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Larsen, Nella (1891-1964)  

Constrained by the social conventions of the time, the bisexual African-American novelist Nella Larsen was covert in her treatment of lesbianism.

Larsen was born April 13, 1891 in Chicago, Illinois to a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Throughout her life, her attitude toward the dual heritage of her racially mixed parentage shifted. After studying at Fisk University and the University of Copenhagen, she became a nurse and worked, first, at Tuskegee, Alabama and then, New York City hospitals. She also did social work and, after a training course, became a librarian for the New York Public Library.

In 1919, Larsen married Elmer S. Imes, a physicist, and they became active members of the Harlem social and intellectual elite. Meanwhile, she began to write children's literature.

In the late 1920s, she published two major novels: Quicksand (1928), for which she received the Harmon Foundation Bronze Award, and Passing (1929). A series of wounding events then occurred. She was accused of plagiarism in her short story "Sanctuary," a charge that she denied.

After becoming the first African American to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to write for a year in Europe, she returned to the United States to face increased marital difficulties, a divorce (1933), and sensational press accounts of the plagiarism controversy. No further evidence of her writing exists.

During the final thirty years of her life, Larsen had a series of nursing jobs in New York City. Forgotten by the literary world, she was found dead in her apartment in 1964. Her life, which presents a pattern of continual futile attempts alternately to separate and to connect the worlds of her experience, is reflected in her fiction, which depicts characters who do the same.

In recent years, new interest has emerged in Nella Larsen's novels as a result of increased awareness of African-American women writers and of feminist criticism. The latter commentary has focused on her treatment of female sexuality and the constraints imposed on her handling of this subject by social conventions.

As public, critical, and authorial silencing took place, her use of stylistic indirection often masked her thematic intent. The protagonists of her novels are characterized by an acute sense of double consciousness in their quests for selfhood. Their ambivalence regarding racial identity, class, and gender roles is pervasive.

With respect to gender, Larsen depicts traditional domestic roles as constricting and the repression of sexual desire as damaging. In her novels, inhibition leads to sterile lives. Moreover, as seen in Quicksand, deprivation of sensual expression can lead conversely to a compensatory or reactive overdependence on sexual passion for fulfillment. This behavior ends in emotional and physical entrapment, that is, the figurative quicksand of repeated pregnancy and domestic toil.

On lesbianism, Larsen is more covert. In Passing, the relationship between the two central women characters is presented on the surface as inexplicably mesmerizing. The diction's consistently erotic overtones, however, suggest unacknowledged repressed impulses.

This novel ends in one woman's ambiguous death and questions about the culpability of the other. Complex motivation is suggested, but not clarified. The most compelling explanation is that this character's fear of her own sexual desire causes her to kill the other. In this case, denial is literally death-giving.

Nella Larsen's novels implicitly indict a society that causes alienation from self by its prejudices. Her characters are at a loss to bridge constructively their conflicting desires. That Larsen could not push her craftsmanship to less puzzling, more explicit statement is further evidence of the strangling effects of conventional fictional treatments of sexuality.

Dorothy H. Lee


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Nella Larsen in 1928.
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Ammons, Elizabeth. "Jumping Out the Window: Nella Larsen's Passing and the End of an Era." Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 183-200.

Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1975.

Larsen, Nella. The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen. Charles R. Larson, ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1992.

McDowell, Deborah E. "Introduction." Nella Larsen: "Quicksand" and "Passing." New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

_____. "That nameless...shameless impulse: Sexuality in Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing." Black Feminist Criticism and Literary Theory. Joe Weixlmann and Houston Baker, eds. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1988. 139-167.

Shockley, Ann Allen. "Nella Larsen." Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. New York: Meridian, 1989. 432-440.

Thorton, Hortense. "Sexism as Quagmire: Nella Larsen's Quicksand." CLA Journal 16.3 (1973): 285-301.

Wall, Cheryl. "Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels." Black American Literature Forum 20 (1986): 97-111.


    Citation Information
    Author: Lee, Dorothy H.  
    Entry Title: Larsen, Nella  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 11, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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