Nella Marian Larsen Imes wrote two novels considered to be among the finest connected with the Harlem Renaissance period of American literature. While her reputation as an author is relatively well known, many biographical details of her life remain unknown or are contradictory. Larsen’s mother was an immigrant from Denmark and her father, who died when she was two years old, a Danish West Indian. Soon after Larsen’s father’s death, her mother remarried a man of her own race and nationality; these two adults and their daughter, Larsen’s white half sister, made up the family of Larsen’s childhood. The effects on Larsen of being the only black member of her immediate family are unclear, but she has suggested that this race difference was the primary cause of her later estrangement from her family.
In 1907, after attending a private elementary school where most of her classmates were of Scandinavian or German ancestry, Larsen enrolled in the high school at Fisk University, a Nashville, Tennessee, black college. Upon leaving Fisk in 1908, she attended the University of Copenhagen and lived in Denmark for three years. Returning to the United States, she studied nursing at the Lincoln School for Nurses, Bronx, New York, from 1912 to 1915. During the following year she was head nurse at the John A. Andrew Hospital and Nurse Training School at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Little is known about her brief stay at Tuskegee, but her description in Quicksand of a fictitious academic institution in the Deep South suggests that Larsen found the values perpetuated by the school cruelly small-minded and hypocritical. After moving back to New York City she continued working as a nurse until 1921, when she left the field of nursing to become an employee at a Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
In 1919 Larsen married Dr. Elmer S. Imes, a physicist. Her social status as a physicist’s wife brought her into contact with the African American cultural awakening then taking place among the upper classes of blacks in Harlem. This contact, along with the camaraderie of other writers gained through her position at the Harlem branch of the public library, may have encouraged her own experiments with fiction writing. When health problems forced Larsen to leave her library position in 1925, she wrote Quicksand within the short period of her convalescence. Published in 1928, the novel was received enthusiastically by both black and white critics; reviews appeared in Crisis, Opportunity, and The New York Times. In addition, Quicksand brought Larsen the Harmon Foundation’s bronze medal for literature.
Larsen’s second novel, Passing, was published within thirteen months of her first. Generally considered less successful than Quicksand, Passing nevertheless established its author as a literary talent. On the basis of these two novels, Larsen became the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. There is evidence that Larsen continued writing for two or three years after Passing was published, but neither the novel that she proposed for the Guggenheim nor any other novel was ever completed.
Despite her short literary career, Larsen is considered to be a pioneer in the African American female literary tradition because of her willing exploration of the black female psyche. Quicksand, which is partly autobiographical, tells the story of Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed racial heritage who searches for her identity across color lines and continents. The novel is most often considered to be in keeping with the African American literary convention of the “tragic mulatto,” generally a female figure who symbolizes the cultural separateness of blacks and whites in the United States by being unable to find her place among either, while at the same time symbolizing the hypocrisy of sexual relations between the races. Critics who interpret Quicksand from the tragic mulatto frame of reference see Helga Crane as torn between her identities as both a black and a white woman. An alternative interpretation of Quicksand that also characterizes Helga as a divided soul places less emphasis on her mixed racial heritage while describing a dichotomy between her desire for sexual fulfillment and her need to maintain social respectability.
Because so little is known about the last thirty years of Nella Larsen’s life, there has been much speculation concerning her reasons for giving up such a promising career as a writer. The two events generally cited as contributing to her retreat from the literary world are her well-publicized divorce from her husband in 1933 and a false charge of plagiarism in connection with her short story “Sanctuary,” published in Forum in 1930. For reasons which may never be determined, by the late 1930’s Larsen had completely withdrawn from literary circles by discontinuing all correspondence with associates and going so far as to conceal consciously her actions and whereabouts. When her former husband died in 1941, Larsen responded to the discontinuance of alimony by quietly returning to nursing. She continued working as a nurse for more than twenty years until, at the age of seventy-two, she died of heart failure in her Lower East Side Manhattan apartment.