Tuesday, July 12, 2016
July 12, 2016: 20th Century Women Writers: Nella Larsen
[This Wednesday, my summer hybrid grad course on 20th Century American Women Writers kicks off (we’ll be starting with a discussion of Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some exemplary such writers, leading up to a weekend post on some of what I’m most excited for with that summer course.]
On the brief but potent and important career of a Harlem Renaissance writer.
There are lots of different kinds of undeservedly forgotten or obscure writers—from those who published for decades without ever quite achieving the success that they deserved, as did personal favorite Charles Chesnutt; to those who were tremendously influential in their own era but should be better remembered and read in our own, as I argued in this post about Theodore Dreiser (and specifically Sister Carrie)—but to my mind the most mysterious and compelling are those with very short yet very successful careers, the writers who publish one or two great books and then vanish. Part of what makes those cases especially interesting are the aspects of their authors’ identities that contributed to their meteoric rise and fall, aspects that often appear in their fictional texts as well; and part is simply the opportunity that they present for focused attention, the way in which all that they had to say (or got to say, anyway) is to be found in an impressive work or two. And that’s definitely the case with the meteoric, mysterious, and compelling literary career of African American nurse, activist, and Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen.
Larsen was born in 1891 and died in 1964, which means that her life began at what has been called the nadir of African American existence, just before the height of the lynching epidemic and the Supreme Court’s endorsement of Jim Crow segregation, spanned the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance (and Larsen herself moved to New York City in 1914 to attend nursing school and lived there for much of her life), and ended with the Civil Rights movement in full swing. She also attended historically black Fisk University for two years, worked for a time at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, and married Elmer Imes, the second African American to receive a PhD in Physics. Yet alongside that roster of links between Larsen and the broader African American community must be put some other, far from simple facts of her identity: that her mother was a Danish immigrant and her father an African Caribbean immigrant from St. Croix who abandoned her (and her mother) at a young age; that she took the surname Larsen from her mother’s Scandinavian second husband; and that she spent a few of her formative years in Denmark with maternal relatives. Since Larsen lived in almost total obscurity for more than 65 of her 72 years, it is nearly impossible to know with any certainty what any of these experiences and heritages meant for her perspective and identity (although biographers have worked hard to ascertain what can be known); what we do have instead are the two unique and profoundly American (in every sense) novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), that constitute her literary identity and legacy very fully and successfully.
I teach both novels in my second-half American literature survey (they’re both very short, really novellas), and their differences make for an interesting and productive pairing. Quicksand is extremely autobiographical, focusing very intimately on the identity and perspective of its protagonist Helga Crane, a half-Danish half-West Indian young woman who moves between the South, New York, and Denmark in search of home, community, romantic connection, and self. Passing is a multi-character study of that titular and very complex racial topic, focusing in particular on two light-skinned African American women and childhood friends (Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry) who have made drastically different life choices (Clare has passed and married a racist white businessman who does not know her racial heritage, Irene has not passed and married a race-obsessed black doctor) and yet whose lives and trajectories intersect fully and tragically in the novella’s events. While both thus likely reveal different aspects of Larsen’s own identity and perspective, the elements that they share are just as significant: a lyrical and powerful style; an extremely impressive ability to create and communicate the perspectives through which the stories are told (Helga and Irene, respectively); and an effortless but crucial concurrent skill at constructing the communities (from a Southern black school to a Harlem party, a whites-only Chicago rooftop restaurant to a fundamentalist black church, and many others) through which these and many other rich and three-dimensional characters move. There are plenty of complex issues to keep literary critics (and survey class students) busy, including central focuses on gender and sexuality, but both books are also and just as importantly readable and engaging stories.
Larsen was (falsely, it seems) accused of plagiarism in regard to the short story, “Sanctuary” (1930), with which she followed Passing, and those accusations along with the failure of her marriage seem to have combined to drive her both to Europe for a time and away from writing (and back to nursing) for the remainder of her life. Reading these two novels is thus, again, partly a way into a long and complex American life, one that connects to a great many historical and cultural issues and changes and to which we would otherwise have precious little access. But it’s also a chance to discover a writer who can speak to questions of identity and community, of the searches for self and home, that cut across any culture or period and cut to the heart of what defines all of our American lives. For all those reasons, Larsen has been passed by for long enough. Next writer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other women writers (20th century American or otherwise) you’d highlight?