Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (born Nellie Walker (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. First working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, she earned recognition by her contemporaries. A revival of interest in her writing has occurred since the late twentieth century, when issues of racial and sexual identity and identification have been studied.
She was born Nellie Walker in Chicago, Illinois, on April 13, 1891, the daughter of Marie Hanson, a Danish immigrant, and Peter Walker, a West Indian man of predominantly African descent from Saint Croix, who soon disappeared from her life. Her mother was a domestic worker.
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After her mother married Peter Larsen, a Scandinavian, they had another daughter together. Nellie took her stepfather's surname, sometimes using versions spelled as Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen and, finally, settling on Nella Larsen. The mixed family encountered discrimination among the ethnic white immigrants in Chicago of the time. The author and critic Darryl Pinckney writes, as importantly,
"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."
As a child, Larsen lived a few years with her mother's relations in Denmark. Her mother believed in education and supported Larsen in attending Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically black university. She was there in 1907-08, and the biographer George Hutchinson speculates that she was expelled for some violation of Fisk's strict dress or conduct codes. Larsen returned to Denmark for four years and then came back to the U.S., but struggled to find a place of her own.
In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the nursing school at New York City's Lincoln Hospital and Nursing Home. Founded in the nineteenth century in Manhattan as a nursing home to serve blacks, 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 nursing home patients were primarily black; the hospital patients were primarily white; the doctors were male and white; and the nurses and nursing students were female and black. 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 became head nurse at its hospital and training school. While in Tuskegee, she came in contact with Booker T. Washington's model of education and became disillusioned with it. Added to the poor working conditions for nurses at Tuskegee, Larsen put up with the situation only until 1916.
She returned to New York, where she worked for two years as a nurse at Lincoln Hospital. After earning the second highest score on a civil service exam, she was hired by the city Bureau of Public Health as a nurse and worked for them through the flu epidemic of 1918 and afterward.
Marriage and family
In 1919, Larsen married Elmer Imes, a prominent physicist; he was the second African American to receive 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.
They 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."
The couple were having difficulties by the late 1920s and divorced in 1933.
Librarian and literary career
In 1921 Larsen worked nights and weekends as a volunteer with 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, which was run by Columbia University.
Larsen passed her certification exam in 1923 and spent her first year working at the Seward Park Branch on the Lower East Side, where 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. She next transferred to the Harlem branch, as she was interested in the cultural excitement in the neighborhood.
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 the Harlem Renaissance), Larsen gave up her work as a librarian.
She became a writer active in the 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, which 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 related to two mixed-race women who were friends and each had taken different paths of racial identification and marriage. One married a man who identified as black, and the other a white man. 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 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 her work.
The scholar H. Pearce has taken issue with 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 her 1956 book, All the Books of My Life, Kaye-Smith said she had based "Mrs Adis" on an old story by St Francis de Sales. It is unknown whether she knew of the Larsen controversy.
No plagiarism charges were proved, and Larsen received a Guggenheim Fellowship in the aftermath of the criticism. 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 was not writing (and never would again). After her ex-husband's death, Larsen returned to nursing. 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. The biographer George Hutchinson has demonstrated in his 2006 work that she remained in New York, working as a nurse. She avoided contact with her earlier friends and world.
Larsen died in her Brooklyn apartment in 1964, at the age of 72.
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 mother and a West Indian black father. He abandoned her mother and Helga soon after the girl was born. Unable to feel comfortable with her European-American relatives, Crane lives in various places in the United States and visits Denmark, searching for people among whom she feels at home.
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, where she is treated as a highly desirable racial exotic. Missing black people, she returns to New York City.
Experiencing a near mental breakdown, Crane happens onto a store-front revival and a charismatic religious experience. After marrying the preacher who converts 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. By the final chapters, Crane has married a typical black Southern preacher. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic. Crane had hoped to find sexual fulfillment 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.
Clare and Irene were two childhood friends, both of African and European ancestry. They lost touch when Clare's father died, and she moved in with two paternal white aunts. They allowed her to 'pass' as a white woman and marry a white man, who is a racist.
Irene lives in Harlem, where she identifies as black and commits herself to racial uplift. She marries a black doctor. The novel begins as the two childhood friends meet later in life. Events unfold as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other's lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path, as Irene becomes suspicious that her husband is having an affair with Clare. (The reader is never told whether her fears are justified or not, and numerous cues point in both directions). Clare's mixed race is revealed to her husband John Bellew. The novel ends with Clare's 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 that Clare has committed suicide.
Many see this novel as an example of the plot of the tragic mulatto, a common figure in early African-American literature after the American Civil War. Others suggest that the novel complicates the plot by introducing the dual figures of Irene and Clare, who in many ways mirror each other. The novel also suggests erotic undertones in the two women's relationship. 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.
Passing has received renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities and liminal spaces. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.