Like her contemporary Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen also fictionalized middle class society; however in Larsen's works, there are undercurrents that imply middle class values are not always 'good.' Nella Larsen's only two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) were 'novels of passing' but unlike their predecessors, these two novels are "more complex and ambitious" (Davis 560). In these works, Larsen "explores the relationships between appearance and reality, deception and unmasking, manipulation and imaginative management, aggression and self-defense" (Davis 561). Perhaps Larsen is able to delve deeper into the consciousness of people torn between two worlds because she herself had experienced living in both the 'white' world and the 'black' world.
Larsen's mother was an emigrant from Denmark, and her father was from the Virgin Islands. During her early childhood, she lived in a "white working-class neighborhood of Chicago," and attended an elementary school which consisted mainly of the "children of German and Scandinavian immigrants" (Wall 91). However, Wall reports that Larsen suffered "alienation" in her home life, and was "ostracized at school and in the neighborhood" (Wall 91).
In her teen years, Larsen attended Wendell Phillips High School, and later "enrolled in the high school department of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee" which put Larsen among middle class African Americans (Wall 92). But Larsen left Fisk after only one year, apparently "she was no more at home in an all-black community than she had been in a white one" (Wall 92). After leaving Fisk in 1908, until she enrolled at New York's Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1912, there exists no evidence of her life in the intervening four years (Wall 92). Larsen says that she spent some time in Denmark attending the University of Copenhagen, but Wall asserts that "in fact, Larsen did not leave the United States" (Wall 92). Wall further states that what Larsen did in that period of her life "remains a mystery," that Larsen "went to great lengths to conceal" (Wall 92).
After graduating from nursing school in 1915, Larsen accepted a position as an "assistant superintendent of nurses at Tuskegee Institute" (Wall 92). While working at Tuskegee, Larsen discovered that "along with their academic and vocational training, students were also schooled in subservience and docility" (Wall 92). Larsen left Tuskegee after one year. She returned to New York, where she quickly became discontented with nursing and obtained a position as an assistant with the New York Public Library; this move put her in contact with the New Negro intelligentsia (Wall 92).
Larsen’s personal life, like her characters, exhibits a continuous quest to establish an identity for herself. But Larsen, if she ever did succeed in her quest for a sense of self, adroitly concealed it from her contemporaries and from the rest of the world. This concealment of her self is described by Wall in an interview with a reporter:
The interview concentrated on more personal concerns. The "unforgivable sin" was being bored, so [Larsen] selected only amusing and natural people, not too intellectual. She would never "pass," because "with my economic status it’s better to be a Negro. So many things are excused them. The chained and downtrodden Negro is a picture that came out of the Civil War." And while she claimed to be "not quite sure what she wanted to be spiritually," she knew she "want[ed] things – beautiful and rich things." (Wall 120).
Wall describes many more instances of Larsen’s flippancy in public, detailing the "considerable lengths" that Larsen utilized to "project a frivolous image" (Wall 120). The reasons for Larsen's deceptive image is unclear, but Wall surmises that "behind its mask, one supposes, [Larsen] felt safe" (Wall 120). This "masquerade of femininity" is a major theme in Larsen’s novels, as also is transgressing social, racial, and gendered boundaries. The themes Larsen employs mark her as a Romantic novelist.
Davis, Thadious M. "Nella Larsen." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 427-28.
Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.