about a love triangle in which all the protagonists were white. She never published the book or any other works.
Larsen returned to New York in 1933, when her divorce had been completed. She lived on alimony until her ex-husband's death in 1942. Struggling with depression, Larsen stopped writing. After her ex-husband's death, Larsen returned to nursing and became an administrator. She disappeared from literary circles. She lived on the Lower East Side and did not venture to Harlem.
Many of her old acquaintances speculated that she, like some of the characters in her fiction, had crossed the color line to "pass" into the white community. Biographer George Hutchinson has demonstrated in his 2006 work that she remained in New York, working as a nurse. But she avoided contact with her earlier friends and world.
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Helga Crane is a fictional character loosely based on Larsen's experiences in her early life. Crane is the lovely and refined mixed-race daughter of a Danish white mother and a West Indian black father. Her father died soon after she was born. Unable to feel comfortable with her maternal European-American relatives, Crane lives in various places in the United States and visits Denmark, searching for people among whom she feels at home.
Nella Larsen's early life is similar to Helga in that she; was distant from the African-American community as well as, her African-American family members. Larsen and Helga, did not have a father figure. Both of their mother's decided to marry a white man, in hopes of having a higher social status. Larsen wanted to learn more about her background so she continued to go to school during the Harlem Renaissance. Even though Larsen's early life parallels Helga's, the end the life choices they decide to make end up being very different. Nella Larsen pursued a career in nursing while Helga married a preacher and stayed in a very unhappy marriage.
In her travels she encounters many of the communities which Larsen knew. For example, Crane teaches at Naxos, a Southern Negro boarding school (based on Tuskegee University), where she becomes dissatisfied with its philosophy. She criticizes a sermon by a white preacher, who advocates the segregation of blacks into separate schools and says their striving for social equality would lead blacks to become avaricious. Crane quits teaching and moves to Chicago. Her white maternal uncle, now married to a bigoted woman, shuns her. Crane moves to Harlem, New York, where she finds a refined but often hypocritical black middle class obsessed with the "race problem."
Taking her uncle's legacy, Crane visits her maternal aunt in Copenhagen. There she is treated as an attractive racial exotic. Missing black people, she returns to New York City. Close to a mental breakdown, Crane happens onto a store-front revival and has a charismatic religious experience. After marrying the preacher who converted her, she moves with him to the rural Deep South. There she is disillusioned by the people's adherence to religion. In each of her moves, Crane fails to find fulfillment. She is looking for more than how to integrate her mixed ancestry. She expresses complex feelings about what she and her friends consider genetic differences between races.
The novel develops Crane's search for a marriage partner. As it opens, she has become engaged to marry a prominent Southern Negro man, whom she does not really love, but with whom she can gain social benefits. In Denmark she turns down the proposal of a famous white Danish artist for similar reasons, for lack of feeling. By the final chapters, Crane has married a black Southern preacher. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic. Crane had hoped to find sexual fulfilment in marriage and some success in helping the poor southern blacks she lives among, but instead she has frequent pregnancies and suffering. Disillusioned with religion, her husband, and her life, Crane fantasizes about leaving her husband, but never does.
The critics were impressed with the novel. They appreciated her more indirect take on important topics such as race, class, sexuality, and other issues important to the African-American community rather than the explicit or obvious take of other Harlem Renaissance writers.
Larsen's novel Passing begins with Irene receiving a mysterious letter from her childhood friend Clare, following their encounter at the Drayton Hotel, after twelve years with no communication. Irene and Clare lost contact with each other after the death of Clare's father Bob Kendry, when Clare was sent to live with her white aunts. Both Irene and Clare are of mixed African-European ancestry, with features that enable them to pass racially as "white" if they choose. Clare chose to pass into white society and married John Bellew, a white man described as a racist. Unlike Clare, Irene passes as white only on occasion, for her convenience in negotiating some segregated spaces. Irene identifies as a black woman, and married an African-American doctor named Brian; together they have two sons. After Irene and Clare reconnect, they become fascinated with the differences in their lives. One day Irene meets with Clare and Gertrude, another of their childhood African-American friends; during that meeting Mr. Bellew meets Irene and Gertrude. Bellew greets his wife with a racial comment as if he did not know she was half black.
Irene becomes furious that Clare did not tell her husband about her full ancestry. Irene believes Clare has put herself in a dangerous situation by lying to a person who hates blacks. After meeting Clare's husband, Irene does not want anything more to do with Clare but still keeps in touch with her. Clare begins to join Irene and Brian for their events in Harlem, New York while her husband is traveling out of town. Because Irene has some jealousy of Clare, she begins to suspect her friend is having an affair with her husband Brian. The novel ends with John Bellew learning that Clare is mixed race. At a party in Harlem, she falls out of a window from a high floor of a multi-story building, to her death, under ambiguous circumstances. Larsen ends the novel without revealing if Clare committed suicide, if Irene pushed her, or if it was an accident.
Some critics described this novel as an example of the genre of the tragic mulatto, a common figure in early African-American literature after the American Civil War. In such works, it is usually a woman of mixed race who is portrayed as tragic, as she has difficulty marrying and finding a place to fit into society. Others suggest that this novel complicates that plot by playing with the duality of the figures of Irene and Clare, who are of similar mixed-race background but have taken different paths in life. The novel also suggests attraction between them and erotic undertones in the two women's relationship. Irene's husband is also portrayed as potentially bisexual, as if the characters are passing in their sexual as well as social identities. Some read the novel as one of repression. Others argue that through its attention to the way "passing" unhinges ideas of race, class, and gender, the novel opens spaces for the creation of new, self-generated identities.
Since the late 20th century, Passing has received renewed attention from scholars because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities and liminal spaces. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.
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- Larsen, Nella (2007). Passing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
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- Martha J. Cutter, "Sliding Significations: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen's Fiction," in Elaine Ginsberg (ed.), Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 75–100.
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