Nella Larsen : Voice of the Harlem Renaissance

Article excerpt

During the 1960s, '70s, and well into the '80s, when literary historians were reconstructing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Nella Larsen was described as a mystery woman. The dates cited for both her birth and death were contradictory, in each instance spread over several years. Her two novels--Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929)--were the focus of intense speculation about her own life, especially the second title, which led some academics to assume that the writer herself had crossed over the color line and passed as a white person after the Renaissance ended. It appeared that Larsen had disappeared, dropped off the earth, since there were no published obituaries, though some of her readers may have assumed that she was still alive. Some critics even asserted that she had stopped writing after publishing her two novels, giving in to bitterness about the marketplace and the end of interest in "Negro writing," as the term was often used at the time.

By the end of the 1980s, literary sleuths were beginning to set the record aright. In most instances what was revealed was the benign neglect of black writers after the Harlem Renaissance. A more startling fact: Yes, indeed, even in the twentieth century it has been possible for a number of America's artists (black, white; male, female; writer, painter) to live lives of quiet obscurity--even when invisibility is not forced upon them by the dominant culture.

Larsen's novels were available for the general reader, even if the facts of her life were not. A new generation of African-American women writers identified her as one of their literary ancestors, as they had also embraced the works and career of Zora Neale Hurston, most famous for Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Yet facts were known about Hurston (who also died in obscurity) well after the end of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston's major works were published during the 1930s. And she left more footprints than Larsen did, though she, too, suffered from obscurity.

Quicksand--Larsen's masterpiece--is the story of an educated black woman's inability to find her niche in the world. The novel's scope is global (America and Europe), yet Helga Crane's own position is exacerbated by her mixed heritage, black and white, or--in the parlance of the time--that of the tragic mulatto. What distinguishes Larsen's novel from the stories of tragic mulattos by other African-American writers (Frances Harper and Charles Chesnutt, for example) is the depth of her characterization, the passion of her writing. Although Helga's story is painful, almost desperate, Larsen's character is the most fully realized black woman in American fiction to that time--connecting her to characters in later novels by Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and other novelists.

The narrative begins in the South, at a place called Naxos, where Helga teaches English at a school patterned after Tuskegee (where Larsen herself had briefly worked as a nurse). Feeling displaced by her sophistication and education, as well as her northern upbringing, Helga leaves the security of her position (and the possibility of marriage to another teacher), first for Chicago and then for Harlem. But her mixed heritage haunts her even there. When her unhappiness becomes a general loathing for the people who have attempted to befriend her, she leaves for Denmark, where her mother was born. Temporarily, the move appears to be a logical response to racism in America, though even in Denmark the painful reality of her mixed heritage can never be ignored.

After two years in Copenhagen, Helga returns to America, once again to Harlem, still feeling the "division of her life into two parts in two lands." Although she believes that she has returned to her people, after six weeks the old feelings of "superiority over those Negroes" who were so complacent about their lot begins to torment her once again. In a drastic move during a rainstorm, she slips into a Harlem storefront church and quickly becomes mesmerized by the Reverend Mr. …