Nella Larsen

By: Devin McKinney
April 13, 2015


A minor but singular figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago-born NELLA LARSEN (1891–1964) produced only two novels and a handful of stories before turning her back on writing, and on Harlem. Her theme, apt for the child of a West Indian father and Danish mother, was the phenomenon of biracial “passing.” The semi-autobiographical Quicksand (1928) was facile, meandering, and finally weightless in its pessimism, but what it put across with crushing clarity was the presence, or at least the specter, in Larsen’s life of a cyclical, unconquerable unhappiness deriving from the absence of clear ethnic roots. Passing (1929) imparted greater focus and poignancy to the relationship of two mixed-race women, each living a variety of visible and hidden lives in the marginal overlap of white and “coloured.”

Married to a black physicist, feted by Carl Van Vechten, Larsen spent a few years in the cultural vanguard, then got a divorce and a new address. She ceased to publish and then, gradually, to write. Returning to nursing, her first profession, she worked at community hospitals, struggled with depression, avoided old friends, and lived anonymously — while, some have suggested, passing for white. Most of Larsen’s senior years were spent on the Lower East Side, and she died in Brooklyn — as if wanting to put ever more distance between herself and the Harlem in which she’d never found or planted roots, between herself and the agent of social subversion she’d never asked to be.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jacques Lacan, Samuel Beckett, Michael Herr, Roy Loney, Garry Kasparov, Gyorgy Lukacs.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).


HiLo Heroes, Literature