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 Unveiled2 (1994), 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.
Her socially ambitious relations have been encouraging her romance with a white aristocratic painter. In his self-satisfaction, he makes what she considers an indecent proposal, which she ignores. His vanity is offended and when he proposes marriage, she rejects him. She can’t forgive him for maybe thinking she’d be willing to have an affair with him, because she is black and therefore either amoral or supremely grateful for any connection to him. Her Danish family sadly concludes that she is charming but unreasonable, “insufficiently civilized. Impulsive. Imprudent. Selfish.” The famil-iar feeling of oppression overtakes her on her round of dinners, coffees, theaters, and music. Conscious that she has “let down” people who have been good to her, Helga sets sail again. “For Helga Crane wasn’t, after all, a rebel from society, Negro society.” She gives herself up to the “miraculous joyousness” of Harlem.
What Helga wants from life, the question that torments her throughout the book, Larsen calls the “appeasement” of loneliness. Dr. Anderson could be a way out of the loneliness and awkward pride she was born into. However, in Helga’s absence he has married her closest friend in Harlem—not that she is really close to anybody. She is haunted by “voluptuous visions” for days, weeks. To meet him at dinners and parties is an ordeal, until one night he, a little drunk, kisses her. They arrange to meet and in a brief but chilling scene of disappointment and humiliation, the sort of thing at which Larsen is at her best, Helga realizes that because of Dr. Anderson’s regard for his own high-mindedness, he has no wish to embark on an affair. Instead, he apologizes for his conduct. Her desire to give herself to him had been so intense that she slaps him hard. “But she couldn’t escape from sure knowledge that she had made a fool of herself.”
The next night Helga stumbles from the rain into a storefront church. The congregation, moaning “Less of self and more of Thee,” mistake her in her fine, soaked clothes for a woman of easy virtue come to submit to the Lord. They become frenzied at the possibility that this sinner may find God. Helga is appalled by the primitive display, but hasn’t the power to leave. The next thing she knows she is weeping beneath the pulpit. Once her conversion has been accomplished, she is weak, but calm. A fat, attentive yellow man helps her back to her hotel. Suddenly, he represents for her a chance at stability and “permanent happiness.” God would make it all work out. “And so in the confusion of seductive repentance Helga Crane was married to the grandiloquent Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.”
The concluding chapters of Quicksand are bitter. Within twenty months of going with Reverend Green back to his rural Alabama church, Helga is worn down by poverty, work, her husband’s coarseness, his odors, his banality, the petty talk of the community, and her constant pregnancies, including twins. She loves her children, but cannot take care of them or the house. She is bewildered, mortified by her history of wrong choices. Unable to decide where she belongs, Helga has thrown herself away. After the birth of her fourth child, she thinks that God does not exist. It was “what ailed the whole Negro race in America, this fatuous belief in the white man’s God.” Slowly, she recovers. But when we last see her she is still exhausted, pregnant with their fifth child. “Nothing penetrated the kind darkness into which her bruised spirit had retreated.”
Poor Helga resents the better-off blacks who say they don’t like whites, but look down on poor blacks; she doesn’t like the whites, European ones, who wouldn’t mind at all if she acted with as much freedom as Josephine Baker did; and when she finally is living with poor blacks and their dialect—“Jes make de bes’ of et, honey”—she, a “city-bred thing,” knows that she has found hell.
Larsen’s novels are very interior, because her recessive characters need a lot of explanation, and also because she was writing Harlem novels of sensibility. Her view of Harlem differs from that of other novelists of her era who shared her subject, because she deals largely with parties in private homes. Her characters don’t go to cabarets; their dances are club events. There is little of the street in her novels, and certainly none of the decadence behind the unassuming door, as in Van Vechten. It is a woman’s view of Harlem, determined by where she, a nice girl, can go, and when and with whom.
Things, lovely things for their own sake, play an important part in Larsen’s work, maybe because she had a particularly feminine sensibility. It shows in her dialogue, in the way the unspoken thought can undercut and contradict what is being said. Larsen’s prose is rather inflexible, but she has control. She can keep up the tension in the ordinary because she never forgets the conflict between what a character would like to do and what she brings herself to do. The withheld thought is perhaps a feminine strategy in conversation, part of the training in how to defer, to make oneself agreeable, to keep things moving along. What goes unsaid is certainly a useful weapon in Passing, which is more accomplished and less autobiographical in feeling than Quicksand.
The black who passes for white figures in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature first as a protest against racial classification and secondly as a means of helping the white audience to get inside the minds and feelings of blacks. From William Wells Brown and Charles Chesnutt to Fannie Hurst and Jessie Fauset, passing was always dramatized as a class question. Why should I be a slave when I’m white and educated enough to be free? Why should I be curtailed when I am talented enough to be successful? No black character in American fiction has ever been portrayed as passing in order to live among poor white trash.
The heroine who passes in William Dean Howells’s An Imperative Duty (1891) moves to Italy with her white husband, who keeps her secret. But not until James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) does a black in American fiction succeed in passing all his life while in the US, though it could be said that the narrator’s confession is his whistle-blowing on himself. Usually the black who passed was found out or died, or both, thus sparing white American readers the question of whether the whites they were living and working with and marrying in real life were bona fide. After the Civil War, blacks who passed in fiction by black writers had their consciences worked on by race pride. Sacrifice, service to the race, kept heroines from suicide and fatal swamp fevers.
By Larsen’s day, passing as a theme had become yet another example of blacks knowing more about whites than whites did about them. As such, Passing is an unusual novel of urban manners, because the focus is not on how the passer is doing among whites, but rather on how blacks who know this secret about someone behave toward that person in social situations, uptown and downtown. Larsen’s inspiration in Passing lies largely in the point of view. Irene Redfield is light enough to pass, but she is married to a restless black Harlem physician, by whom she has two sons, a townhouse, a maid, and a cook. She passes when it is convenient for her, as when she is shopping alone and wants to have tea in a good hotel. Visiting her hometown, Chicago, she does just that and by chance meets a childhood friend, Clare Kendry, whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years. The novel is concerned with Irene’s attempts to resist Clare’s renewed friendship, because, though she can never figure Clare out, she understands that Clare is a self-destructive person who can’t make her point unless she takes someone else down with her.
Willful, pretty, motherless Clare was pitied in their old neighborhood, because her janitor father was a drunk. After he was killed in a saloon fight, Clare went to live with her father’s relations in another part of town. He was white, her mother black. Her visits to the old neighborhood lessened and then she vanished altogether. There were rumors, which Clare airily confirms. She has married a rich white businessman who does not know she is black; their daughter is in school in Switzerland. Irene’s instinct is to stay clear of Clare, who has done this “abhorrent and dangerous thing.” She tells herself that she is not a snob, that she doesn’t care about “the petty restrictions…with which what called itself Negro society chose to hedge about itself,” but she has an aversion to the “gossip and scandal” which Clare’s presence in her life could expose her to.
However, she is strangely moved by Clare and agrees to call on her before she returns to New York. At Clare’s hotel, Irene finds an old acquaintance. In a remarkable scene, Irene, a light-skinned black woman with a black husband, listens to the two other light-skinned black women, one married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s black, the other married to a white man who does, discuss the strain of their pregnancies, their relief when their babies came out pale, and their fear of having more children, because they may turn out to be too dark. “They don’t know like we do, how it might go way back, and turn out dark no matter what color the father and mother are.” Irene informs them that her husband couldn’t pass.
Matters worsen for Irene when Clare’s husband, John Bellew, arrives unexpectedly. His nickname for his wife is “Nig.” He teases her about having got darker since they married. “I tell her if she doesn’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and finds she’s turned into a nigger.” He roars with laughter, because he knows she’s no “nigger”; he’d met her white aunts. He assumes he’s talking to white ladies. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” His tirade against “niggers” goes on and Larsen can do it all—Clare’s innocence and composure, the comic discomfort of their old acquaintance, Irene’s struggle not to betray her anger and therefore Clare. She remembers that Clare likes to take risks and doesn’t consider the feelings of anyone else. But she can’t understand why Clare has subjected the two of them to the insults of her husband.
Back in New York, Clare’s letters pursue Irene. She tells her indifferent husband, “It’s a funny thing about ‘passing.’ We [blacks] disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it.” Clare comes to New York, and Irene continues to ignore her letters asking to meet again. But Clare is not to be denied. As soon as Bellew leaves on business, Clare appears at her door. “You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.” Once Clare has penetrated Irene’s mahogany fortress there is no stopping her. The pace of the novel accelerates as Clare wheedles her way into Irene’s parties and conquers her friends with her insolent beauty and spectacular clothes and glamour. Irene’s circle is racially mixed, and not even the character based on Van Vechten can tell if she is or isn’t one thing or the other.
Larsen shows Irene at first trying to protect Clare from herself, and her reckless game. Anxious about the excuses Clare gives her husband, Irene becomes a hapless conspirator in Clare’s clandestine affair with Harlem. Then she shows Irene trying to defend her home against the assault of Clare’s charm. The scene in which Irene realizes that her husband and Clare are having an affair is tersely told. Irene exerts herself to keep her guests from knowing that she knows what she now knows. “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe.” Bitter, robbed of her self-assurance, Irene has a moment of wishing she had not been born a Negro. It was “enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.”4
Clare’s husband has been closing in on her deceits. Irene has gone from hoping Bellew didn’t find out what Clare was doing to desperately wanting him to know, without her being the one to tell him. But when he tracks Clare down at a Harlem party and angrily confronts his smiling, uncaring wife, Irene sees the danger to her marriage in letting him cast Clare aside. “It was that smile that maddened Irene.”
One moment Clare is there, like “a flame of red and gold.” She leans backward through a window. She falls, then she is gone. Bellew is like a beast in agony. But the shock and grief of Irene’s husband over Clare’s body tells her that she had “lost control of his mind and heart.”
Larsen won a Guggenheim in 1930 and went to Europe. Her own marriage was falling apart. Charles Larson generously offers that the plagiarism scandal that greeted her upon her return was the result in part of her trying to support herself, to make money by publishing what she could, that she’d forgotten where the idea came from, she’d read so much as a librarian. Larson includes the story in question, “Sanctuary,” about a black mother down South who hides a no-good friend of her son’s from the white sheriff. He admits to her that he’s killed a man. When the sheriff informs her that the dead man is her son, she still doesn’t give the culprit away. It is better than “Mrs. Adis” by Sheila Kaye-Smith, the story, published in Century magazine in 1922 and set in nineteenth-century Sussex, that Larsen was accused of plagiarizing. But a comparison of the two makes Larsen’s explanation for the similarities—that the plot was common in Negro folklore—unconvincing. In any case, she never published the novel she’d gone to Europe to write.
Larsen was divorced in 1933 and by 1941 was working as a nurse again. She left the narrow world she wrote about, the world of blacks who always dressed as for a photograph by Van Der Zee. The black middle class wasn’t forgiven its snobbery about the black masses until more blacks entered the middle class and more black writers either became or came from the middle class themselves. Then, too, a good number of the historical figures in Black Women in America considered themselves middle-class. Besides, the hip-hop generation, the new definer of blackness, is not against having money. Meanwhile, Larsen’s depiction of Harlem’s middle class is much less sentimental than that of Jessie Fauset, perhaps because Larsen started life in the working class. Her refinement has much to do with a deep fatalism at the core of her work. Racial identity is overtaken by individual suffering, by the hurt men can do women.
She herself slipped from view, proud, exactly like her unhappy protagonists.
April 25, 2002
Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White, edited and with an introduction by Christo Maurer (Noonday, 1998). ↩
Louisiana State University Press. ↩
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). ↩
Deborah McDowell, in her introduction to Quicksand and Passing, discusses these novels as portraits of sexual repression and of the misery of marriage for women. She views Irene, in Passing, as an “unreliable narrator” who only imagines an affair between Clare and her husband as a way of avoiding lesbian feelings awakened by Clare’s attentions to her. This doesn’t fit Larsen’s overall characterization of Irene as rather attuned and mercilessly sober. ↩