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Harlem’s Mystery Woman


In the summer of 1929, Federico García Lorca was living in a dormitory up at Columbia University and trying to learn English. He was getting over a love affair with a man back in Spain and soon he would write the poems that marked a dramatic turning point in his work. Meanwhile, he sent to his worried family letters brimming with filial tenderness and his excitement at being in the New World:

I have also met a famous black writer, Nella Larsen, of the literary avant-garde, and with her I visited the black neighborhood and saw much that surprised me. To my great amazement, everyone understands my French. With this writer I spoke French the whole afternoon, and we managed to say whatever we felt like. Necessity, mother of invention, worked a miracle or two! The little French I knew came back to me, and I remembered all the words. And that made me very happy indeed.

This writer is an exquisitely kind woman, full of the deep, moving melancholy that all blacks have. She gave a party at her house, and there were only blacks. This is the second time I’ve gone somewhere with her, for she interests me enormously.

At the last party, I was the only white. She lives on Second Avenue, and from her windows you could see all the lights of New York. It was night and beacons were sweeping back and forth across the sky. The blacks sang and danced.

What marvelous songs! Only the cante jondo [flamenco] is comparable to them.

…The blacks are an extremely kind people. When I said goodbye, they all hugged me, and the writer gave me her books, with warm dedications—they told me this was quite an honor, for she has never done that for any of them.1

Nella Larsen is one Harlem Renaissance novelist we know little about, in spite of the shelves of critical studies of the period, a long, effortful biography by Thadious M. Davis, Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled^2, and reprints of Larsen’s “lost” works. Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928), was republished in 1971, after the civil rights movement and black nationalism had helped to create popular interest in black literary history. In 1986, when Black Studies had grown as an academic field and had produced a crop of scholars dedicated to reconsidering black writers, Quicksand appeared again, together with Passing (1929), Larsen’s only other novel. Passing was then reprinted twice.3 The latest republication of her novels, The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen, edited by Charles R. Larson, includes “The Stories.” But there are only three of them. (“I can’t write short stories,” Larsen herself said.) Not only did she not write much, her writing life was brief.

Black Women in America tells us that she was born in Chicago in 1891, of an African-American (or perhaps Caribbean) father and a Danish mother. They were both working as servants for the same family. Her father died and in 1894 her mother remarried, this time to a white man named Larsen, making Nella the unwanted, colored stepchild. Or, as Thadious M. Davis suggests in her biography, she was born Nellie Walker and her father, Peter Walker, changed his name to Larsen when he decided to pass for white. Nella’s younger sister was light enough to pass, but not Nella. The family, somehow, dropped her, left her behind. In 1910, Nella’s white mother told the census that she had only one daughter. As a girl, Nella Larsen may or may not have spent some time in Denmark with her mother’s relations. According to Davis, between 1907 and 1910 Larsen was an indifferent student at Fisk University, a black school in Nashville, Tennessee, but after a visit from her mother she left the school. Larsen claimed that from 1910 to 1912 she was taking classes at the University of Copenhagen. There are no records, but she could read and speak Danish. She certainly studied nursing in New York at Lincoln Hospital from 1912 to 1915 and was assistant superintendent of nurses at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1915 to 1916. Larsen went back to New York, to Lincoln Hospital, and was with the Department of Health until 1921. As the Harlem Renaissance took off, she was working as a librarian and married to a black physicist (and womanizer), Elmer Imes.

They were a glory couple and knew everyone in Harlem—Rudolph Fisher, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, literary editor of the Crisis, author of three novels about middle-class black women, and therefore the writer to whom Larsen is inevitably compared, though their handling of similar themes is very different. And, yes, the ubiquitous Carl Van Vechten was a part of Larsen’s scene. He helped to get her books published.

There was much gossip about her back then and she gets mentioned in biographies of other black writers or in collections of their letters, seemingly always arriving late to a party. She left lively letters about her social set, but Davis’s biography shows us, as does Charles Larson’s equally scrupulous introduction to The Complete Fiction, that the available facts are hard to add to, no matter how expansively the facts are interpreted in the drive to discover the “gendered meaning” of Larsen’s life. Larsen herself concealed much and told various stories about herself. Given the mysteries concerning her early life—when and how often she was in Denmark; was there an early marriage in Tennessee?—and the silence of her later years, most documentation is confined to her years as part of the Harlem crowd. Perhaps she would have wanted it that way. Her before and after belonged to her, not to posterity.

Larson characterizes Larsen as a sad, beautiful, lonely woman. Lorca’s own melancholy recognized hers and though no friendship seems to have developed, the unlikely meeting of the two is very moving. It says something, somehow, about the fragility of writers’ lives. We know their fates, but they didn’t. Lorca went to Cuba, then back to Spain, where he died in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and never saw in book form the poems he wrote in New York. He’d met Larsen at the beginning of her career, in the flush of critical acclaim, but this auspicious beginning would turn out to be all there was. After Larsen was involved in a plagiarism scandal in 1930, when she was accused of taking the plot from a short story, she never published anything else, and by the time she died in Brooklyn in 1964 she was more obscure than even Jean Toomer or Zora Neale Hurston were at the time.

What Lorca called the coldness of capitalist, Protestant New York shocked him, but as a Latin he responded to the Harlem scene. Blacks figure prominently and sometimes oddly in his Poet in New York, but Lorca was not offended or disappointed when a black person turned out to be intelligent, unlike some whites, including some Surrealist writers, who embraced blacks only as embodiments of the primitive, the erotic, and the rule of the subconscious. As a close friend of Van Vechten’s, Larsen hadn’t any prim middle-class disapproval of exposés of Harlem’s night life. Yet both her novels express the middle-class black’s resentment at the fashion for the cult of the primitive, the black as natural man (and loose woman). She worked with a city landscape, but was far from other young black Harlem Renaissance writers who boldly took their inspiration from the proletariat, from life as the black masses then lived it. Larsen filtered everything about black life through the lens of the class she married into, especially her loathing of down-home religion.

In Quicksand, Helga Crane decides to escape the stultifying atmosphere of Naxos, a Southern black college where she teaches. A showplace of the black belt, Naxos has become a “machine.” Every hint of individualism is discouraged, even bright clothes. But Helga’s “spirit of loyalty to the inherent racial need for gorgeousness” told her that black people should wear yellow, green, and red. Helga’s love for “nice things”—luxurious woolens, clinging silks, old lace, dim brocade—is partly why she is unpopular with other faculty members. Helga is fed up with people who “yapped loudly” about race pride, yet suppressed its delightful manifestations—“love of color, joy of rhythmic motion, naïve, spontaneous laughter.” She wonders, pre-Zora, why someone didn’t write A Plea for Color.

During their final interview the handsome Naxos dean stirs in her a desire to remain and to serve him, if not the race. But when he refers to her as “a lady,” she, born in a Chicago slum, recalls her feeling of being trapped and decides that she detests cool, controlled people. Helga reflects on her personal history, on her dead mother’s folly in having married a black man, on when she began to understand what made her different from her white half-siblings and the other girls at school. She is troubled by the need to appeal to her stepfather and her mother’s family in Chicago for money. Even the uncle who is willing to help likes to do so because it confirms his opinion that her Negro blood keeps her from amounting to anything. As a mulatto Helga is vulnerable to the prejudices of blacks as well as whites. Mysterious to others, she is no less a mystery to herself. She will emerge in the novel as a fastidious study in ambivalence.

Gray Chicago brings rejection from her uncle’s new wife and a search for work. Helga is overqualified for the jobs that agencies offer black women. Moreover, her education, her light skin and confident demeanor make her unlikely in the eyes of whites to hold up her end of the social contract as a black. Helga meets a well-off Negro widow influential in women’s clubs and moves to New York as her secretary. Larsen can depict in a few deft strokes how middle-class Harlem life—“the cynical talk, their elaborate parties, the unobtrusive correctness of their homes and clothes”—satisfies at least for a while Helga’s “craving for smartness, for enjoyment.” She also notes Helga’s detachment from the “sober mad rush” of white New York. “But it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s.” She is increasingly impatient that her middle-class set can proclaim race pride, despise whites so richly, yet strive for the same things and hold the same values as whites, which then translates into dislike of the songs, dances, and “softly blurred speech of the race.”

After Helga meets again the Naxos dean, Dr. Anderson, who has also given up on Negro education down South, her feeling of being trapped by race and by being a woman on her own deepens. Harlem becomes for her a place of lassitude and depression. She feels “boxed up” with other blacks, “shut up” with her “smoldering hatred” of uptown. Her penitent uncle back in Chicago, aware that he will soon die, sends Helga a large check. Confused, she is thankful to escape on her uncle’s money to her aunt in Denmark. In Copenhagen, Helga takes to her new status as pampered visitor, exotic decoration. Her cultivated aunt’s family introduces her into their bourgeois circle, where she is an immediate success. They adore dressing her up in elegant clothes and jewels. They want her to “incite” curiosity and admiration as a black woman. She is fascinated that her being black is at last such a social asset. However, she is at peace only for a while.

  1. 1

    Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White, edited and with an introduction by Christo Maurer (Noonday, 1998).

  2. 3

    Quicksand, with an introduction by Adelaide Cromwell Hill (Collier, 1971); Quicksand and Passing, edited with an introduction by Deborah McDowell (Rutgers University Press, 1986); Passing, edited with an introduction by Thadious M. Davis (Penguin, 1997), and Passing, with an introduction by Ntozake Shange (Modern Library, 2000).

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