Self-conscious among the Talented Tenth and, like Claude McKay, some ten years older than Langston Hughes and his crowd, Larsen was more comfortable in the interracial bohemia exemplified by her close friend Carl Van Vechten, the white writer and photographer whose controversial 1926 novel Nigger Heaven she defended to black peers who felt he'd slandered the race by portraying Harlem life as a drunken orgy. It is because Van Vechten was such an indefatigable correspondent and diarist as well as a compulsive partygoer and first-nighter that Hutchinson suddenly has so much information about Larsen's day-to-day activities. Larsen and her black women friends, intelligent, light-skinned and ambitious, were in Greenwich Village as often as they were in Harlem, and Hutchinson--author of The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, a perceptive study of the relationship between black writers and white publishers and editors in the 1920s--is sensitive to social nuance in his portrayal of the Harlem Renaissance as overlapping circles, parallel developments, intersecting interests and competing groups rather than the cohesive movement it tended to become in cultural memory.
When Larsen wrote her first novel, Quicksand (1928), she did not have many models for the mixed-race life in American fiction about "the tragic mulatto." What most influenced how she rendered her tale of a black woman struggling not to be imprisoned by insecure social circumstances was her reading of Henrik Ibsen and Jens Peter Jacobsen, a reflection of her bilingual heritage. Helga, the book's heroine, is the child of a white mother and a black father who deserted them. Helga's mother died when she was 15 and her uncle, who sent her to college, has remarried, but his white family doesn't want her. When Helga quits her job at suffocating Naxos College and gets away from Negro education, she tries "teeming black Harlem," then tolerant, bourgeois Copenhagen, but her soul is restless because of her love for a man from Naxos who marries another woman. It was daring to write about the sexuality of black women, and of single women in the city, but Larsen's message is bleak: that Helga is lost when she finds religion, marries a coarse preacher and returns to Naxos to be overwhelmed by children and drudgery.
In Passing, published in 1929, Larsen frees herself from the conventions that had grown up around the theme of the black person who passes for white by telling her story from the point of view of a witness, a black woman who knows another black woman who is passing. Irene Redfield doesn't even much like Clare Kendry, a childhood acquaintance from Chicago who forces her way into Irene's comfortable Harlem scene, though for Clare, a mother who is married to a white racist, to masquerade as a white woman interested in black life is to court exposure. The novel's suspense is not so much in waiting for Clare to be found out but in wondering with Irene what Clare wants. (Critics have also convincingly explored the possibility that the novel is replete with lesbian undercurrents, that what Clare wants is Irene.) When Irene suspects that Clare is having an affair with her husband, she longs for Clare's husband to take her away from Harlem. Clare falls to her death at an uptown party, and though the scene is deliberately ambiguous in Larsen's rendering, Hutchinson argues that Clare is not a suicide, that Irene pushes her.
Larsen's control over her Harlem milieu of polite teas and tense cocktails is superb. She takes surfaces seriously: clothes, décor, the weather, faces. She examines the irresolution and ambivalence of her heroines with precision. Moreover, her fatalism sets her apart from other black women writers of the period. Hutchinson points out that Larsen's success depended in part on a misunderstanding of her work, that because of the class of the blacks she wrote about, she was commended by those who felt that black literature should advance the cause by projecting positive images of blacks as accomplished, decent and therefore worthy of full class citizenship, even though her novels are far from the wearying brightness of Jessie Fauset, another novelist of the black middle class. The same black critics who, from their own snobbery, accepted Larsen's restrained, understated work had attacked the boisterous Van Vechten, with whom Larsen was in deep sympathy concerning the most important artistic matters of the Harlem Renaissance, as Hutchinson makes clear in his moving discussion of their friendship and her growing confidence as a writer.
In 1930 Larsen was involved in a plagiarism scandal about a short story she had published, but it did not keep her from being awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. She went to Europe to avoid the failure of her marriage, and life on Mallorca and then in Paris was one grand social round. By 1933 Larsen was back in New York, divorced, and her novel about a love triangle, using white characters, had been turned down by her publishers. She seems to have stopped trying after a while, but she was not really a casualty of the Depression. Hutchinson charts her sad withdrawal from Harlem Renaissance friends like Van Vechten. Alimony payments ceased when her ex-husband died in 1942, and Larsen returned to nursing. Hutchinson says that having to work pulled her out of what may have been depression or addiction. But she had disappeared from her former life, into the Lower East Side, where she worked. She died in her Second Avenue apartment on Easter Sunday in 1964 but was not found right away. When the police left, most of her possessions had been stolen. Hutchinson's respect for his subject is so great that one feels Nella Larsen can at last be at rest.