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.
Back in New York, having witnessed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, Larsen gave up nursing to become a librarian. In 1919 she married Elmer Imes, the “second black Ph.D. in physics in U.S. history.” They moved to Harlem and Larsen took a job at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Its crusading head, a white woman, saw in her an ideal candidate to overcome barriers in the profession, and after gaining a certificate from the Library School of the New York Public Library in 1923, Larsen worked as a children’s librarian on the Lower East Side. 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. Yet she was well placed to catch the first stirrings of the Negro Awakening: the exhibitions, plays, concerts and books. She drifted away from library work in order to write and in 1926 published her first adult fiction in women’s journals devoted to the romantic short story.
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.