Her mother was of Danish decent and her father was West Indian. She later in her life married a physicist, Elmer S. Imes, on May 3, 1919, and fourteen years later divorced him in 1933. She was an extremely educated woman. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1909 to 1910. She then continued her education at the university of Copenhagen from 1910 to 1912. She also studied nursing at Lincoln Hospital in New York City from 1912 until 1915. She then began her career as an assistant superintendent of nurses from 1915 to 1916, and became a nurse at Lincoln Hospital in New York City. Larson was diagnosed with a sickness in 1925 which led her a few years later to pursue her career as a writer.
Although Nella Larsen was considered legally black she wanted to be able to identify herself with both races black and white. Nella relates some of her own personal experiences, ideas, thoughts and beliefs into her novels, including Quicksand which was her first novel and appeared in 1928, and Passing, her second novel which appeared in 1929. Both novels depict bits and pieces of Larsen's life; they involve semiautobiographical accounts of women whose racial and sexual confusion contribute to their unfulfilled quest for an identity. Larson was a modern woman; because of that she addressed different women's related issues such as women's sexuality and power. Larsen wrote about how males expect women's sexuality to be confined to their desires, in addition to addressing the issues of race. Larson expresses these thoughts in her first novel Quicksand through the main character Helga Crane, who is trapped by the occurences of her own reproductivity. Helga finds herself not being able to escape; she's trapped within the confinds of motherhood. At the same time Larson addresses the issue of race also through the character of Helga, who is an illegitimate, half-white and half-African-American female who is at the same time experiencing the post Civil War era. Helga's problems were not only race and class; unfortunately Helga's life revolved around the lack of socialism and extreme fantasy with is an issue that most women had in the early 1900s.
Nella Larsen's second novel Passing on the other hand concentrates on the issue of skin color. As we can see from our own experiences, everyone is not the same shade. Many people of color were affected by this both dark- and light-skinned especially during Nella Larsen's era. While the light-skinned black people were dominating the black establishments, the dark-skinned black people were feeling rejection from their own kind. Passing addresses this issue through the character of Clare Kendry who was also an atrractive light skin fine haired women who manages to escape poverty by passing for being a white women. She marries a wealthy white man who also believes that she is white as well. Her journey across the color line is completely sucessful until she reunites with her old friend Irene. Irene Redfield is married to an attractive and sucessful black physician who Clare finds herself attracted to and he to her, so Clare decides to pursue him. Irene was aware of Clare's threat to her marriage and arranges for Clare's disappearence. Clare falls to her death from an open window just before her husband is about to confront her with his discovery of her black roots. Passing can be related more to Nella Larsen's actual life; she was also a light-skinned women who dominated the black intellectual etablishments and because of her color could have and may have at some points in her life passed for a white woman. I don't think Nella Larsen wanted to cease being black and become white, but she wanted to have equality in part because she was partially white, and in part because she wanted blacks and whites to have equal rights.
Nella Larsen's work contains an overall view of a black world which once existed, but only in a female's perspective. Nella Larsen seems like she was not satisfied with just being a member of the black elite; she wanted more. She in fact seemed trapped by her narrowness, and because of her black experiences yearned to live in a whole world. Nella expressed these feelings and awarenesses through her writings. Nella Larsen was a great writer. Unfortunately her literary career was too brief for her to express all of her talent. She had the potential to create even greater work.
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Fall Semester 1998. Last modified: 14 December 1998.