Author Nella Larsen is once again a person of interest many years after her acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance and the publication of her book “Passing.” That novel has recently been made into a feature film now showing on Netflix and raising questions about race and who is the author. We will spend less time and space on “Passing,” though its production is well worth the time, and more on the author, who’s life to some degree is in keeping with the challenges that occur in her novel. In our pages last week there was a review of the film, and I highly recommend it and the production.
She was born Nella Marie Larsen in Chicago in 1891 or 1893. Her parentage included a mother of Danish ancestry and a Black Caribbean. Her father died when she was two years old and she was raised by her mother and her stepfather, who was a Dane. Very little is known about these early years of life and some of the best scholars have largely omitted this in their studies.
In 1906/07, she was a student in Chicago’s public school system before the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee where she attended Fisk University’s Normal School. Here she was fully immersed in an African American environment.
Interested in her heritage, Larsen traveled to Denmark after completing a year at Fisk. She remained there from 1909 to 1912, where she lived with relatives and audited courses at the University of Copenhagen. Upon her return to the States, she enrolled in a three-year program at the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York City. From 1915 to 1921 she was a practicing nurse at the John A. Andrew Hospital and Nurse Training School in Alabama and the Department of Health in New York City. In 1919, she married Dr. Elmer Samuel Imes, a Black physicist who later chaired the Physics Department at Fisk University.
Larsen’s love of books commanded her life from 1922 to 1926 when she served as a librarian at the New Public Library. Her literary career began to bloom after she resigned and in 1928 she published her first novel “Quicksand.” The book’s theme touched on the racial complexities and the marginalized African American women.
Many literary critics believe that her creativity and imagination was fueled by her own racial dilemma. W.E.B. Du Bois hailed the book as one of the best that had been written since the works of Charles B. Chesnutt. It won the Harmon Foundation’s second prize bronze medal and established her in the ranks of the writers of her generation.
A year later, the publication of “Passing” firmly secured her position in the Black literary canon and the Harlem Renaissance. As the recent film deftly presents, and hews closely to the novel, Larsen delves into the difficulties of passing for white that one woman faces and the problem another one has who doesn’t choose to pass. They are haunted, on the one hand by a deception and on the other hand by remaining true to one’s race. Their personal relationship is at the center of the novel and highlights the predicaments of their decisions. In 1930, Larsen was awarded the first Guggenheim Fellowship to an African American woman.
Shortly thereafter, she ventured to Spain to work on her third novel but was soon caught in the throes of plagiarism, charges that emerged from her short story “Sanctuary,” about the accidental discovery of her husband’s infidelity. She claimed that her story was completely her own and had been published in a magazine. Though she was cleared of the plagiarism charges, her marriage ended and the couple divorced in 1933. She also failed to complete her third novel, and her financial situation was exacerbated, as were those of many others, by the Great Depression. Her well-being was further complicated when the alimony payments from her husband ceased after his death in 1941. For several years she worked as a nurse at the Bethel Hospital in Brooklyn until her death in 1964.
Her place in the literary canon is often compared with Jessie Fauset, a contemporary author, who was also a strong proponent of the intersexuality of race and gender. Both writers infused large dollops of modernity in their novels, prefiguring the works of Black writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor.
Those of you who have read “Passing” will recall this vivid scene and one that appears in the film almost word for word: “Clare handed her husband his tea and laid her hand on his arm. Speaking with confidence as well as with amusement, she said: ‘My goodness, Jack! What difference would it make if, after all these years, you were to find out that I was one or two per cent coloured?’
“Bellew put out his hand in a repudiating fling, definite and final. ‘Oh, no, Nig,’ he declared [Nig was how her husband often referred to Clare], nothing like that with me. I know you’re no nigger, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” Irene’s lips trembled almost uncontrollably. A disastrous desire to laugh again, and succeeded. Carefully selecting a cigarette from the lacquered tea-table before her, she turned an oblique look on Clare and encountered her peculiar eyes fixed on her with an expression so dark and deep and unfathomable that she had for a short moment the sensation of gazing into the eyes of some creature utterly strange and apart. A faint sense of danger brushed her, like the breath of a cold fog. Absurd, her reason told her, as she accepted Bellew’s proffered light for her cigarette. Another glance at Clare showed her smiling. So, as one always ready to oblige, was Gertrude. An on-looker, Irene reflected, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter. She said humorously:
“‘So you dislike negroes, Mr. Bellew?’ But her amusement was at her thought, rather than her words. John Bellew gave a short, denying laugh. ‘I don’t dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig, for all she’s trying to turn into one. She wouldn’t have a nigger maid around her for love nor money. Not that I’d want her to. They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils.’”