Guest Blog: Writer Amina Gautier on Nella Larsen

As part of One Book, One Chicago, we're featuring a series of original essays titled Chicago Heroes: Real & Imagined! Each month through spring 2015, meet a local hero as introduced by a local author. Chicago authors will reflect on heroes from the past, present or even imagined in these new short essays. This month's essay is from Amina Gautier.

Chicago writer Amina Gautier won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her debut story collection At-Risk. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Antioch Review, Glimmer TrainIowa ReviewKenyon ReviewSouthern Review and StoryQuarterly. Her work has been awarded scholarships and fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Illinois Arts Council, MacDowell Colony, Prairie Center of the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and Writers in the Heartland. Her most recent book, Now We Will Be Happyis her prize-winning collection of stories about Afro-Puerto Ricans, U.S.-mainland-born Puerto Ricans and displaced native Puerto Ricans who are attempting to navigate the unique culture that defines Puerto Rican identity.

Nella Larsen's Chicago

Very little about the writer Nella Larsen’s early life has gone undisputed. In less than 15 years, three substantive biographies on Nella Larsen were produced. They are Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen (1993) by Charles Larson, Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance (1994) by Thadious Davis and In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (2006) by George Hutchinson. In their attempts to chronicle her life and reconcile the conflicting narratives that have long circulated about her, biographers often fail to agree on her given name at birth, her father’s racial heritage, her legitimacy or lack thereof, her correct birth date, whether she actually visited her mother’s native Copenhagen as a child as she claims to have done, and whether she passed for white at the end of her literary career.

The fascination with Larsen’s life and work is easy to comprehend. Although Nella Larsen is primarily known as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, her career as a writer was short-lived and sandwiched between successful careers as a librarian and a nurse. The author of two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and a handful of short stories and essays, her body of work could easily be described as “scant,” especially when compared to her contemporaries, such as Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset or Rudolph Fisher who published at least twice as much as Larsen. Not only might Larsen’s body of work be seen as “scant,” but in terms of word count/page length, her individual novels are also on the slim side; with both Quicksand and Passing each clocking in at under 40,000 words, Larsen’s two novels could easily be classified as novellas. The slimness of her volumes, however, is unimportant, given the fineness of her writing. In Larsen’s novels, there are no wasted words. Her writing is fine and concise, capturing and rendering quickly and then moving on. In Quicksand, a novel that clocks in around 135 pages depending on the edition, the protagonist Helga Crane quits a teaching job in the South, moves back to Chicago, travels on to New York where she lives for several years, journeys to Denmark where she spends a year, returns to New York, marries and moves to Alabama. In a mere 135 pages, Larsen details five different geographical spaces and each space Helga Crane moves to or through alludes to a different stage in her emotional and psychological growth. Another writer would have needed a few hundred extra pages just to begin to scratch at the surface of the disparate themes of sexual repression, racial self-hatred, colorism, classism, miscegenation, cosmopolitanism and intra-racial prejudice that Larsen tackles in her novel. W.E.B DuBois praised her first novel Quicksand as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of Chesnutt.” Based on the reputation earned by her first two novels, Larsen was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct research in Europe for the completion of a third novel. Larsen was the first black woman writer to receive this prestigious honor. For the sheer skill displayed by her writing alone it is easy to see why biographers find her so compelling.

Despite the biographical disputes, there is one thing on which all three Larsen biographers agree: Nella Larsen was a Chicago native. Whether born in 1891 or 1893; whether born as Nellie Walker, Nellye Larsen or Nellie Larson; there is no disputing Chicago as the place of Nella Larsen’s birth. Indeed, Chicago is given as the place of birth for the three female protagonists—Helga, Irene and Clare—who appear in Larsen’s two novels as well. Although her novels are primarily set in Harlem, her protagonists are not native New Yorkers, but Chicagoans who become transplants in Harlem.

I offer the following two examples from her two novels in order to show the deft ways in which Larsen writes Chicago into her work.

Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) begins with a letter that causes the protagonist, Irene Redfield, to recall a chance meeting in a restaurant at the top of The Drake Hotel (fictionalized in the novel as The Drayton). On a visit back to her native Chicago, Irene takes shelter in The Drayton to escape the blistering heat of a Chicago summer day:

Chicago. August. A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain. A day on which the very outlines of the buildings shuddered as if in protest at the heat. Quivering lines sprang up from baked pavements and wriggled along the shining car-tracks. The automobiles parked at the kerbs were a dancing blaze, and the glass of the shop-windows threw out a blinding radiance. Sharp particles of dust rose from the burning sidewalks, stinging the seared or dropping skins of wilting pedestrians. What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows.

Once seated and served in the hotel’s restaurant, Irene, a black woman whose light skin makes her racially ambiguous enough to “pass” for white, finds herself the object of a strange woman’s gaze. Anxious under the scrutiny, she fears that her racial secret has been discovered, only to discover that the woman watching her so intently is a childhood friend who grew up with her on Chicago’s South Side, who has also returned for a brief visit and who is also passing for white. The reconnection of the two friends, Irene and Clare, provides the main source of conflict in the novel, as Clare’s insertion back into Irene’s life becomes an unwelcome intrusion that upsets Irene’s emotional and domestic stability.

In her first novel Quicksand (1928), Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, abruptly quits her job as a teacher in Naxos, a model Southern school for blacks. With no plans and nowhere to go, she takes a train and returns to her native Chicago. When she first arrives, the city’s coldness stands in direct contrast with the Southern clime she’s left behind: “Grey Chicago seethed, surged and scurried about her.” She takes a room at the YWCA until she can gather the courage to go to the North Side where her white uncle lives, so she can beg him for a loan. Rebuffed by his new wife who refuses to recognize Helga as a legitimate family member because of her mixed race background, Helga runs away into the night, boards “the rushing swiftness of a roaring elevated train” and loses herself in the “dirty, mad, hurrying city.”  Depressed by her rude reception and disheartened by her lack of job prospects and her dwindling amount of savings, Helga tells herself she is due for a vacation, and instead of securing her future by looking for a job, wanders the streets of Chicago “in aimless strolling about the hustling streets of the Loop district.” For three days, she takes in “the leisure, the walks, the lake, the shops and streets with their gay colors.” Just when her prospects seem darkest, Helga is called in by the employment agency at the YWCA and is given a lucrative job opportunity which sets her life on an upward spiral.

In both Quicksand and Passing, Chicago functions as both the physical and metaphorical space in which Larsen’s protagonists transition between psychological stability and instability. In Larsen’s novels, the city figures as an escape. When Irene and Helga both return to Chicago, the city of their birth, their lives are redirected. Both leave places of relative safety and security to come to Chicago and when they leave Chicago neither is the same woman she was upon arrival. In her writing, Nella Larsen, a Chicago hero, captures not only the physical dimensions and descriptions of the Chicagoland city landscape, but the psychology of the city and the ways in which the city of Chicago plays upon her characters’ psychological well-being.