A Great Danish American Birthday - Nella Larsen

  • April 13, 2022
  • April 13, 2023
  • 2 sessions
  • April 13, 2022 (CDT)
  • April 13, 2023 (CDT)


Nellallitea "Nella" Larsen, born Nellie Walker (April 13, 1895 – March 30, 1964), was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, she earned recognition by her contemporaries.

A revival of interest in her writing has occurred since the late 20th century, when issues of racial and sexual identity have been studied. Her works have been the subjects of numerous academic studies, and she is now widely lauded as "not only the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but also an important figure in American modernism.

Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in a poor district of south Chicago known as the Levee, on April 13, 1891, the daughter of Peter Walker, believed to be a mixed race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies, and Pederline Marie Hansen, a Danish immigrant, born 1868 in Brahetrolleborg parish on the island of Fyn (Funen), died 1951 in Santa Monica, Los Angeles county. Her mother who went by Mary Larsen (sometimes misspelled Larson) in the U.S., worked as a seamstress and domestic worker in Chicago.  Her father was likely a mixed-race descendant on his paternal side of Henry or George Walker, white men from Albany, New York, who were known to have settled in the Danish West Indies about 1840.  In that Danish colonial society, racial lines were more fluid than in the former slave states of the United States. Walker may never have identified as "Negro." He soon disappeared from the lives of Nella and her mother; she said he had died when she was very young. At this time, Chicago was filled with immigrants, but the Great Migration of blacks from the South had not begun. Near the end of Walker's childhood, the black population of the city was 1.3% in 1890 and 2% in 1910.

Marie married again, to Peter Larsen aka Peter Larson (b. 1867) a fellow Danish immigrant. In 1892 the couple had a daughter Anna Elizabeth aka Lizzie (married name Gardner) together.  Nellie took her stepfather's surname, sometimes using versions spelled Nellye Larson and Nellie Larsen, before settling finally on Nella Larsen.  The mixed family moved west to a mostly white neighborhood of German and Scandinavian immigrants, but encountered discrimination because of Nella. When Nella was eight, they moved a few blocks back east.

The American author and critic Darryl Pinckney wrote of her anomalous situation:

as a member of a white immigrant family, she [Larsen] had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church. If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up.[2]

Most American blacks were from the South, and Larsen had no connection with them or their histories.

From 1895 to 1898 Larsen visited Denmark with her mother and her half-sister. While she was unusual in Denmark because of being of mixed race, she had some good memories from that time, including playing Danish children´s games which she later published in English. After returning to Chicago in 1898, she attended a large public school. At the same time that the migration of Southern blacks increased to the city, so had European immigration. Racial segregation and tensions had increased in the immigrant neighborhoods, where both groups competed for jobs and housing.

Her mother believed that education could give Larsen an opportunity and supported her in attending Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. A student there in 1907-08, for the first time Larsen was living within an African-American community, but she was still separated by her own background and life experiences from most of the students, who were primarily from the South, with most descended from former slaves. Biographer George B. Hutchinson found that Larsen was expelled for some violation of Fisk's strict dress or conduct codes for women.  Larsen went on her own to Denmark, where she lived for a total of three years between 1909 and 1912.  After returning to the US, she continued to struggle to find a place where she could belong.

Larsen returned to New York in 1937, when her divorce had been completed. She lived on alimony until her ex-husband's death in 1941. Struggling with depression, Larsen stopped writing. After her ex-husband's death, Larsen returned to nursing and became an administrator. She disappeared from literary circles. She lived on the Lower East Side and did not venture to Harlem.

Many of her old acquaintances speculated that she, like some of the characters in her fiction, had crossed the color line to "pass" into the white community. Biographer George Hutchinson has demonstrated in his 2006 work that she remained in New York, working as a nurse.

Larsen died in her Brooklyn apartment in 1964, at the age of 72.

In 2018, the New York Times published a belated obituary for her.

Nella Larsen was an acclaimed novelist, who wrote stories in the midst on the Harlem Renaissance. Larsen is most known for her two novels, Passing and Quicksand, these two pieces of work got a lot of recognition with positive reviews. Many believed that Larsen was intended to be the new up and coming star African American novelist, until she soon after left Harlem, her fame, and writing behind.

Larsen is often compared to other authors who also wrote about cultural and racial conflict such as Claude Mckay and Jean Toomer.

Nella Larsen’s works are viewed as strong pieces that well represent mixed raced individuals, and the struggles with identity that some inevitably face.

There have been some arguments that Larsen’s work did not well represent the “New Negro” movement because of the main characters in her novels being confused and struggling with their race. However, others argue that her work was a raw and important representation of how life was life for many people, especially females, during the Harlem Renaissance.

Larsen’s novel Passing is being made into a film. - Wikipedia

The Performance of Racial Passing

Nella Larsen - 2018 New York Times Obituary

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