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The Life Of Nella Larsen English Literature Essay

“In the 1920s, many writers established African American identity as one of the most significant issues to be addressed in the post-World War I period” (Dawahare 22). In two of her novels, Quicksand and Passing, Nella Larsen did just that; she brought to light the different difficulties and struggles that came with being a biracial American. In one essay, it explained that “Black writers and activists were often at odds over just who the New Negro was...More often than not, however, definitions of the New Negro asserted that black Americans belonged to a unique race of human beings whose ancestry imparted a distinctive and invaluable racial identity and culture” (Dawahare 23-3). In Passing and Quicksand, Larsen described this “unique” race of Americans, and showed the difficulties in being one. She was an American novelist and short story writer and was particularly connected with the Harlem Renaissance era. Larsen was raised as a light skinned black woman and had many features that would be associated with a white woman; these experiences shaped the climax of her novel, Passing—both the love and repulsion of being a white woman and the depiction of the female sexuality.

Nella Larsen, who was born on April 13, 1891, in Chicago and died on March 30, 1964, was the daughter of a Danish woman and a West Indian man. She married a physicist, Elmer S. Imes, on May 3, 1919, and fourteen years later divorced him in 1933. She was an extremely educated woman. She began her education by studying at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1909 to 1910. She then continued her education at the University of Copenhagen from 1910 to 1912. She later attended Lincoln Hospital in New York City from 1912 until 1915 to study nursing. Shorty after, she became a nurse at Lincoln Hospital in New York City and began her career as an assistant superintendent of nurses from 1915 to 1916. Larson was not moved to pursue being a novelist until she was diagnosed with a sickness in 1925. (NELLA LARSEN Biography – Writers) Larsen, being biracial herself, wanted to be able to identify herself with both the black race and the white race. In both the novel Quicksand and also in Passing, Larsen relates some of her own personal experiences, ideas, thoughts and beliefs into her novels. Quicksand, her first novel, appeared in 1928, and Passing, her second novel, appeared in 1929. Both novels seem to be some-what of an autobiography of Larsen’s life by depicting bits and pieces of her own life. Because of Larsen’s belief in racial modernism, she addresses different issues of sexuality, power, and race in her novels. (NELLA LARSEN Biography – Writers) In the short, controversial, but also beneficial career of Nella Larsen, she wrote novels such as Passing and Quicksand and became a huge contributor to the 20th and 21st century American Literature by creating a new standard of racial identity, racial modernism, and ambivalent sexuality.

Larsen’s novel, Quicksand, is focused around one main character, Helga Crane, who is a young Mulatto professor in a Negro school in Naxos, Georgia and is born biracial, of a white mother and black father. Helga, throughout the entire novels cannot classify herself with one race. Later, because of the amount of racial politics in her school, Helga decides to leave Naxos and move to Chicago. When she decides to resign from the school, she tells the principal, Dr. Anderson, and breaks her engagement to a teacher, James Vayle, and leaves Naxos to start a new, renewed, and different life, reassured. While in Chicago, she finds that Peter, her previously reliable, white uncle has a new wife, who rejects Helga due to her diverse background and race. Helga, who was now completely alone and had no money, finds a job with a knowledgeable, wealthy woman named Mrs. Hayes-Rore. Helga does many things for Mrs. Hayes-Rore, including editing her speeches on racial equality. With Mrs. Hayes-Rore, Helga travels to New York City, and there she decides to stay with a friend, Anne Grey, who was a wealthy, popular citizen of Harlem. Helga is indeed happy in New York, and is working for a Negro insurance company and attending many different social events with the socialite, Anne. Ultimately, Helga becomes tired of her New York life with Anne and of the race principals of Harlem and leaves for Denmark to live with her Aunt and Uncle, Katrina and Poul. While in Denmark, Helga seems to be treated much better and even is proposed to, but she rejects. Although she is treated with the upmost respect, she gets tired of this life as well, and she even misses her “Negro” lifestyle. Later, Helga returns to Harlem for the wedding of Anne and Dr. Anderson, but it seems that Helga hopes for the love of Dr. Anderson as well. The Dr. never seems to have the same feelings for Helga, and rejects her. Desperate and lonely, Helga begins going to church and meets the Rev. Pleasant Green; they marry the next day. The newlywed, Helga, and her husband move to Alabama and seem to live a different life than the life she had once lived in Denmark. Helga then turns to religion, after having a serious illness with the birth of her fourth child. Helga then, again, plans to leave Alabama because she realizes that she hates not only her husband, but also the life of poverty that she is living. The reader is left with the birth of Helga’s fifth child with the Rev., and is left to believe that she is perpetually condemned to the poverty and unhappiness that she seemed to always manage to run away from.

Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand, is similar to her other novel, but it does seem to be unique in some ways. The novel seems to show the struggles and complications that women of two races have to endure, but at the same time gender and ethnicity seem to clash. In “Too high a price: The ‘Terrible Honesty’ of Black Women's Work in Quicksand.” it explains that “In Quicksand, Larsen's struggle to portray, with candor, the reality of women's lives in the 1920s undoubtedly reflects the tension created by the many conflicting white and black male imaginings of black womanhood” (Labbé 6). With just this quote, we are enlightened with the conflict of race and gender in the novel Quicksand. Larsen did not openly confront the women of the 1920’s lives, but she does explain the black woman’s role. By doing so, she conflicts gender and ethnicity. In Quicksand, it also seems that Helga feels inferior to the white man and woman. In “The Gold Standard of Racial Identity in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing, it is stated that “Helga ensconces herself in his [Rev. Green’s] Southern working-class community as a way to escape the reifying gaze of both racist whites and bourgeois blacks, who made her feel black and poor” (Dawahare 33). This shows that she feels inferior to most whites and even feels inferior to their money by stating, “Negros [who] were allowed to be beggars only, of life, of happiness, of security….where if one had Negro blood, one mustn’t expect money, education, or, sometimes, even work whereby one might earn one’s bread” (Larsen 82). It seems as if Helga is very insecure with her race. Larsen explains in her novel, Quicksand, why Helga left Naxos. She describes the Naxos school system as a “factory” that:

Ruthlessly cut[s] all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern. Teacher and students were subjected to the paring process, for it tolerated no innovations, no individualism. Ideas it rejected, and looked with open hostility on one and all who had the temerity to offer a suggestion or ever so mildly express a disapproval. Enthusiasm, spontaneity, if not actually suppressed, were at least openly regretted as unladylike or ungentlemanly qualities (Larsen 4).

This also shows the inferiority that Helga feels as a biracial American. She shows that the school only formed to a white man’s pattern, and being biracial, she feels inferior. The story almost seems to be a biography of Larsen’s own life and seems to foreshadow the life of Larsen as an author. She matured with a white mother and a black father, and this shows that she, herself, was insecure with her own race—ambivalent race.

In Larsen’s novel, Passing, the two main characters, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, are caught between two racial boundaries: black and white. In the novel, Clare was culturally half-African American, and surprisingly, was able to “pass” as white. This lifestyle, of living two separate lives, became the norm for her, until she began visiting Irene in Harlem. Irene, on the other hand, only “passed” in certain circumstances when with Clare. She married a black doctor named Brian, and had two sons, Ted and Junior. Unlike Clare, Irene embraced her African American culture, and lived with her family in Harlem.

The novel begins with the receiving of a letter: from Clare to Irene. The letter reveals that Clare is dying to meet with Irene and even mentions their Chicago meeting two years prior. Irene seems to have absolutely no intention of seeing Clare or revisiting with the past in which she feels humiliation, rage, and resentment of. Irene proceeds to the top of the Drayton Hotel, and this is where the story seems to begin. When at the top of the hotel, Irene notices a beautiful, elegant, white woman. Finally, the woman gets up and approaches Irene, proclaiming that they know one another and calling Irene by her childhood name, “Rene.” Irene, surprised and confused, does not recognize the woman, until she laughs, and then she realizes that the woman, indeed, was Clare Kendry. The two women have not seen each other since Clare’s relatives took her away from her father’s funeral. The two women continue to sit together and Irene discusses her own husband, children, and life. Irene then asks Clare to attend another lunch, but to Irene’s relief, Clare rejects for a weekend get-together.

Although the two women almost seem to dislike each other, they are still curious of one another, and Irene is even more curious of “passing;” Clare informs her that it is very simple. We later learn that Clare married a white, rich man. At this point in the novel, the two part ways, but agree to meet again. Irene later seems to regret making the promise to meet again and she decides that she does not want to contact Clare; she is “through” with Clare Kendry. Irene, although says she is “through” with Clare, later is persuaded to meet. When they meet again, another old friend, Gertrude, who is black and married to a white man, is present and Clare’s husband, John, who is white also comes later. As Gertrude and Clare discuss their families, we learn that they were both terrified of their children being black, and Gertrude even states that no one would ever want a dark child. This seems to offend Irene, who has a black son and husband. Clare’s white husband later enters the room, and greets his wife with “Nig.” Of course he is joking, but he proceeds to explain that Clare keeps getting darker, and that one day she might wake up and be a “nigger.” This shows that he has no idea of his wife being of the African American race, and that she is still “passing” even in her marriage. When they leave the building, Irene and Gertrude exclaim how dangerous and daring it is of Clare to live this way and to not forewarn them about John's prejudice. He made them both angry, and they feel that Clare will pay a price some day for this lifestyle. Irene is furious at Clare and realizes that she should not have gone to see her. Later, Irene receives yet another letter from Clare that asks for forgiveness, and says that she is not so sure she has made as wise a choice as Irene. Irene tears up the letter and plans to never see Clare Kendry again. Now, two years later, Irene receives another letter from Clare, asking to again, see her. To Irene’s, surprise, Clare Kendry comes to the door. For a moment, Irene realizes what Clare will do absolutely anything to get what she wants, and tells her it is not safe to come back and that she and Brian had already discussed it. Clare seems to be envious of Irene because she is free, happy, and safe. The novel continues to explain the friendship of Clare and Irene, from the different parties to merely talking about their lives. Later in the novel, Clare finds herself attracted to Irene’s husband, and Irene finds herself threatened by Clare. Irene seems to be arranging and looking forward to Clare’s disappearance—when her white husband finds out of her black history. Clare, Irene, and Brian are all three together when Clare’s husband comes to confront her of being black, and simultaneously, Clare falls to her death from an open window. You are left to imagine what actually happened.

Using Passing she gave a new meaning to racial identity—she showed the struggles that came with being a biracial American. In the novel, Larsen shows the relationship between race and class. The relationship is shown through the way that “money is not just a means of [an] imaginary escape from commodification but also shapes the most fetishistic form of black identity—the passer for white” (Dawahare 32). Larsen also writes about an ambivalent race as well an ambivalent sexuality in Passing. Clare is the woman that is more apt to Passing and does so every day. This shows that although she does have mostly white characteristics, she is still unsure on which race to particularly follow. The ambivalent sexuality is shown indefinitely in the novel Passing, For example, Larsen explains, “Looking at the woman before her, Irene Redfeild had a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling. Reaching out, she grasped Clare’s two hands in her own and cried with something like awe in her voice: ‘Dear God! But aren’t you lovely, Clare!’” (Larsen 194). Clare also continually tells people how stunning Clare is, and consistently asks her husband if he is attracted to Clare. Irene seems to have almost a homosexual attraction to Clare and is unsure of her own sexuality. Irene describes Clare as “an attractive-looking woman, was Irene’s opinion, with those dark, almost black, eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin” (Larsen 14). This seems like a very sexual description, and again, the undertone of homosexuality comes in to play in Larsen’s novel, Passing.

These two novels, Quicksand and Passing, although different, are underlined with the same issues and structures. Larsen, as an author writes about her own personal life experiences, and you can obviously infer from these two novels that she struggled with the issues of both race and sexuality. In both novels she writes about racial identity—the struggles of a biracial American. Larsen also, in a time and society when black women were establishing powerful roles in society and being powerful role models, making two strong, powerful, black female characters became memorable. In both Passing and Quicksand, the main characters, although they had their own specific struggles, grew as people and I believe that they became more confident in their biracial ethnicity throughout the novels. Larsen also brought racial modernism into the 20th and 21st century by writing both Passing and Quicksand. Modernism is generally the ability to change, create, or shape your environment. Larsen, with the construction of the two novels Passing and Quicksand created a new idea of accepting yourself as well as race. In both of the novels, Larsen writes about women of the African American color, that are biracial and in one novel, the woman can “pass” as white. With the writing of these novels, she shows to accept your own race. One essay explains, “Black writers and activists were often at odds over just who the New Negro was...More often than not, however, definitions of the New Negro asserted that black Americans belonged to a unique race of human beings whose ancestry imparted a distinctive and invaluable racial identity and culture” (Dawahare 23-3). This is exactly the view suggested by Larsen; she aimed to focus on the inferiority of blacks, and this was showed from the women striving for a lighter skin color. She, among other Harlem Renaissance novelists, tried to change their environment through their writing—racial modernism.

Though Larsen’s career was immensely beneficial to the Harlem Renaissance era, it was very controversial and cut short. In “Race, Modernism, and Plagiarism: The Case of Nella Larsen’s ‘Sanctuary’,” it explains that

Written at the height of Larsen's career, the short story "Sanctuary" {1930} would also be her last publication. The similarities between her story and Sheila Kaye-Smith's were publicly noted, and her "plagiarism" caused a scandal from which she—as many critics have pointed out—would never quite recover. For most critics, too, the striking similarities between the two stories have remained an insurmountable and puzzling fact...Yet this essay argues, regardless of her immediate motivation or the unknowable facts of the text’s production, Larsen allegedly “plagiarized” story and her public defense are important texts for the exploration of the relation between race, modernism, and plagiarism (Hoeller 421).

This essay goes on to explain the correlation between Larsen’s contributions and modernism. It explains that Larsen’s involvement with modernism may have been too “original” to be acknowledged or even tolerated. Despite the editors backing to “Sanctuary,” critics exclaimed that this would be the end of Larsen’s career, and they did so almost gleefully. Another essay, “Nella Larsen’s ‘Sanctuary’ and Sheila Kaye-Smith’s ‘Mrs. Adis,’” explained that “While talk concerning the similarities between ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Mrs. Adis’ quickly made the rounds within the Harlem literary community upon its publication in January of 1930, the situation became general knowledge three months later with the printing of a reader’s letter in the April issue of the magazine in which Marion Boyd commented on the ‘striking resemblance between the two stories” (Larson 83). This essay goes on to explain that she denied ever reading “Mrs. Adis” and she had heard the story from an “elderly black patient” at Lincoln Hospital in New York City. The essay continues to say that “She [Larsen] went on to suggest that after discussing the story with other African Americans, she discovered the ‘tale is so old and so well known that is almost folklore.’ For all her protestations, however, the consequences for her career were devastating” (Larson 83). Larson did continue to write, but none of her essays or novels were published; like the critics previously exclaimed, Larsen’s career was devastated after this horrific event. Although Larsen’s career was basically ended with the allegations, the career of the other author involved, Kaye-Smith, was launched and grew both in England and America.

Nella Larsen was indeed a huge contributor to the Harlem Renaissance era. Although her career was both controversial and risky, she was a great author, who strived for racial identity, exposing both the contradictions and complications of being biracial, racial modernism, and ambivalent sexuality in her novels. Through both Passing and Quicksand she did so; and until her downfall with plagiarism in her novel “Sanctuary,” she was a well known significant woman novelist in this era.

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