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Another window. HUM 3285: British and American Literature Spring 2011 Dr. Perdigao February 28, 2011. Nella Larsen (1891-1964). Born in Chicago as Nellie Walker; daughter of white Danish mother Marie Hanson and black West Indian father Peter Walker

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Another window

Another window. . .

HUM 3285: British and American Literature

Spring 2011

Dr. Perdigao

February 28, 2011

Nella larsen 1891 1964
Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

  • Born in Chicago as Nellie Walker; daughter of white Danish mother Marie Hanson and black West Indian father Peter Walker

  • Father died when Larsen was young; mother remarried Scandinavian man Peter Larsen

  • Larsen claimed to have lived in Denmark, returned to attend University of Copenhagen but scholars have not found support

  • Studied at Fisk University, studying nursing (1907-1908), then Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in NYC (1912-1915); worked for Tuskegee Institute’s Andrew Memorial Hospital as head nurse, then NYC’s Board of Health

  • 1919—married research physicist Dr. Elmer S. Imes; went from working class to African American middle class

  • Employed at 135th Street branch of NY Public Library; met writers in Harlem; entered Library School of the NY Public Library in 1922

Nella larsen 1891 19641
Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

Carl Van Vechten (Hugh Wentworth) claimed to have discovered her, introduced her to Knopf publishers

Quicksand (1928): Helga Crane, daughter of white mother and black father; teacher at Naxos; travels to Denmark; considered exotic; returns to America; questions of race in America, abroad: South: Chicago: Harlem: Copenhagen: NYC: South; desire for control over her body and identity—resulting in quicksand, loss of autonomy and agency

Passing (1929); Harmon Foundation’s bronze medal for achievement in literature; Guggenheim Fellowship in creative writing (1930); writes in Spain and France--for novels on racial freedom and husband’s infidelity; divorce in 1933, failure to publish third novel; loss of status in return to nursing; stops writing in the late 1930s

Charges of plagiarism for story “Sanctuary” (1930); Sheila Kaye-Smith’s story “Mrs. Adis” published in 1922

Lost connections to other New York writers; former husband died in 1941; worked as nurse in NYC hospitals until death in 1964

Nella larsen 1891 19642
Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

Recovery of her work in 1970s

Passing (1929): Irene Redfield, Clare Kendry; passing in America; racial identity; psychological doubles; themes of racial passing, class and social mobility, and female desire

Ideas of safety and security versus risk

Passing as “a device for encoding the complexities of human personality, for veiling women’s homoerotic desires, and for subverting simplistic notions of female self-actualization” (Thadious M. Davis 253)

Female sexuality—ideas about domestic sphere in relation to a “woman’s quest for satisfaction and completion” (Davis 253).

Works end with “irreparable breakdown of illusions about emancipatory strategies or possible futures for women” (Davis 253).

Negotiating passing
Negotiating Passing

Ideas about Africa—Irene, Brian

“Heritage” poems: Cullen, Bennett, McKay

America—uplift; NWL


Being American—Clare, Toomer

Mrs. Dalloway—tea, party; buying flowers; planning parties

Security, stability

Septimus: Clare; window as symbol

Cigarette: Clare

Repression, fainting


Negotiating passing1
Negotiating Passing

Walter White, former director of NAACP, had encouraged Larsen to complete Quicksand

Van Vechten introduced novel to his publisher; Du Bois praised the novel

Contemporary critics questioning endings of stories—like Fauset and Hurston—sacrifice of independent female identities

Marriage and death as themes

Conflicting ideas about racial and sexual identities, a black and feminine aesthetic

Ideology of romance—marriage and motherhood

Repressed female sexual experience

Ideas about black female sexuality—insisting on chastity like the purity of Victorian bourgeoisie (McDowell xiii)

Negotiating passing2
Negotiating Passing

How does one identify him/herself and why? What happens when academics, philosophers, and sociologists change the terms on you?

What does it mean to be black, middle class, and a woman?

Ideology=social constructions that can confine groups; system of beliefs established and becomes part of “cultural norm”

Race, class, and gender are constructs; we created race through language (real but manmade)

Carole Vance writes, “Sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression, and danger as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure, and agency” (qtd. in McDowell xiv).

Ideas of pleasure and danger in both texts

19th century ideas about sexuality but flirtation with “female sexual desire” connects them to the liberation of the 1920s (McDowell xiv).

Negotiating passing3
Negotiating Passing

Doubles—offering ideas about the relationship between black women and desire and sexuality versus the idea of the black woman as respectable in middle-class terms (McDowell xvi)

Sexless marriages for both characters

fear of dark child; protecting sons from it; sex as joke; separate bedrooms

Irene as unreliable narrator, as central consciousness, her fears

Irene’s emerging sexuality—from rooftop to tea party to own bedroom

Repressing feelings

Concealment and burial

Letter inciting desire

Negotiating passing4
Negotiating Passing

Clare—as symbol of desire, dressed in red

Projection of Irene’s desire onto Brian—question if there is an affair

Cheryl Wall’s description of a “Psychological suicide, if not a murder” (qtd. in McDowell xxix)

Cigarettes—snuffing them out

Text as concealment as well—veiled references, what is permitted

“Implying false, forged, and mistaken identities, the title functions on multiple levels: thematically, in terms of the racial and sexual plots; and strategically, in terms of the narrative's disguise. . . The novel performs a double burial: the erotic subplot is hidden beneath its safe and orderly cover and the radical implications of that plot are put away by the disposal of Clare” (xxx).

Negotiating passing5
Negotiating Passing

“In ending the novel with Clare’s death, Larsen repeats the narrative choice which Quicksand makes: to punish the very values the novel implicitly affirms, to honor the very value system the text implicitly satirizes” (McDowell xxxvi).

Novel passes

Dichotomies—lady/Jezebel; virgin/whore (McDowell xxxi)

Social institutions of education, marriage, religion, all strangling and controlling sexual expression of women