Article

Larsen, Nella (1891–1964) By Girling, Anna

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM105-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 21 February 2020, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/larsen-nella-1891-1964-1

Article

Abstract

Nella Larsen was an American novelist active in the 1920s and one of the central figures of ‘Manhattan modernism.’ She is best known for two short novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). While she is now considered a key American modernist writer, both Larsen and her work were unheard of for much of the mid-twentieth-century, only returning to prominence from the 1980s. The ‘rediscovered’ Larsen was initially claimed predominantly by black and feminist schools of criticism; however, Larsen’s passage into the canon has since involved the work of literary critics from almost every field.

Nella Larsen was an American novelist active in the 1920s and one of the central figures of ‘Manhattan modernism.’ She is best known for two short novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). While she is now considered a key American modernist writer, both Larsen and her work were unheard of for much of the mid-twentieth-century, only returning to prominence from the 1980s. The ‘rediscovered’ Larsen was initially claimed predominantly by black and feminist schools of criticism; however, Larsen’s passage into the canon has since involved the work of literary critics from almost every field.

Larsen was born in Chicago, the daughter of a (white) Danish mother and a (black) West Indian father; soon after her birth, however, Larsen’s mother married a fellow Dane. The experience of growing up as a mixed-race child in a white family was difficult and provided material for Larsen’s later works. She briefly attended university in Nashville and then spent several years with her mother’s family in Copenhagen. She trained as a nurse upon her return to the USA and started work in the Bronx. During this time she married Elmer S. Imes, a physicist who was socially connected to a number of leading black intellectuals, many of them members of the NAACP. Larsen, however, was drawn towards the more bohemian fringes of the Harlem Renaissance and one of her closest friendships was with Carl Van Vechten, whose photographs of Larsen, among others, are some of the most iconic images of American modernism.

In 1922 Larsen entered the School of the New York Public Library (NYPL), becoming only the second formally trained black American librarian in the country. She worked in various NYPL branches where she organised a number of cultural events featuring Harlem Renaissance figures. Her first known fiction was published in the ‘pulp’ Young’s Magazine in 1926, under the pseudonym Allen Semi; the two stories, ‘The Wrong Man’ and ‘Freedom,’ centre on sensationally-depicted love triangles.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, published by Knopf in 1928, was hailed at the time as a successful reworking of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme — although it should also be seen in the context of the work by Scandinavian modernist writers — Henrik Ibsen and Jens Peter Jacobsen in particular — that Larsen was especially interested in. The novel follows Helga Crane as she moves between jobs, countries, and social circles in an unsuccessful search for a sense of belonging, and much of the trajectory of Helga’s early education, travels, and career are a thinly veiled re-working of Larsen’s. With Passing, published in 1929, Larsen produced her most complex and powerful work; short and expressionistic, it centres on the re-encounter between two black American women, childhood friends, who meet again as adults, by which point one of them is ‘passing’ as white. As well as its exploration of issues of race and identity, the novel also questions the construction of gender, class, and objective truth, partly though its use of unreliable, limited narration.

Larsen won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930. She was the first black American woman to do so, and used the money to travel to Europe. In the same year, she was accused of plagiarism over a magazine short story, ‘Sanctuary’ (the plot was similar to that of an English short story), and — although the accusations were never proved — she was forced to publish an explanation. While abroad, Larsen worked on her next novel, Mirage; however, it was rejected by Knopf and was never published. Larsen and Imes divorced in the mid-1930s and Larsen returned to nursing work soon after. She worked as a nurse until her death, having broken all ties to her past life, including literary work and friendships. All manuscripts of Larsen’s work are lost (including those of two unpublished novels); many of her letters to friends survive, however, and are held in various collections.

content unlocked

Published

09/05/2016

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM105-1

Print

Related Searches


Citing this article:

Girling, Anna. "Larsen, Nella (1891–1964)." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 21 Feb. 2020 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/larsen-nella-1891-1964-1. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM105-1

Copyright © 2016-2020 Routledge.