Nellie Walker’s African–West Indian father died when she was just two years old. Soon after, her Danish-American mother remarried and had another child. Dark-skinned Nella Larsen felt like an outsider in her all-white, Danish-American family. Raised outside the African-American community, she also felt alienated from African Americans. Rather than being biracial, she felt nonracial—neither white nor black.
An accomplished nursing supervisor, Larsen married Elmer Imes, an African-American research physicist. The couple made a home in the intellectual world of Harlem, becoming friends with the Du Boises, Arthur and Jessie Fauset, and other literary luminaries of Harlem. In 1921, Nella quit nursing to work for the New York Public Library, and she began writing (publishing her first two stories in 1926). As the Harlem Renaissance blossomed, so did her writing. Eventually, she left the library, finishing her novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) in rapid succession.
Quicksand’s protagonist Helga—an urban, middle-class, well-educated mulatta—struggles with her racial identity. When her all-white family rejects her for her dark skin, she goes South to teach in an all-black school. There, too, she feels alien. After seeking an identity and a sense of belonging in various locales, she marries a Southern preacher and submerges her identity in mothering their four children. Just when she seems ready to leave them to forge her own identity, she discovers she is pregnant with a fifth child. The novel ends without revealing how she responds to this circumstance. Like other critics, W. E. B. Du Bois praised Quicksand as “the best fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of [Charles] Chesnutt.”
Du Bois also praised her Passing, calling it “one of the finest novels of the year.” Its protagonist Clare easily “passes” in white society, not even telling her white husband of her black ancestry. By chance, she runs into an old acquaintance, Irene, a middle-class African American who knows Clare’s heritage. Irene has her own problems, however, as she fears that her husband will be attracted to her light-skinned friend. Neither woman is entirely satisfied with who she is.
Larsen’s novels immediately earned her prominence as a visionary novelist, illuminating the inner psyche of the bicultural, urban woman of her time. Just as her literary star was ascending, however, she was dragged into a nasty scandal (falsely accusing her of plagiarism), followed by a humiliatingly sensationalized divorce. Afterward, she left for Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship (the first African-American woman to win one).
In Europe, Larsen started two new novels, but her publisher rejected both of them—and a third novel, too. She then withdrew entirely from the Harlem literary scene, eventually returning to nursing. After her death, her two novels and her short stories have been republished several times.
(See list of abbreviations here.)
Davis, Thadious M. , in OCAAL.
Larson, Charles R. , in OCWW.
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