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.
Further Reading on Nella Larsen
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).
Additional Biography Sources
Davis, Thadious M., Nella Larsen, novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: a woman's life unveiled, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Larson, Charles R., Invisible darkness: Jean Toomer & Nella Larsen, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.