Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nella Larsen: Passing through Time

"Can identity be viewed other than as a by-product of a manhandling of life, one that, in fact, refers no more to a consistent patter of sameness than to an inconsequential process of otherness?"--Trinh T. Minh-ha


Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker on April 13th, 1891. Her mother was Mary Hanson Walker and her father was Peter Walker. her mother was a white Danish woman and her father was a black man from West India. Shortly after Larsen was born, her parents divorced, her father died, and her mother remarried a white man names Peter Larson. 

There is speculation about whether or not her parents actually divorced. Larsen would tell people that her father had died and that her mother remarried the white man. Some theorize that Peter Larson was the same man, just 'passing' as white in Chicago in order to get a job working with the Chicago Railway. 

Larsen grew up in Chicago and attended public school until Peter Larson enrolled her in Fisk University's Normal School in 1907. At this point in her life, Larsen lost contact with her mother and stepfather. As expected, her mother basically abandoned her too-dark daughter in an attempt to reinstate  her white social standing. This may, in part, be a cause for why Larsen put so much of her personal turmoil into her writings. 

Between 1912 and 1915, Larsen trained as a nurse in New York and, upon her graduation, went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to work as head nurse at John Andrew Memorial Hospital and Nurse Training School. 

In 1916, Larsen returned to New York and worked as a nurse. She met Elmer Samuel Imes, an African American physicist and they married in 1919. She began officially writing in 1920 when she left nursing and became a librarian. 

By 1926, she had made many influential friends of the Harlem arts movement--of course renamed the Harlem Renaissance--and she left the library to became fully devoted to developing her writing. Larsen published two short stories in 1926 and then published Quicksand in 1927. 

In 1928 Larsen published Passing. She was rumored to be working on three other novels but none were accepted by publishers. One such book was titled Mirage and was about a love triangle...but it never took off. In 1929, her last published work, a short story called "Sanctuary" was accused of being plagiarized and her writing fell to the wayside. In that same year, she filed for divorce against her husband, who had been carrying on an affair for some time. By 1934, Larsen retreated into obscurity. 

Larsen then to nursing at the Gouverneur Hospital where she worked for over 30 years under the name Nella Imes. During this time, some people reported that she was "passing" like the characters in her book while staying in New York.  She was rumored to have tried to keep in touch with her white relatives, but they refused to acknowledge her and completely denied her existence. 

In 1964 on March 30th, six months after she retired from night supervisor at the Gouverneur Hospital, she was found dead in her apartment. She died alone, and her eulogy did not even include her influence over the Harlem Renaissance. 

Larsen's Works

"Quicksand is the best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey day of [Charles Waddell] Chesnutt" --W.E.B. Du Bois 

Her published works are characterized by elements of class issues, racial tensions, and gender roles. Larsen expresses these social problems through common themes of personal identity, marriage, and motherhood. Larsen also alluded often to her own struggles in her works. 

In Quicksand, Larsen explored the mockery that surrounded the 'fad' regarding African American expression. While she truly started to gain momentum towards the slow down of the Harlem Renaissance, she sought to mock the white interest in "primitive black culture". Larsen felt that the mainstream interest that people were taking in "exotic" African works. Larsen knew that they, white audiences just wanted to be entertained with what they felt black Americans should offer. She wrote the character of Helga with the pretense of portraying a woman who knew the consequences of acting exotic. Initially, the character enjoys all the attention, but after awhile started to feel more like a decorated pet rather than a person. In a letter to Carl Van Vechten, Larsen described a luncheon with a few "fays" (Harlem slang for whites) and she talked about how they were keenly dissapointed when they found out she had not been born in the jungle! Apparently she entertained them with made up stories about her childhood in the bush. 

In Passing, Larsen further reiterates her points about racial prejudice. According to Carla Kaplan, where Quicksand destabilizes racial attitudes, Passing questions the idea of race--stating that it is the most powerful and dangerous fiction ever created. The novel presents the ridiculous contradictions in which our very ideas about race are built upon, and still makes the readers want the racial identities its questioning. Race then, always lives in the space between what people think they want and what they think they believe in. At least as presented by Larsen throughout the novel. 

While her writings are few, she is credited for creating "modernist psychological interiority, expanding our uses of irony, challenging marriage and middle-class domesticity, complexly interrogating gender, race, and sexual identity, and for redeploying traditional tropes--such as that of the tragic mulatta--with a contemporary and critical twist" (Intro ix). 

Larsen's Influence

"Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which are meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged into chaos; in which limbo we swirl, cluthcing the straws of or definition. We find ourselves bound, first without, then within, by the nature of our categorization" --James Baldwin,  Notes of a Native Son 

Today, Larsen is seen as one of the key figures in the African-American, modernist and feminist literary canons. Above all else, her work is now prized for its portrayal of black female subjectivity and for its portrayal of the social and psychological challenged caused when identity categories break down. 

My Thoughts

Nella Larsen's work represents more than simply a piece of long forgotten Harlem glory; her work forces her audiences to stare at the dirtiest grim that American society is covered with. Larsen, through her extremely short literary career manages to portray the human condition so eloquently while still unsettling the nachos I ate for dinner. She presents an everyday struggle that she, and those like her had to live with. 

Wanting to pass as white floors me. I tried to picture the need to want to change my color, who I am, in order to feel like I belonged, like I was respected. The concept of racial identity is not something that should be taken lightly. I felt that at some point, each and everyone of us has felt the disappointment of feeling out of place and unwanted. That basic need for relations and connections within society, on equal terms of course, is still in turmoil today. People desire to be more than they are: they want what will always be outside of reach, and in that way i can relate to wanting to 'pass' for lack of a better options of social freedom. Whiteness, in the case of Larsen's portrayal of the human condition, is the epitome of everything socially desired. 

Passing...passing...if I keep saying the word out loud its going to make me cringe. Larsen named her most influential book with an adjective. That ridiculous "ing" at the end of the word makes it feel like it is constantly a work in progress...never to be concluded, tied up, left alone, allowed peace. That stupid "ing" leaves the word in motion. What then, is she saying about humanity in that one propelling word? What is she saying about the upward battle people face in acceptance of anything and everyone different than themselves? Larsen, who even identifies herself as a fatalist, implies that there's never going to be resolution. 

Works Cited

Barnes, Paula C. "Nella Larsen." Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition (n.d.): n. pag. EBSCO. Web. 

Kaplan, Carla. "Nella Larsen's Erotics of Race." Introduction. Passing. New York: Norton &, 2007.Ix-Xxvii. Print.

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