Nella Larsen - African-American Artist of the Harlem Renaissance

Seminar Paper, 2002

25 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)




2. 1. The Harlem Renaissance Era
2. 2. The Black Women Writers of the Renaissance Period
2. 3. Nella Larsen's Biography

3. 1. Quicksand Plot Outline
3. 2. Quicksand Themes

4. 1. Passing Plot Outline
4. 2. Passing Themes





Nella Larsen was an American novelist and short story writer famously associated with the Harlem Renaissance era, also called “an era of extraordinary achievement in black American art and literature areas during the 1920´s and 1930´s[1]. Changes and transformation mark Larsen’s existence. She lived through the most eventful decades of the twentieth century, eventful for all of the American population, especially for the ethnic and racial minorities and for women.

Nella Larsen published two novels, Quicksand and Passing, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. They were widely and favourably reviewed. Larsen’s novels, which describe the mulatto theme, had become popular in American literature. In such works the male or female protagonist, who is light enough to pass as a white person, finds that all personal ambitions (education, employment and social mobility in general) are strictly limited when one is kept to the racial restrictions, which are typical for the early 20th century in the North as well as in the South. To avoid the problem, the protagonist chooses to pass for a white and moves into the white world, only to find even greater dissatisfaction. Torn between two worlds, one white and the other black, and alienated from both, the protagonist becomes a tragic figure.

Applauded by the critics, Larsen was heralded as a rising star in the black artistic firmament. She was treated accordingly: invitations to speaking engagements and social affairs came her way, as did significant honours. In 1930, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship for Creative Writing. But her stardom faded just as quickly as it had risen. By 1934, Nella Larsen had disappeared from Harlem and from the literature-world.[2]

This seminar paper will sketch some of the elements of the cultural “Zeitgeist” that shaped and was reflected in Nella Larsen’s writings. But it will concentrate on the novels that she left behind: Quicksand and Passing.

An important topic Larsen is dealing with is race-identity. Larsen assimilates these themes in her two novels , not by representing the lower-class problem, but more by focusing on the life and problems of middle-class females. It is more the psychological than the sociological side she portrays.

This paper demonstrates that race identity and race dualism reflects Larsen’s own life story. First I will give an introduction on the Harlem Renaissance era. Then I will focus on Nella Larsen’s life. I will examine her two novels Quicksand and Passing to find out how race identity and race dualism is assimilated in her novels.


2. 1. The Harlem Renaissance Era

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of outstanding literary creativity that took place in the United States during the 1920s. The main factors contributing to the development of the Harlem Renaissance were African-American urban migration, trends towards experimentation throughout the country and the rise of radical African-American intellectuals.

In 1904, several middle class African-American families moved away from the decaying conditions of black Bohemia in midtown New York into the newly built suburb of Harlem. This initiated a move north of educated African-Americans and a foothold into Harlem. In 1910, various African-American realtors and a church group bought up a large housing block along 135th and Fifth Ave. This purchase caused a “white flight” and lowered real estate prices.

World War I approached. The shortage of labour ensued and the enormous supply of European unskilled workers that flowed to New York City didn’t cease. From the southern states came vast numbers of African-American attracted not only by the prospect of paid labour but by the escape from the inherent inequities and blatant institutional racism of the South.

Black literature of the Harlem Renaissance ventured back and forth between rural and urban settings. African-American literature, art, music, dance, and critical commentary began to flourish in Harlem. This African-American cultural movement became known as “The New Negro Movement”.

There were various patrons of the arts, both black and white, including the very wealthy A' Lelia Walker (who ran an influential salon, the “Dark Tower”), Countee Cullen (the romantic poet and a leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance period), Zora Neale Hurston (anthropologist) and Langston Hughes (playwright and poet). The movement was accelerated by grants and scholarships and supported by white writers such as Carl Van Vechten (a close friend of Nella Larsen). Three main political figures kept the hopes of freedom for African-Americans alive and made Harlem a political hotbed of activities. The three figures were the pious, integrationist W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and finally the charismatic Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey.[3]

Being more than just a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage. The Harlem Renaissance transformed African-American identity and history, but it also transformed American culture in general. Never before had so many Americans read the thoughts of African-Americans and embraced the African-American community’s productions, expressions, and style.

2. 2. The Black Women Writers of the Renaissance Period

In their cry against the ideological supremacy of racist practices and values, black artists, writers, and scholars won prominence in a wide variety of fields during the 1920s. Their music, dance, art and literature became saleable items. White people in the U.S. as well as from Europe flocked to Harlem to experience the wealth and variety of black talent.

The most important black women writers, besides Nella Larsen, who participated in the unprecedented literary upsurge of the Harlem Renaissance in the decades following World War I, are Jessie Redmon Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston. Their writings provide prophetic insights as to the sociocultural impulses and political beliefs affecting the turn of events in the black community from 1923 to 1933. Drawing from their own backgrounds, observations and experiences, these women crystallize in words the complexity of black life during the years in question.[4]

Nella Larsen’s novels, Quicksand and Passing, explore the themes of cultural dualism and the superficiality of colour differences within the black community. Larsen’s depiction of the unpleasant consequences of being black in the larger society and the pressures of racism on the black personality encompasses everything - life, death and hope.

Portraying Nella Larsen’s biography as follows, it becomes clear why she chose race-identity and race-dualism as major themes in her novels.

2. 3. Nella Larsen’s Biography

Nella Larsen was born on April 13th 1891[5] in Chicago, under the name of Nellie Walker, “Colored”. Her mother was Marie Hanson, a white Danish immigrant, and her father Peter Walker, a black immigrant from the Danish West Indies. Both of whose names have been obscured by history. A record of their marriage doesn’t exist. Nellie’s father died when she was two. In 1894, while Nellie was still quite young, her mother married Peter Larsen, a man of Danish origin. She then had a half sister named Anna. All biographical references indicate that Nellie’s stepfather was a source of racial tension during Nellie’s childhood, which resulted in her alienation from him as well as from her mother.

In the 1900´s census Nellie Larson was listed as a child inmate at Erring Woman’s Refuge for Reform. In 1901 she enrolled Zenos Colman Elementary School, a public primary in the Chicago school system with children of mostly German or Scandinavian parents.

The Larsen family orchestrated their dark daughter’s absence from their Chicago home by sending her to the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was only fifteen. When the money ran out a year later, Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year-old Nellie (then Nella) to make her own way in the world. Nella Larsen disappeared temporarily. It is speculated that she went to Copenhagen to visit her mother’s relatives.

Nella Larsen was a light skinned black women with limp hair and white facial features. She learned early in life that the limitations sometimes striking the American dream for immigrants were exacerbated by race and gender. Larsen’s skin colour, the colour of light “maple syrup”[6], prevented her from blending in with the Scandinavian community and her gender denied her the self-reliant mobility of black men.[7] Her self-perception was shaped early by the reflection she saw in the eyes of others, particularly her parents. Denied access to the social and economic opportunities, in contrary to her white, immigrant relatives. She entered the world of African-Americans, where she functioned without the resources and protection of her family.


[1] WATSON, S.: The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture 1920-1930; 1995

[2] ref. to: WALL, C.: Women of the Harlem Renaissance; 1995, p. 88. f.

[3] ref. to: WATSON, S.: The Harlem Renaissance; 1995

[4] ref. to: WALL, C.: Women of the Harlem Renaissance; 1995

[5] She had for much of her life appropriated 1893, the year of Columbian Exposition, popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, as the year of her birth.

[6] RENNELS, M.: New York Telegram, April 13, 1929; ref. to: DAVIS, T.: Nella Larsen; 1994, p. 12

[7] compare with: DAVIS, T.: Nella Larsen; 1994, p. 4

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Nella Larsen - African-American Artist of the Harlem Renaissance
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institute for England and American Studies)
Harlem Renaissance
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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465 KB
Nella, Larsen, African-American, Artist, Harlem, Renaissance, Harlem, Renaissance
Quote paper
Kathrin Haubold (Author), 2002, Nella Larsen - African-American Artist of the Harlem Renaissance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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