Nella Larsen

Dana Monreal on “Nella Larsen’s Biracial Trouble”

Due to racial issues, Nella Larsen, a young biracial writer during the Harlem Renaissance, encountered several struggles in her early life when it came to living in Harlem, New York, and being biracial. With her being biracial not only did she not fit in with her own family who pushed her away, but with society as well. Larsen later experienced issues with her husband Elmer Imes, who was black, and was a part of Harlem’s black professional class, which Larsen did not fit in because she didn’t have a college degree, and because she was biracial. Larsen had complications all her life with being biracial, and later it seemed to finally lead her to leave Harlem to write abroad, but sadly, she did not achieve the writing experience abroad for long as she also dealt with personal issues back home that complicated her life so much, that she never wrote again.

Larsen expresses her complex issues with race in her writing with her characters from her two novels Passing, and especially the character Helga in Quicksand, who is a young biracial woman who cant ever “fit in” anywhere because she doesn’t feel comfortable being biracial, and moves from place to place trying to find her identity. Ann E Hostetler explains, “Larsen’s life bears a number of striking similarities to her protagonists. The daughter of a white Scandinavian mother and a black west Indian father, Larsen was caught between two worlds.” “Like Helga, she lived in Harlem and traveled in Europe” (37). Larsen gets into great detail throughout her novel of just how much race affected her  through her character Helga, from Quicksand and how she saw the world so differently, but couldn’t come to accept herself.

Claude McKay expresses his issues with race during the Harlem renaissance as well, and throughout his life in America. MacGowan says it reflected a lot through his short stories especially. “But those on Harlem combine a concreteness of description and militancy that were liberating for some young black writers.” “The Lynching” concerns, as well as the violence of the murder, the introdoctrination of race hatred into the next generation; “America” articulates a response both fascinated and appalled at the “cultural hell” that surrounds him…” (MacGowan 71). McKay’s characters in Banjo reflect the hardships of racial issues abroad and other personal issues, just as Larsen reflects them in her characters as well, especially Helga. McKay also seems to focus a lot of attention on his character Ray in Banjo just as Larsen with Helga. McKay also felt the need to experience writing abroad, as he did spend several years abroad. But Larsen, felt estranged in Harlem, and wanted to break free to continue her writing, but it did not succeed for her abroad.

In 1930, Larsen won the Guggenheim Fellowship award and with that awarded money, she traveled to France and Spain, where she wanted to work on her next novel. While abroad, Larsen did not get much writing completed, as she was being accused of plagiarism, her husband was having an affair with a white woman, and her third book got rejected. Not only was Larsen trying to escape issues at home, but was dealing with them abroad. Larsen’s move abroad was a refuge for her, but something that didn’t succeed, as she tried running from racial issues back home.

Many writers had chose to write abroad and succeeded, but Nella Larsen could not escape the issues with her being biracial and other complications. Larsen moved back after only six months of being abroad and never published anything else again, and stayed away from people she used to be close with. The issues with race, being cheated on, and being accused of plagiarism definitely took a toll on Larsen, as she chose to never return back to her love of writing.

Works Cited

E. Hostetler, Ann. “The Aesthetics of Race and Gender in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.” 105 (1990): 35-46. Modern Language Association. Web.

MacGowan, Christopher. “Claude McKay.” Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Wiley, 2008. 354. Print.


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