This sample Nella Larsen Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Nella Larsen is closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, an era of unprecedented achievement in African American art and literature during the 1920s and early 1930s. Although she is less well known than other black writers of this period, she has been highly praised for her two novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). In these works Larsen depicted urban middle-class mixed-race women, and critics praised her for creating complex female characters constrained by society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Mixed Background
Although Larsen disclosed very few details about her childhood, scholars have determined that she was the child of a Caribbean man and a Danish woman and was born in Chicago. Larsen wrote in a short autobiography for her publisher that her father died when she was two years old and that ”shortly afterward her mother married a man of her own race and nationality.” Larsen grew up among white family members and apparently felt alienated in this environment. She attended Fisk University in Tennessee for a short time, audited classes at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and studied nursing in New York City. While she practiced nursing and worked as a librarian in New York, she and her husband, physicist Dr. Elmer S. Imes, befriended writers and artists in Harlem. Thadious Davis—Larsen’s foremost biographer—wrote that Harlem’s activity seemed like a ”whirlwind” to her. Larsen described in a 1925 letter to Carl Van Vechten: ”It has seemed always to be tea time, as the immortal Alice remarked, with never time to wash the dishes between while.” According to Davis, however, Larsen’s affiliation with the creativity of Harlem was ”controlled by her conscious desire to achieve recognition and [was] perhaps controlled too by her unconscious hope to belong.” He adds: ”While for some the stirrings in Harlem may have been racial and aesthetic, for Larsen they were primarily practical. Her objective was to use art to protract her identity onto a larger social landscape as emphatically as possible.”
Larsen loved books as much as she did glamour and excitement. Although she was not college educated, she impressed her associates with her knowledge of books. Walter White was so impressed that he recommended her for a position with the Book League of America, while Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity magazine, would write that hers was ”a most extraordinarily wide acquaintance with past and current literature.” An avid reader and collector, Larsen displayed the effects of her reading in her fiction.
She identified Van Vechten and John Galsworthy as her favorite authors; Van Vechten’s attention to the details of an ”amusing” contemporary scene, and Galsworthy’s to social settings, make their way into both of her novels. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which she requested in 1927 from a friend traveling in Europe, inspired her experiments with interior monologues in Passing. Carlo Goldoni, an eighteenth-century playwright who reformed the Italian theater and wrote for the French, gave impetus to her treatment of social conventions and injustices. Larsen also admired the works of such modern writers as Marmaduke Pickthall, Taylor Gordon, and Rudolph Fisher.
Career as a Writer
Larsen’s apprenticeship as a writer was relatively short and included experimentation with the short story. Two of her tales were published in 1926 under a pseudonym, or pen name. Although her short stories do not feature black characters, they present versions of the affluent characters and themes of discontent and concealment that were developed in her novels. Importantly, too, the stories reflect Larsen’s penchant for the surprise ending that characterized, and possibly weakened, her longer fiction. In 1926 Larsen began writing her first novel and from that time on considered herself a novelist.
Larsen’s novels provide an insight into her own life and the times in which she lived. In 1928 Larsen published her first and best-known novel, Quicksand. This semiautobiographical work involves a woman, Helga
Crane, who searches in vain for sexual and racial identity. At the beginning of the novel, Helga, the daughter of a Caribbean man and a Danish woman, is about to leave her teaching position at a Southern black college. She feels stifled by the environment there, so she journeys to Chicago, New York City, and then to Copenhagen, where she is regarded as an exotic novelty and entertained in elite social circles. Helga returns to New York City—specifically Harlem—to reaffirm ties with blacks. There she undergoes a religious experience and marries the minister responsible for her awakening, the ”jackleg preacher” Reverend Pleasant Green. Helga and the minister move to his home in the Deep South. While the marriage initially fulfills Helga’s longing for an uncomplicated existence and for sexual gratification, she realizes her unhappiness as she is bearing her fourth child. Quicksand ends with Helga mired in rural poverty and pregnant with her fifth child.
Larsen followed Quicksand with Passing, the story of a light-skinned mulatto, or mixed-race, woman, Clare Ken-dry, who ”passes” for white. Clare is attracted to Harlem for its excitement and she daringly risks revealing her racial heritage to her bigoted white husband and to the society in which she lives. In Harlem Clare renews ties with a childhood friend, Irene Redfield, who also passes for white. Like Larsen’s first novel, many of the details and situations found in Passing bear a similarity to Larsen’s own experiences as a mixed-race woman raised in a white environment. Passing was a controversial subject in the African American community, and Larsen herself would be suspected by her former friends of doing the very thing when she disappeared from the Harlem literary scene.
Plagiarism and Disappearance
At the height of her popularity in 1930, Larsen prepared for a year in Spain, working on her Guggenheim project and enjoying her first trip to Europe. Before her departure, however, she was accused of plagiarism when a reader of Forum magazine noticed that ”Sanctuary,” the only short story she published under her own name, closely resembled ”Mrs. Adis,” a story by Sheila Kaye-Smith from a 1922 issue of Century magazine. Although Larsen wrote an open letter in Forum clearing herself of any wrongdoing and had the support of the editors who had seen the story in draft versions, she suffered a loss of her confidence as a creative writer. Thereafter, she not only wrote more painstakingly but also depended upon outside readings of her works in progress. The incident combined with the deterioration of her marriage to make her fellowship year less than productive, though she tried to complete a novel begun before the publication of Passing, and she started two new novels during her stay in Spain and France.
Continued success as a published novelist eluded Larsen. Following her return from Europe, she experienced further marital problems, which she attempted to resolve by moving to Nashville, where her husband was teaching at Fisk University. She remained committed to her writing during 1932 and 1933 when she began a fourth novel as well as a fifth in collaboration with Edward Donahoe, a young white writer. None of these projects was published. After her divorce in 1933, Larsen moved to the lower east side of New York, where she associated with writers, artists, and literary people who knew her as a novelist. Greenwich Village rather than Harlem became the center of her social life until the late 1930s when she began to withdraw from her friends and acquaintances there. For undisclosed reasons, she chose to change her life and to disappear by moving from one apartment building on Second Avenue to another that was just across the street in a smaller building.
Larsen returned to nursing after her former husband’s death in 1941, when she lost the alimony that had freed her from holding a job during the 1930s. She spent the last twenty years of her life working as a night nurse and supervising nurse at hospitals on the lower east side of Manhattan and living quietly in the same Second Avenue studio apartment. There are no extant records suggesting that she continued to write. When Larsen was found dead at the age of seventy-two, she was no longer remembered as a major New Negro writer. Ironically her death in 1964 occurred just as a second rebirth in black letters was under way.
Works in Literary Context
The fragmentation and duality in Nella Larsen’s fiction suggest that it may be more bound by her marginality and her milieu than her “modern” explorations of race, the color line, class, and gender might indicate. Her narratives stop abruptly, present no viable solutions, and remain dominated by dissatisfaction; they reflect an accurate and honest perception of the subject matter, but, despite an adept framing of character and incident, Larsen’s narratives do not finally penetrate the meaning of that subject. Yet in the very act of displaying tensions that cannot be resolved or concluded, she reveals an extraordinary grasp of the formal, structural, thematic, and symbolic elements of fiction.
Symbolism of the Journey
Throughout Quicksand, Nella Larsen is most effective in her use of symbolism to enhance characterization and to underscore theme. Images of entrapment, suffocation, and asphyxiation become more prominent and integral toward the end of the novel, where they skillfully evoke the heroine’s mental and physical condition, but from the outset of the novel, they complement the journey, Larsen’s major structural device. The literal journey functions symbolically as well, because Quicksand is essentially a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, interrelating psychological and social forces in Helga Crane’s search for definition and development. Each phase of the spatial journey—Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, Denmark, and Alabama—marks a symbolic stage in her developing consciousness. The narrative structure depends upon the variety of scene changes, yet simultaneously it brings into convergence action and meaning to emphasize Helga’s spiritual quest for growth and identity.
Women and Racism
Larsen’s fiction is concerned with the lives of middle-class women who, though cast in traditional roles, assume responsibility for their own lives. Her heroines are blacks who resemble whites in their skin coloring, as well as in their mannerisms and lifestyles. They are modern, urban characters who are far removed from the world of Southern blacks and agrarian settings; however, one of Larsen’s persistent themes is the relationship of these black characters to their heritage and the legacy of the past. Hers is a sophisticated group enjoying the best that New York has to offer; they attend shows and parties, dress in clothes purchased from smart Fifth Avenue shops, and dine at the best restaurants, but they are not free of the restrictions of racism, a point Larsen is careful to make. Her characters are not free of self-doubt, either, as they search for meaning in their lives; they are vaguely dissatisfied with who and what they are, but they seem basically unable to find a course of action that would allow them to develop fully their potential.
Nella Larsen’s work is today generally considered not only a viable reflection of a black world now past but also a precise outlining of a particular female perspective that has endured. Feminist critics especially have praised her portraits of black women and have seen a prototype of the woman artist in her promising but shortened career. Her intricate explorations of the consciousness and the psychology of female character form a legacy of the voice of a woman writer struggling to be heard, to convey her special messages, and thereby to free herself from the restrictions imposed upon the female by society.
Works in Critical Context
Although critics have expressed regret that Larsen’s literary career was so brief, they have acknowledged her significance as a portrayer of certain segments of African American society often neglected by other writers, including urban blacks, mulattos, and middle-class society. Of Larsen’s importance in the development of black writing, Hazel V. Carby concluded that ”she stands as a precursor not only to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison but to a neglected strand of Afro-American women’s fiction.” Writes Thadious M. Davis:
[Larsen’s] intricate explorations of the consciousness and the psychology of female character form a legacy of the voice of a woman writer struggling to be heard, to convey her special messages, and thereby to free herself from the restrictions imposed upon the female by society.
Passing Critics were divided in their reaction to Passing, but most found it inferior to Quicksand. Several commentators praised the novel for its depiction of the passing phenomenon; the novel is written from an individual psychological perspective instead of in the more usual broad sociological terms. Robert Bone considered Passing ”the best treatment of the subject in Negro fiction.”
Among recent critics Passing has received new evaluations that separate it from both the fiction of the tragic mulatto and the literature of passing. Addison Gayle holds the singular view that it is ”superior” to Quicksand ”in terms of character development, organization, and fidelity to language,” and that the three-part structure—”Encounter,” ”Re-encounter,” and ”Finale”—makes for a more well-knit novel. Gayle, however, believes that Larsen ”loses both focus and emotional intensity in her attempt to balance Irene Redfeld and Clare Kendry against one another.” His assessment of the novel’s weakness is similar to the objections voiced by Amritjit Singh and earlier critics who observed the fractured focus of the work. Neither critic Sister Mary Ellen Doyle nor Mabel Youman argues with the opinion that Passingis flawed, but both point out that its merits may have been obscured by a mistaken critical emphasis on Clare Kendry and the theme of passing, and they insist that the protagonist is actually Irene Redfield, who must be seen as central for an accurate reading ofthe novel. Their readings have had an impact on other critics; for example, Claudia Tate builds upon Youman and Doyle in attempting to rescue Passing from charges of being anachronistic and melodramatic.
- Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
- Brown, Sterling. The Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1965.
- Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.
- Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larson, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
- Fulinwider, S. P. The Mind and Mood of Black America: 20th Century Thought. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1969.
- Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1975.
- Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Kent, George. Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture. Chicago: Third World Press, 1972.
- Larson, Charles R. Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press,1993.
- Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.
- McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
- Perry, Margaret. Silence to the Drums: A Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.