An Introduction by Sharon Lynette Jones
TITLE: Nella Larsen
AUTHOR: Sharon Lynette Jones, Ph.D.
PERMISSION TO PUBLISH granted by the author. All rights reserved.
Nella Larsen was a novelist, literary critic, nurse, and librarian. Scholars vary on her date and place of birth: 1891, 1892, or 1893; and Chicago or NewYork City. Her mother was a white woman; her father was a black man. During 1907, Nella Larsen became a student at Fisk Normal School within Nashville, Tennessee, and in 1912 Larsen began studies at Lincoln Hospital and Home Training School for Nurses. By 1915, she had become an RN, or registered nurse. She wed Elmer Imes during 1919. During 1923, Larsen earned a certificate for librarians, according to “Nella Larsen: A Chronology” in Quicksand: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Carla Kaplan.
Nella Larsen is best known for her 1928 novel Quicksand and her 1929 novel Passing, which were published during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance (approximately 1900 to 1940) brought a blossoming of sculpture, painting, literature, music (jazz and blues), dance, and theater by black writers, musicians, and artists, according to “Harlem Renaissance” in The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones. Other Harlem Renaissance writers incuded James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorothy West, Anne Spencer, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. Thadious Davis in Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled points out that Quicksand incorporates some lines of poetry by Langston Hughes while Passing incorporates some lines of Countee Cullen’s poetry.
Set in the early twentieth century in the United States and Denmark, Quicksand depicts the life of the protagonist Helga Crane, the daughter of a white woman and a black man, who feels frustrated by other people trying to control her appearance and behavior. Scholar Carla Kaplan, in “Introduction: A Queer Dark Creature” from Quicksand: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism contends: “Quicksand also represents, and genders, most of the central ideological African American debates of its day, including primitivism, race loyalty, race pride, sexuality, double consciousness, double audience, black aesthetics, uplift, colorism, interracial marriage, and miscegenation.”
Passing examines the effects of racial passing (when people engage in presenting themselves as being of another racial identity) among two women (Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield) who have black and white ancestors. In Passing, Clare Kendry hides her heritage from her husband Jack Bellew (a white man who expresses racially prejudiced views about black people). Scholar Cheryl Wall in Women of the Harlem Renaissance claims: “Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for self-hood.” Deborah E. McDowell in an “Introduction” to Quicksand and Passing, contends: “We might say that they [Quicksand and Passing] represent the desire, the expectation, the preparation of eroticism that contemporary black women’s novels are attempting to bring to franker and fuller expression.”
By 1933 Nella Larsen and her husband had divorced. Nella Larsen died during 1964 without publishing any more novels. Her legacies include examining the effects of race, gender, class, marriage, sexuality, motherhood, friendship, migration, and education upon identities. Larsen’s works are read, discussed, and written about by scholars nationally and globally, and are taught in colleges and universities. Additionally, her novel Passing was adapted into a 2021 film, written and directed by Rebecca Hall, according to IMDB. It is available on Netflix. Larsen’s works remain relevant in the 21st century!
Dr. Sharon Lynette Jones is Chair of the Department of Women’s , Gender, and African-American Studies at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Dr. Jones has taught at a variety of institutions, such as Wright State University, Claflin University, Earlham College, and Clemson University.
Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled. Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Kaplan, Carla. “Introduction: A Queer Dark Creature.” Quicksand: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Carla Kaplan, W.W. Norton & Company, 2020, pp.ix-xxxiv.
McDowell, Deborah E. “Introduction.” Quicksand and Passing, edited by Deborah E. McDowell, Rutgers University Press, 2020, pp. ix-xxxi.
“Nella Larsen: A Chronology.” Quicksand: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Carla Kaplan, W.W. Norton & Company, 2020, pp. 259-264.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing, edited by Deborah E. McDowell, Rutgers University Press, 2020.
Passing. IMDB, www.imdb.com/title/tt8893974/. Accessed 13 June 2023.
Passing. Directed by Rebecca Hall, screenplay by Rebecca Hall, Netflix, Significant Production, PictureFilms, Flat Five Production, AUM Group, XRM Media, Film 4, 2021. Netflix, www.netflix.com/search?q=passing&jbv=81424320.
Smith, Rochelle and Sharon L. Jones. “Harlem Renaissance.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones, Prentice Hall, 2000, pp. 163-167.
Wall, Cheryl. Women of the Harlem Renaissance, Indiana University Press, 1995. Google Books, play.google.com/books/reader?id=AVVD5sAYPq0C&pg=GBS.PP4.