I have read a lot of Harlem Renaissance literature. I had not read the work of Nella Larsen (1891-1964), who like Claude McKay was a decade older than the “niggerati” writers, because I thought that she was an exemplar of the more genteel “talented tenth” literature. I confused her with Jesse Fauset, though I was not completely wrong. In Larsen’s autobiographical first novel, Quicksand (published in 1928 at the urgings of “Negrotarian” Carl Van Vechten) there is a discussion between the heroine, Helga Crane, and the man she loves about the low fertility of educated Negroes in contrast to the high fertility of the black masses. The main characters in both her novels move within the black bourgeoisie in Harlem, and have a surface gentility… But beneath that surface, passions roil.
The short story “The Wrong Man” (1926) features a married woman seeing a former lover at a party, and going to a summerhouse on the property to plead with him not to reveal their past. I think it is Larsen’s most perfect work (though she regarded it as “hackwork”). The male stream of consciousness story “Freedom” (also from 1926) does not impress me.
Although there is much of interest in the peregrinations of Hazel in Quicksand, I don’t find her last stop convincing. Like Larsen, Helga fled a Southern black college (Fisk), had a Danish mother, spent some time as an exotic flower in Denmark, and lost the man she most wanted (she also spurned a prime catch in Copenhagen, to the disappointment of her aunt and uncle there).
The more fully realized of her published novels (apparently, she wrote three more with all-white casts that were no published and are now lost) is Passing (1929). The narrator is a light-skinned South Side of Chicago mulatta, Irene Redfield, who runs into Clare Kendry, a childhood acquaintance who left the “hood” and is passing as white, married to an outspoken racist.
Irene says: “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same tiem dondone it. It exceites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away form it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” Shopping downtown, she shows a willingness not to embrace stigma, and passes. (I know how exhausting it is to correct assumptions, and from Erving Goffman’s Stigma, I also know that everyone is either discredited or discreditable, at least in their own eyes…)
The scene moves to New York City. Irene is married to a black physician who wants to move to the more racially equitable land of Brazil, but instead supports Irene in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Clare starts coming around, slumming at a Harlem ball (with a character who resembles Van Vechten), and interesting Dr. Redfield to Irene’s dismay and mounting suspicion. Some read lesbian undercurrents into the mutual fascination of the two women with the lives the other leads, one in an affluent white milieu, the other in the Harlem professional aristocracy. And how literally one causes the other to die is very open to interpretation.
Larsen lost her husband (the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics, who took up a position at Fisk, the very college from which Larsen had fled or been expelled years earlier) to a white woman rather than a passing-as-white one and the anguish about losing the economic support of a husband is presumably autobiographical. (Larsen lived on alimony until her ex-husband died in 1941, then worked as a nurse, writing nothing more.)
The DuBois (anti-nig-gerati and outraged by Van Vechten and the Harlem vogue) embrace of Larsen for portraying well-off Negroes seems ironic, given how dissatisfied Larsen’s heroines were with the black bourgeoisie. Hazel, Irene, Clare, none is a model of uplifting the race: Hazel and Clare flee its constraints, though both live an approach-avoidance pattern. And Irene’s smugness is far from admirable.
Van Vechten got Larsen and Langston Hughes published by Knopf, and Larsen dedicated Passing to him (and took some lines form Hughes to place before Quicksand). She was of his “tell it like it is” (“sensationalizing”) branch, even if she wrote about a “better class” of Negroes (not to mention the dilution of their “black blood,” a conception she did not reify in the Faulkner manner).
Novels about women’s concerns and romances are often dismissed as “soap operas” (in invidious contrast with works focused on male concerns and actions). Hazel Carby asserts that Quicksand provided “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction. There is nothing remotely sexually graphic, but there is female sexual agency (whether there is in Zora Neale Hurston’s character Janie in her 1937 post-Renaissance (and post-Harlem) Their Eyes Are Watching God, is a matter of debate, but that it was later is not). And Passing is sometimes classified as a “murder mystery.
Larsen’s final published fiction, the short story, “Sanctuary” (1930), was, very untypically for her, set in the Deep South among racially solidarity-exemplifying black characters. I think it is a solid story and the author whom Larsen was accused of plagiarizing, Sheila Kaye-Smith, had based her story on one recorded centuries earlier by (Saint ) François de Sales. Accusations of plagiarism did not prevent Larsen getting a Guggenheim grant to return to Europe (southern rather than northern) but seem to have shaken her self-confidence (along with her losing her grip on her husband). Though she lived until 1964, she published no more, slipping into obscurity (to the literary world) even more than the most famous Black Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston. (And the youngest, Dorothy West, published her first novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948, her second, The Wedding, in 1995.)
Larsen’s Complete Fiction includes a very informative introduction by its editor, Charles R. Larson that includes the reader report recommending not publishing Mirage, the novel with an all-white cast (triangle) she wrote on her Guggenheim grant. The Knopf referee wrote that “the husband is the chief defect of the novel because of the passive and shadowy characterization,” a defect I also find in the two published novels.
©2011, Stephen O. Murray