In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Colour Line 
by George Hutchinson.
Harvard, 611 pp., £25.95, June 2006, 0 674 02180 0
Show More
Show More

Writing in the New Yorker in April 1986, Calvin Trillin told the story of Susie Guillory, a native of Louisiana who, when applying for a passport, discovered that she was African American. According to the state’s ‘one-drop rule’, Americans with even a 1 in 32 part of Negro blood – or a nameless, faceless great-great-great-grandfather – were classified as ‘Col’, or coloured, on birth certificates. When he learned of the discovery, Guillory’s husband said: ‘Hell, she ain’t a nigger.’ The one-drop rule was phased out soon afterwards, partly as a result of the legal suit brought by Guillory, but it persists in common parlance, in both the US and Britain: your part-Scottish, part-Native American, part-Spanish friend is often ‘black’ if there is a hint of Africa in his or her make-up.

John Bellew, the husband of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s exquisite novel Passing (1929), responds violently when he finds out that Clare, who has cheeks of ‘ivory’ and hair the colour of ‘pale gold’, is ‘black’. All those years, John had been deceived into thinking Clare was something else, an equally fictitious formula, ‘white’. They have no family because she feared children might show a touch of the tar brush. Before the fateful blow, John is asked casually by Irene Redfield, through whose eyes we see the action and who is also light enough to ‘pass’ when it suits her to do so: ‘So you dislike Negroes, Mr Bellew?’ He replies: ‘You got me wrong there, Mrs Redfield. Nothing like that at all. I don’t dislike them, I hate them.’

‘Passing’ is less often seen as a characteristic aspect of the African American experience than music or religion or social oppression, but it has been the subject of numerous novels. One of the greatest is by William Faulkner, who created the sin-bearing pariah Joe Christmas in Light in August (1932). Among other malign habits, Joe uses his ambiguous skin colour to sleep with prostitutes without paying. ‘One night it did not work. He rose from the bed and told the woman that he was a Negro. “You are?” she said. “I thought maybe you were just another wop or something.”’ Twenty years earlier, James Weldon Johnson, a black man who served as American consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua during the Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft administrations, opened his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) with the sentence: ‘I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions’ – the secret being that the narrator was officially black (Johnson published the novel anonymously).

More recently, the New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990, was unmasked in the New Yorker by Henry Louis Gates. In the early 1950s, Broyard had threatened to sue the publishers of a novel by Chandler Brossard, Who Walk in Darkness, which contained a character evidently based on him. It began: ‘People said Henry Porter was a Negro.’ In the version that was finally published, this was altered to read ‘was an illegitimate’ – making nonsense of many passages that follow. (The original distinction survives in the French translation, Ciel de nuit: ‘avait du sang nègre’.) In his posthumous memoir, Kafka Was the Rage (1993), Broyard avoids referring to his black family, who lived outside Manhattan. A facile view is that he was ashamed of being black; an alternative one is that he simply wished to evade the daily ordeal of trial by racial identification, in a society in which the pressure of segregation is still being felt.

Nella Larsen was too dark to pass, in the way of Broyard or Joe Christmas, or of her fictional creation Clare Kendry, though there are suggestions that she would have liked to. In 1987, in the catalogue published to accompany an exhibition about the Harlem Renaissance, David Levering Lewis referred to Larsen as ‘the mysterious and lovely Virgin Islander’. Eight years later, in When Harlem Was in Vogue, Lewis relayed the (unsourced) information that Larsen was looked down on by ‘some of her fellow Virgin Islanders’ for making too much of her ‘mixed Danish-African heritage’ – too much of the Danish part, that is.

In fact, Larsen never set foot in the Virgin Islands. She was born in Chicago in 1891 and raised in a white household. She had no African American relatives at all, no links to slavery or the South or the cultural heritage of American Negroes; the only connection was colour. Part of her childhood was spent in Denmark; she spoke the language, and her first publications were translations from Danish of children’s games and riddles. Her mother, Marie Hansen, had immigrated to the US in the 1880s, and her father, Peter Walker, whom she never knew, was born in the Danish West Indies (after 1917, the US-controlled Virgin Islands). The little that is known about him suggests that he was half-Danish. By any logical account, Nella Larsen was a Danish American.

After the death of Nella’s father, Marie Hansen married a Dane named Larsen, and had a second daughter. Like the heroine of her only other novel, Quicksand (1928), Nella moved to Copenhagen in her late teens, living with members of her mother’s family for about four years, but on her return to the US she had less contact with Marie and her stepfather, who regarded her as a blight on their respectability. By her mid-twenties she had cut herself off from all her relatives, to save them from embarrassment by association, and to spare herself further pain. For the rest of her days, she was constrained to pass as black.

George Hutchinson’s remarkable In Search of Nella Larsen is full of savage ironies; for example, Marie and Peter Larsen, together with their daughter, Anna, moved at one point to a new Chicago neighbourhood, Woodlawn, ‘one of those east of State Street that had been bitterly, and successfully, fighting the “invasion” of Negroes’. Nella meanwhile was working as a librarian in Harlem. During the First World War, she took a job as a nurse in the Bronx, an occupation she returned to in the later part of her life.

The idea that she wished to get above herself, by playing up her European heritage at the expense of the West Indian, nevertheless took hold. Hutchinson cites previous studies by Charles Larson and Thadious Davis who, between them, have charged that Larsen ‘never visited Denmark’ and that she ‘played up her Danish roots to gain status’. Davis ‘hypothesised’ that Larsen’s father was light enough to pass, and thus became the ‘white’ man who married Nella’s mother under the name Peter Larsen: in fact, Larsen, as Hutchinson proves beyond doubt, was the stepfather who rejected her.

These and other inventions brought in to serve ‘a narrative of racial self-help and uplift’ are patiently and politely demolished by Hutchinson. One example of his way of unstitching arguments knitted to fit an ideological pattern concerns Nella’s period in the early 1920s as a librarian at an uptown branch of the New York Public Library, before she began writing novels:

According to prevailing historical wisdom, black librarians in New York were ‘pigeonholed’ at the 135th Street Branch of the NYPL during the 1920s and hindered from professional advancement because their white supervisors would not let them move between branches as white women did. Moreover, Ernestine Rose allegedly would not leave the Harlem branch and allow a black woman to take over, because she faced her own glass ceiling, being Jewish. But Ernestine Rose was not Jewish. Furthermore, Larsen’s library school file clearly showed that Larsen had strong support from her white supervisors at three different branches, only one of which was in a ‘black’ neighbourhood.

In Search of Nella Larsen is three books in one: in the words of the subtitle, it is ‘a biography of the colour line’, a study of official racism; it also incorporates a lively history of the Harlem Renaissance; and, most engagingly, it is a record of the hunt for a significant literary figure who slipped into oblivion at the moment she should have been making the most of her modest but genuine success (two well-received novels, garlanded by awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship). In the earlier stages, Hutchinson is obliged to progress by means of prefatory phrases such as ‘one suspects that’, ‘there is good reason to believe’, ‘one can only conclude’ etc, but when he reaches the relatively well documented areas of Larsen’s life – her marriage to a university physicist, Elmer Imes, her friendship with the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten (a friend and supporter of many black artists), the publication of her novels by Knopf (a socially aware firm) – the reader is drawn into the search for a missing person.

In the decade before the 1923 publication of Jean Toomer’s Cane, long recognised as one trigger of the Negro Renaissance (as it was originally known), only a small amount of fiction and poetry by African Americans had been issued by mainstream presses. It wasn’t all progress – Toomer later renounced his Negro identity and became a pupil of Gurdjieff – but between 1923 and the Crash of 1929, commonly seen as the close of the Harlem movement, the output was prodigious. Sterling Brown, Jessie Faucet, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay all published work in these years, and white writers, too, made their contribution: Eugene O’Neil (Emperor Jones, All God’s Chillun Got Wings), Sherwood Anderson (Dark Laughter), Dubose Heyward (Porgy). By then, the Renaissance and its adherents were the subject of satire in Harlem newspapers, with jokes about ‘Homo Africanus Harlemi’ and ‘the coloured cognoscenti’. Langston Hughes, one of the most prominent figures, wrote in his autobiography The Big Sea that ‘ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Harlem Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.’ James Baldwin, born in Harlem in 1924, at the moment it all started, makes next to no mention of it in his writings.

Published work apart, the enduring legacy of the Renaissance was that it gave blacks with artistic aspirations licence to take themselves seriously. Readers and viewers saw themselves reflected in a culture which – though partly folk-based – was separated from slavery (many Harlemites in Larsen’s time would have had grandparents, even parents, born in slavery) by Modernist gestures. Hughes’s poem ‘I Too’, published in the landmark anthology The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (1925), contained the lines: ‘I am the darker brother./They send me to the kitchen.’ Tomorrow, however:

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed.
I, too, am America.

Larsen was a latecomer to the Renaissance, a product of the opportunities it created. Documents quoted by Hutchinson show how publishers, recently oblivious to black talent, were suddenly eager for it:

Albert and Charles Boni . . . had put up a $1000 prize for the best novel by a Negro. [Larsen] initially thought of submitting her manuscript to them, but then she heard they were disappointed in the submissions . . . ‘It is being whispered about that anything literate is sure to be awarded the honour. That’s discouraging.’ She asked Carl [Van Vechten] for his opinion, adding: ‘I like Knopf. He does things so well, sends them out looking attractive . . . but he seems very hard to please.’

The manuscript in question was Quicksand, and Knopf was pleased by it. It tells the story of Helga Crane, an attractive young woman, ‘with skin like yellow satin’, who, rejected by the remnants of her American family, goes to live with relatives in Copenhagen. The patronising welcome of her aunt and uncle, and their eagerness to parade her as an exotic pet, reflect Larsen’s own experience. The working title of the book, which was published in 1928, was ‘Nig’.

Passing is a more sophisticated piece of work, set against the background of the Renaissance and the middle-class lifestyle available to ‘the New Negro’ in the wide streets and high-ceilinged apartments of Harlem. It is in one sense a gripping thriller, only 100 pages long in the edition published, together with Quicksand, by Serpent’s Tail; and revolves, strikingly, around such issues as skin and hair as well as cultural mentality. In the ‘blonde beauty’ Clare Kendry’s own eyes, she is not guilty of pretending to be something she is not; rather, her impossible effort is to pose as the person she is, defined by her human qualities. No wonder Irene’s husband, in answer to an awkward question, says: ‘If I knew that, I’d know what race is.’ (In our own anxious racial climate, Larsen’s novel is not allowed to pass into the ‘general fiction’ department of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly; I finally found it in the ‘black writing’ section.)

By the beginning of 1930, Hutchinson writes, ‘Larsen was regarded as one of the chief figures of the Negro Renaissance.’ Within a year or two, however, she had begun to retreat from her friends and literary fellows. An accusation of plagiarism over a short story (well supported, it seems) had hurt her. More destructive by far was the relationship her husband, now employed in the physics department at Fisk University in Tennessee, had formed with another woman, and a white woman at that. On 7 May 1930 Larsen wrote to Van Vechten ‘to say that tomorrow I am leaving for Nashville, a dutiful wife going down to visit her husband’. The duties involved pretending that the marriage was still alive, in order to safeguard Elmer’s position at the university. The spectre of divorce appears to have been more threatening than the fact of an interracial relationship. Eventually she had some kind of breakdown, with drink and drugs playing a part. At Fisk ‘most people on campus regarded her as a disturbed recluse, if not a freak.’ Her new novel, ‘Mirage’, based on a love triangle and her domestic general troubles, was rejected by Knopf (the manuscript has vanished). By the end of the decade, Larsen had ‘virtually disappeared’.

Hutchinson’s tenacious adherence to documentary evidence, wherever he can find it, makes even his account of Larsen’s later nursing career absorbing. After her recuperation she started work in 1944 at Gouverneur Hospital on the Lower East Side, quickly rose to the position of chief nurse, and received ‘one of the highest pay rises in the hospital’. By this time, the reader is so avid for detail that a sentence about the ‘nearest subway station’ and the fact that she ‘probably took the bus’ seems almost exciting. Her correspondence with Van Vechten and other friends dried up completely, and she communicated with Elmer via ‘typewritten and addressless’ notes, to which he would reply care of her bank. She continued working as a nurse almost until her death, ‘on or about Easter Sunday 1964’, aged 73.

In her will, she left all her money – $35,000, a decent sum in 1964 – to her half-sister Anna, with whom she had lived in Denmark as a child. On being notified of her inheritance, Anna is reported to have said: ‘Why, I didn’t know I had a half-sister.’ A white lie, if ever there was one.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences