Nella Larsen, born 1891, was the author of terse, obsessively observed fiction set primarily in upper-middle class homes in Harlem, with additional passages in Chicago, Copenhagen, and the Southern United States. She seems, however, to have been less interested in limning domestic lives and private foibles than in taking aim at the major institutions of her time. Her books have the feel of sociological clockwork: humans are to be sorted by means of class, race and gender; those who either do not or cannot conform will be summarily crushed by the gears.
Larsen deals harshly with the protagonists of her two brief novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). The former, the brave and disdainful Helga Crane, is lost in a miserable fog of childbearing and marriage to a man who revolts her; the latter, Clare Kendry, either falls or is pushed from an apartment window during a cocktail party. Technically, Helga lives (while Clare dies). As intimated above, Larsen’s interest seems to have lain with those who did not succeed in avoiding social – and perhaps actual – death.
Larsen herself lived an extraordinary life. Born into a neighborhood in Chicago that at the time of her birth had makeshift wooden sidewalks, to a Danish mother and West Indian father, she survived the early disappearance or death of her father, her mother’s remarriage to a white man (apparently for financial reasons), and increasing instances of race-based violence in Chicago. Her childhood also included a series of extremely strict schools, where her mother sent Larsen, likely using money earned by making dresses. Following this, Larsen underwent a long and difficult training to become a nurse, treating patients during the height of the 1918 influenza epidemic in New York, and later successfully attending library school. She began writing seriously in 1925, publishing her two novels to great acclaim if not great sales. Subsequently, after a messy divorce from her husband Elmer Imes, Larsen was thought, at least by literary society, to have ‘disappeared’. In reality she worked as a nurse until her solitary death from a heart attack in 1964.
Larsen’s work was widely read again beginning in the 1980s. Although Larsen was the subject of at least one wildly incorrect biography, that had her lying about her family and ancestry, research by George Hutchinson resulted in 2006’s In Search of Nella Larsen, which is a book I’d recommend as much as Larsen’s own novels, both for the skill and resourcefulness of its author and for the history of the United States it tells.
Of Larsen’s two quick, acerbic fictions, it is Quicksand – finally securely in print in a critical edition for the first time in its existence this year, 2019 – that moves me most. Whereas, as readers of Passing, we are asked to view Clare Kendry’s subjectivity through that of another character, Irene Redfield, in a sort of Jamesian refraction, Quicksand simply gives us access to Helga Crane in a close third. Although Quicksand’s narrator sometimes seems of a few different minds regarding the novel’s arch protagonist, this ambivalence is productive, illuminating of paradoxes of the time. The book is also alive with precise description: Helga’s aunt’s hair is ‘like sparkling beer’, for example. In a way, Quicksand would seem to have many of the predictable hallmarks of a first novel: It is autobiographical, the tale of a young woman’s unraveling. Yet, there is a coolness to the work, too; it is an anatomy, rendered by a writer who was not only a medical professional but a talented dressmaker, having learned to sew her own garments from her mother as a girl. (Excellent sewers are often also excellent writers, although I am not sure that the reverse is similarly true.) That Helga seems, at the novel’s end, to in some sense fall out of the world, incapable of finding a community either within the United States or outside of it, in the American cities or its countryside, in atheist artistic circles or the Christian church, is prescient of Larsen’s own withdrawal. And although Larsen was sometimes criticized for what readers saw as her contrived endings, Quicksand has, to my mind, one of the greatest series of closing chapters in American modernism, concluding with a final sentence so packed with time it makes us stagger, particularly after the rapid lightness of all earlier exposition: ‘And hardly had she left her bed and become able to walk again without pain, hardly had the children returned from the homes of the neighbors, when she began to have her fifth child.’
A new edition of Quicksand by Nella Larsen is out with W.W. Norton.
Image © James Allen, Library of Congress