For two bright years between 1928, when her short novel "Quicksand" won a literary prize, and 1930, when she became the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, Nella Larsen was a star of the Harlem Renaissance, mentioned in company witE. B. Dubois, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston.
By 1933, she had dropped from sight, her fragile reputation tarnished by charges of plagiarism.
Spurred by contemporary interest in minority woman writers, Larsen's works have been reissued and edited in "A Intimation of Things Distant," with the author's original endings restored.
The facts of Larsen's life were slightly less flamboyant than the conflicting stories she circulated about herself. The daughter of a Danish mother and an American black father, Larsen was a graduate nurse who worked as a librarian, a tangent that led to her forays into fiction.
After she stopped writing, she returned to nursing, becoming the head supervisor at Metropolitan Hospital in New York, a position she held until shortly before her death in 1964, at age 73. From all accounts, she was a remarkably attractive woman, married for 14 years to physicist Elmer Imes, one of the few black men in that field.
The biographical material is pertinent and may partly explain why Larsen has not resurfaced sooner.
The Harlem she describes in her two novels seems a lost Atlantis--idyllic and irretrievable. The life she portrays is patently elitist; a ceaseless round of teas, dinner parties and charity balls, played out against a background of elegance and tranquillity. Her characters are well-educated and successful, untroubled by the intractable social problems of succeeding decades.
When these privileged people venture into the Harlem streets, they look upon the lives of the less fortunate as a carnival, a bit rough but merry and carefree. Most of Larsen's ladies and gentlemen have accepted the prevailing stereotype held by whites of their era, hardly an attitude to recommend her to the revolutionaries of the 1960s and '70s.
Waited upon by servants, dressed by French designers, Larsen's heroines are pampered darlings. Genteel, ambitious and intuitive, with ivory, alabaster or golden skin, these troubled women seem almost interchangeable with Edith Wharton's.
And that contributes to their misery. Helga Crane, the heroine of "Quicksand," is also the daughter of a Danish woman and a black American. Deserted by him, the mother marries a man of her own race. Helga's childhood, spent on sufferance in this new household, is an agony ended only when a kind Danish uncle sends the girl to a Negro boarding school.
Her initial happiness ends when she finds herself as much an outsider among blacks as she was among whites. Later, in her post at a Negro university, she's content at first to be admired for her glamour but soon becomes restless and unsatisfied.
By a stroke of good fortune, she's "taken up" by a prominent woman lecturer, who then introduces her to the gentle, beautiful Anne Gray. Helga becomes a permanent guest in Anne Gray's Harlem mansion, enjoying the luxury but bothered by the fact that Anne is a radical who revels in protest, yet keeps well away from it.
Eventually, Helga grows weary of Anne's pretensions and, upon her uncle's urging, goes to Denmark, where she is welcomed by other relatives, swamped with gifts and drowned in compliments. Abroad, she's an exotic curiosity, a role no more comfortable than the others.
In the restored chapters, she suddenly plunges into still another life. This change is so abrupt and extraordinary, so totally out of character, so doomed to disaster that the choice seems to belong to another woman altogether.
This new Helga bears no resemblance whatever to the self-involved beauty so carefully developed during the preceding three-fourths of the book, her fate pitiable but barely credible.
Clare Kendry of "Passing" is even more of a dazzler than Helga Crane. Also the child of mixed marriage, she's a natural blond who easily succeeds in concealing her ancestry. The wealthy white man she marries is a boorish racist; why she chooses him is a question never satisfactorily answered, since Clare never for an instant pretends to love him.
Possibly to punish herself, she risks everything in dangerous games of racial roulette; games in which she enlists a childhood friend. Irene Redfield is another society belle, contentedly married to a man of her own race. Although Irene detests Clare's deception, she collaborates in it out of racial loyalty and perhaps because she herself has taken so few chances.
Again, the ending is swift and cruel, turning a complex study of contrasting personalities into melodrama. Evading the genuine issues raised by the plot, the sensational finale suggests that Larsen may have remained unknown because her characters behave in ways so alien to contemporary attitudes.
Next: Carolyn See reviews "The Place Where Souls are Born" by Thomas Keneally (Simon & Schuster).