For a long time Nella Larsen was the mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance. In the late 1920s she published two sophisticated novels, Quicksand and Passing, and then her writing life came to an end. She died in obscurity in 1964. It would be another decade or so before interest in the Harlem Renaissance led to her rediscovery, although her books began coming back into print in the early ’70s. Since then, feminist scholars like Mary Helen Washington and Hazel Carby have been as captivated by Larsen as others have been by Zora Neale Hurston. Larsen’s work has been reprinted, edited or introduced by Deborah McDowell, Ntozake Shange, Charles Larson (who has also written a critical biography of her) and Thadious Davis, whose 1994 biography Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled seemed to give us all we needed to know about this elusive figure. George Hutchinson, however, has produced what must be the definitive biography of Larsen. It’s hard to think of a stone he hasn’t looked under in his quest to establish the facts, correct mistakes and trace her private life. But Hutchinson’s biography also manages to be an insightful reconsideration of a much-studied period in American literature and black cultural history.
Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in Chicago in 1891. Her father was black, a laborer from what was then the Danish West Indies. Her mother was white, a domestic worker from Denmark. Her father disappeared from Larsen’s life sometime after her birth. Her mother later married a Scandinavian named Peter Larsen, and they had a daughter. Although Nella took her stepfather’s name, mixed families had a hard time finding neighborhoods where they were accepted. And as Hutchinson makes clear, Larsen’s childhood coincided with the hardening of racial lines in immigrant-filled Chicago. After she left Chicago, her family lived as a white family. Larsen’s half-sister never acknowledged her, until she discovered after Larsen’s death that she was her only beneficiary. Larsen’s upbringing as the resented stepchild, the darker-skinned daughter whose existence perhaps burdened her otherwise loving mother, would inform her fiction about women too dark to be white and too light to be black, about black women living between white and black and culturally not entirely at home anywhere. Hutchinson explains Larsen’s ambivalence about her early life, her tendency to shroud her story in mystery, even with her friends:
Since she was always evasive about the details of her past life, it seems clear that she was ashamed of her lowly origins in the vice district of Chicago, ashamed in a special way, for she dreaded that people would think her the daughter of a white prostitute. Yet, just as important, 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.
Larsen’s working-class mother understood that the only way she could provide for her black daughter’s future was to give her an education. Larsen had the chance to go to college and escape the class she was born into that her white half-sister didn’t. At Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1907, Larsen found herself among an all-black student body for the first time in her life. Fisk had a white president and board of trustees, but the faculty included black teachers. Women students couldn’t leave campus without a chaperone, and there were new rules concerning uniforms for women and what jewelry they could wear. Hutchinson speculates that Larsen was probably expelled a year later for some violation of the dress or conduct code. As a child, Larsen had spent a few years with her mother’s relations in Denmark. After leaving Fisk she returned to Denmark for four years, but Europe was not really the answer to her question of where she belonged.
In 1912 Larsen began training to become a nurse at the Lincoln Hospital and Home in the Bronx, “a nearly all-white hospital patient base, an all-black nursing home, an all-white (and male) staff of physicians, and an all-black (and female) nursing school.” No matter what situation Larsen found herself in, racial irony of one kind or another invariably wrapped itself around her. After graduating in 1915, she took a position as head nurse at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Though Tuskegee’s hospital was the best in the black South at that time, Hutchinson relates, nursing had very little status as a profession and Tuskegee’s student nurses were exploited as a workforce, doing the hospital’s cleaning and laundry, and available to white doctors to look after their white patients. Yet Tuskegee was unique among black colleges in being run entirely by blacks. Booker T. Washington, its revered founder, died shortly after Larsen arrived, which no doubt contributed to an atmosphere even stricter than that of Fisk. Institute officials were indifferent to the point of spite when Larsen, exhausted by the poor working conditions, resigned in 1916.