A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race.
BY BONNIE WERTHEIM
When Nella Larsen died, in 1964, she left little behind: a ground-floor apartment, two published novels, some short stories, a few letters. She was childless, divorced and estranged from her half sister, who, in some accounts, upon learning she was to inherit $35,000 of Larsen’s savings, denied knowing the writer existed.
It was a fitting end for a woman whose entire life had been a story of swift erasure.
Larsen’s immigrant parents — Mary Hanson, from Denmark, and Peter Walker, from the Danish West Indies — had settled in a mostly white, working-class neighborhood in Chicago, a city that was rapidly growing and segregating by the time Larsen was born on April 13, 1891.
Two years later, Walker disappeared, leaving Hanson alone with the couple’s young daughter. In his absence, Hanson married a fellow Dane, Peter Larsen, with whom she had another daughter, Anna.
By all appearances, the family was white. But Nella Larsen was different, something that would come to inspire her fiction — celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance, forgotten by midcentury and rediscovered to be read today in American literature and black studies courses.
The public schools that Larsen attended in Chicago drew students from mostly German and Scandinavian backgrounds. So it wasn’t until she left Chicago for Nashville in 1907 to attend the Fisk Normal School, a teacher-training program affiliated with the historically black Fisk University, that she was surrounded by faces that weren’t white.
Larsen later enrolled at the Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx, which was founded to recruit black women into the field. After graduating with the equivalent of a registered nurse’s degree in 1915, she was hired as a superintendent of nurses at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
The next year, she moved back to New York to join the staff at Lincoln. She met Elmer Imes, the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. in physics, whom she married in 1919. As the Harlem Renaissance began to take shape in the 1920s, Larsen and Imes took up with a circle of black intellectuals that included W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.
Larsen first expressed a professional interest in literature and art as a volunteer helping to prepare the New York Public Library’s first exhibition of African-American artists. She later enrolled in the library’s teaching program, eventually becoming its first black female graduate.
Her initial placement was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but she transferred to the library’s 135th Street location to be closer to home and to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Today the branch is the Countee Cullen Library (named for a poet who contributed to Harlem’s artistic prosperity) and is near the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where the archive includes two of Larsen’s letters.
In one of the letters, from 1928, in a looping scrawl, Larsen addresses Edward Wasserman, a wealthy bohemian whose social circle included the novelist Zora Neale Hurston and the publishing matron Blanche Knopf. After years in which she had written stories under a pseudonym, her first novel, “Quicksand,” had just been published by Alfred A. Knopf, and she was eager to get Wasserman’s opinion:
I do want to see your review. Will you have a copy? I’m too poor to subscribe to a clipping bureau. Besides, what’s the use? It seems that your review will be the only notice I’ll have.
But that was not the case. Thadious M. Davis, one of Larsen’s biographers and a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “Quicksand” was widely and positively reviewed, including in The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The Nation.
The novel follows Helga Crane, a teacher at Naxos, a black boarding school in the South where excellence is measured by its proximity to whiteness. Helga, whose mixed-race background mirrors Larsen’s, is unsettled by Naxos’s rigid and racially fraught standards. So she leaves in search of financial stability and her own identity. When she connects with her mother’s white relatives, they treat her with a mix of contempt (in Chicago, her remarried uncle’s wife rejects her) and fascination (her aunt, in Copenhagen, parades her around the predominantly white city as an exotic).
According to Davis, Larsen was remarkable in approaching the subject of race as a modernist, rather than drawing on Southern tropes or vernacular to convey her characters’ blackness.
Larsen followed “Quicksand” the next year with “Passing,” which tells the story of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two mixed-race women who grew up together and reunite at a Chicago hotel after years of separation. Clare, Irene discovers, has been living as a white woman married to a racist who is none the wiser about his wife’s background. The relationship between the two women flirts with the sensual as each becomes obsessed with the other’s chosen path.
In its review of “Passing,” The New York Times noted that “Larsen is quite adroit at tracing the involved processes of a mind that is divided against itself, that fights between the dictates of reason and desire.”
When “Passing” was reissued in 2001, the Times’s book critic Richard Bernstein wrote that “reading it and knowing that its author wrote very little after it imparts a sense of loss, giving as it does a glimpse of an original and hugely insightful writer whose literary talent developed no further.”
In 1930, one of Larsen’s short stories became the subject of plagiarism accusations. She had riffed on a story by a British contemporary, Sheila Kaye-Smith, infusing its arc with racial tension.
“I think she was much too smart an individual to boldface plagiarize that story,” Davis said.
Despite the controversy, that same year she became the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. She used the grant, worth roughly $2,500 at the time, to pay for a period as an artistic expatriate in Europe.
When Larsen returned to New York, she was forced to confront the realities of her marriage. She knew that Imes, who had moved to Nashville for a post at Fisk University, was having an affair, and it led to their divorce in 1933. Supported by alimony, she continued as a fiction writer producing at least one novel and a number of short stories that were not published. After Imes died in 1942, she moved downtown from West 135th Street to Second Avenue and returned to nursing to support herself.
Having cut her ties to Harlem’s circle of artists and intellectuals, and with no connection to her last living relatives, Larsen had, wittingly or not, created the conditions necessary to disappear quietly. She died of a heart attack in her apartment on March 30, 1964. She was 72.
Overlooked No More:
Charlotte Brontë, Novelist Known for ‘Jane Eyre’
By Susan Dominus
March 8, 2018
Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people.
Charlotte Brontë was a 20-year-old schoolteacher — impatient, dreamy, long-suffering, unpublished — when, in 1836, she sent a sample of her writing to Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate at the time. Although her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell would eventually write of Brontë’s “constitutional absence of hope,” the young teacher clearly already had a firm sense of her own worth — an enterprising spirit and ambition, and a longing for her own genius to find its way into the world.
In his reply, Southey acknowledged that Brontë showed talent, but he nonetheless discouraged her from pursuing her craft, and warned her off ambition itself. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” he wrote, “and it ought not to be.”
Brontë wrote back conceding the wisdom of his advice, then devoted much of her life to ignoring it. When she later decided to send a sample of her work to the poet Hartley Coleridge, she made no mention of her gender. Coleridge offered no great praise, but even his unbiased diffidence failed to sap Brontë’s will to write, to publish, to be, in a sense, heard. It was a will that would ultimately produce some of the most revolutionary novels of the 19th century.
Charlotte Brontë, born April 21, 1816, was one of six siblings whose mother died when they were all still small; her father, Patrick Brontë, a brilliant clergyman on a modest salary, brought the children up in Haworth, England, by the desolate moors of Yorkshire, in a stone house surrounded by a graveyard on all sides but one, Gaskell wrote.
As a child, and even as an adult, Brontë was small and frail, so shy among strangers that one host recalled her twisting herself around in her chair so that she could converse without making eye contact. Yet in her elaborate imaginary life, one she created with her siblings, in plays and stories and with maps, she could imagine herself as bold and swashbuckling, a magician or soldier or politician — her personal hero was the Duke of Wellington. In her imagination, and in the way she valued the product of her imagination, she was fearless — so fearless that she eventually paid to have a volume of poems by her and her younger sisters published under pseudonyms, an unusually ambitious act for a woman of her era.
When the poems did not earn the family fame, Brontë persisted, sending to publishers her and her sisters’ novels (also under assumed, gender-ambiguous names): Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” Anne’s “Agnes Grey” and, a bit later, her own “Jane Eyre.” The daring contrivance played out like a plucky scheme, a plot point in some future novel: “Jane Eyre” became a runaway hit, fueling interest in the other two novels, but readers also clamored to know the authors’ true identities, with the attempt at anonymity only stoking curiosity.
By the time Brontë wrote “Jane Eyre,” she had already lost her two older sisters, who suffered in much the way Jane Eyre’s beloved Helen Burns suffered, from ill health and poor care at a boarding school that Brontë attended alongside those sisters. Less than a year after “Jane Eyre” was published, her brother, Branwell, died of tuberculosis, possibly complicated by his alcoholism; soon after, Brontë bore the burden of caring for her two younger sisters, Emily and Anne, both of whom also died of tuberculosis and both of whom she watched suffer in considerable agony.
In “Villette,” a novel that Brontë wrote after the loss of her siblings, she suggested that such pain could engender fearlessness. “I might suffer; I was inured to suffering: death itself had not, I thought, those terrors for me which it has for the softly reared,” says Lucy Snowe, the heroine of the novel thought to be Brontë’s most autobiographical. “I had, ere this, looked on the thought of death with a quiet eye. Prepared then, for any consequences, I formed a project.”
A survivor whose life had been shaped by grief, Brontë was perhaps emboldened to write as few, if any, women had before: tales of resistance and insistence on trusting one’s own sense of true morality, however unconventional. In “Jane Eyre,” she wrote from the first-person perspective of a child, an innovation that gave voice and power even to the very young; she created, too, a heroine who was, like Brontë herself, plain, pale, small, and yet frankly desirous, as well as worthy of desire.
Brontë once wrote to a friend that she considered the marital ambitions of women of no means or beauty “an imbecility which I reject with contempt,” a practical response to the frank injustices of class and a kind of sexism. In her novels, however, those same plain women are entitled to not just any marriages, but to passionate, loving ones. The interior lives of Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe are shared in such detail that the characters’ unfair burdens are plainly manifest; Brontë could make great sweeping plotlines of the small moments and humiliations in an unmarried woman’s life. Lucy Snowe’s struggle to find a private place to read a long-awaited letter reads, over several pages, with the suspense and drama of a Spenserian quest.
A miniaturist of the soul, Brontë captured shades of emotion with a psychological subtlety that still feels exquisitely modern. When Lucy Snowe, battling depression, is advised to cultivate her own happiness, her strong response will feel familiar to many a 21st-century person who has the condition: “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness,” she wrote. “Happiness is not a potato to be planted in mould and tilled with manure.”
She had a mordant wit, which could protect her only so much from the series of losses that left her so fragile. “It is useless to tell you how I live,” she wrote to a friend in 1851. “I endure life — but whether I enjoy it or not is another question.” She startled readily, and wrote to friends complaining of crushing insomnia, a poor appetite, grief and flashbacks; she put off writing letters for fear of how dejected she would feel if the replies came too slowly. Her two most intense romantic passions — one, involving a married Belgian school master, was meticulously memorialized in “Villette”; the other, for her publisher, George Smith (also captured in the characteristics of a doctor in “Villette”) — were both unrequited.
But reader, she married, eventually, at the age of 38, choosing Arthur Bell Nicholls, a pastor who worked for Brontë’s father. Although she acknowledged frankly that he was not her intellectual equal, he pursued her persistently, and against her father’s wishes, possibly imbuing a late-in-life courtship with a jolt of romance.
Did Brontë ultimately find the kind of happiness that she described as “a glory shining far down upon us out of heaven”? In “Villette,” Lucy Snowe describes her own feelings about happiness: “The negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know. Besides, I seemed to hold two lives — the life of thought, and that of reality. And provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of strange and necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work and a roof of shelter.” Once Brontë married, however, her life of thought suffered. “My own life is more occupied than it used to be,” she wrote to a friend. “I have not so much time for thinking.”
Literature would no longer be the business of her life; whether the pleasures of marriage could offset that loss remains unclear. To one friend, she wrote, “It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife.” But several months later, she wrote, “I have a good, kind attached husband, and every day makes my own attachment to him stronger.”
In “Jane Eyre,” Brontë imagines what a perfect union might be like: “I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms,” she writes of Jane’s marriage to Mr. Rochester. As for what marriage would come to mean in her own life, Brontë had little time to find out: She died on March 31, 1855, only nine months after her wedding. She was pregnant, and unable to survive morning sickness so severe that complications from malnutrition and dehydration were the likely cause of death. Given the trials of her life, an obituary in The Leeds Mercury Saturday noted, her early demise seemed preordained — “but not the less deep will be the grief of society that her genius will yield us nothing more.”
While Brontë did not get an obituary in The New York Times, her husband, who died 51 years later, did. The article was just five lines long, and the headline said it all: “Charlotte Bronte's Husband Dead.”