Who is Passing author Nella Larsen?

Forgotten author who based Passing on her own life: Nella Larsen whose book inspired the Hollywood film was the only ‘non-white member of her family’ and saw her career cut short by divorce and plagiarism row

  • An adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel will launch on Netflix next month  
  • Author Nella Larsen was nurse and librarian who published just two novels in life
  • A member of the Harlem Renaissance, both novels received critical acclaim 
  • After plagiarism accusations and divorce, Nella left the literary world for good 

Director Rebecca Hall recently revealed how her family’s own complex biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ as white. 

However, the film has an even more deeply personal resonance with the life of author Nella Larsen, who wrote the 1929 novel of the same name which the film is based on. 

The adaptation, which won rave reviews at Sundance Film festival and will be released next month on Netflix, tells the story of two mixed race women living in 1920s New York – one of whom is ‘passing’ as white. 

Born to a biracial father and white mother, who was widowed and remarried to a white man when Nella was two, it was informed by the author’s life in a ‘painful netherworld’ as the ‘resented stepchild, and the darker-skinned daughter’ according to one critic. 

This experience ‘informed her fiction about women too dark to be white and too light to be black, women living between black and white, and culturally at home nowhere.’

Former nurse Nella was the first African-American woman to graduate from library school and to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, while modern day academics hail her a ‘queer figure’ in the movement for the exploration of sexuality in her novels. 

After the initial release of the book, Nella received critical acclaim, if not financial success, but would only write two novels before a messy divorce and plagiarism accusations drove her from the literary world. 

Branded the ‘mystery woman’ of the Harlem Renaissance movement, it wasn’t until the late 20th century, when themes of racial and sexual identity became of greater interest to academics that a revival of interest in her work began. 

Nella Larsen is the author of Passing who wrote two books before leaving the literary world after a divorce and accusations of plagiarism. She is pictured in 1928, a year before writing her acclaimed novel Passing 

Born in 1891 Chicago, in a poor district known as the The Levee, Nella was the daughter of Marie Hansen, a white Danish immigrant and Peter Walker, a mixed race man from a Danish colony in the Caribbean. 

After her father died at the age of two, Marie remarried white Danish immigrant Peter Larsen with whom she had another daughter, Anna Elizabeth. 

The only non-white member of her family, Nella moved to a mostly white area inhabited by German and Scandinavian immigrants.  

‘As a member of a white immigrant family, she had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church’, esteemed American novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney wrote for The Nation in 2006. 

Nella is pictured in 1928 receiving the Harmon Award for her first book Quicksand. The semi-autobiographical book follows educated mixed-race protagonist, Helga Crane who is the daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father who struggles to find her identity in the 1920s

‘If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognisable historically and too painful to dredge up.’  

In 1907, Nella moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University, a historically black institution founded six months after the end of the Civil War in 1865. 

After a year in Nashville, Nella travelled to Denmark where she spent three years living with relatives and attending courses from the University of Copenhagen.   

Eventually returning to the US, she settled in New York, where she graduated Lincoln Hospital’s nursing programme before moving to Alabama to train and back to the city. 

In May 1919, Nella married Dr. Elmer Samuel Imes, the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics and the first in the 20th century who became the chairman of the Physics Department at Fisk University.

The couple moved from New Jersey to Harlem, where they quickly became part of the professional and cultural society known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ – who sparked a revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature and politics in 1920s and 1930s.

Nella moved to Harlem with her husband in 1919 and quickly became part of the professional and cultural society known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’

Their friends included artists and intellectuals such as American poet Langston Hughes and American sociologist and civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.  

It is thought that her close friendship with Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer who was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, brought her to social prominence. 

The pair were close friends, with Carl encouraging Nella to write further about black culture and Nella dedicating Passing to Carl and his wife while basing the character of Mr. Wentworth on the photographer.  

From 1922 to 1926, Larsen served as a librarian at the New York Public Library before beginning her literary career in 1928 with her first novel Quicksand. 

Netflix’s highly anticipated new movie: How Passing will be adapted for the small screen   

Like the book, Netflix’s adaptation will centres on the friendship of Irene and Clare, two light-skin Black women who both ‘pass’ – intentionally and unintentionally – as white in 1920s New York.  

The pair reconnect in a chance encounter at a whites-only hotel during the Harlem Renaissance. It is Irene’s first attempt at passing, while Clare has done it for her entire life, even marrying a white racist who is unaware of his own wife’s heritage. 

Ruth Negga as Clare in Netflix’s adaptation of Passing 

It will star Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare. 

Other cast members include: Alexander Skarsgård as Clare’s husband John; André Holland as Irene’s husband Brian and Bill Camp as Hugh Wentworth. 

The film adaptation was directed by Rebecca Hall and received rave reviews after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year. 

Rights to the production were purchased by Netflix  in February in a in a $15m deal 

The film will be released globally on the streaming service on November 10th.

The semi-autobiographical book follows educated mixed-race protagonist, Helga Crane who is the daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father who struggles to find her identity in the 1920s. 

The book received critical acclaim the 1928 Harmon prize, which awarded accolades to African-American artists. However the novel gained little financial success. 

In 1929, Passing was published following the reunion of two childhood friends – Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield – whose lives have gone in dramatically different directions. 

Despite growing up together, one of the women is ‘passing’ for white and living in Manhattan with her wealthy white husband, while other lives with in Harlem with her black doctor husband.  

Pinckney claims that her childhood had influenced the book: ‘Larsen’s upbringing as the resented stepchild, the darker-skinned daughter whose existence perhaps burdened her otherwise loving mother would inform her fiction about women too dark to be white and too light to be black, women living between black and white, and culturally at home nowhere’, he wrote. 

While the novel isn’t based on a true story, critics believe book draws on real experiences the author witnessed throughout her life, including a high profile divorce case of the 1920s. 

In 1924, Rhinelander v. Rhinelander played out the divorce of American socialite, a member of the wealthy Rhinelander family Leonard ‘Kip’ Rhinelander and Alice Jones, a biracial working class woman. 

Leonard sued his wife for annulment on the grounds that she’d hidden her heritage and intentionally deceived him into believing she was white. 

Similarly, in the novel, Clare marries John Bellew, a wealthy white man who is not aware of her true racial identity.  

Octavio R. González, an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Wellesley College and an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, suggested that the book features themes of sexuality, hailing Nella one of the ‘queer figures’ of the movement.  

In an interview with Time magazine, González described Passing as a novel that exhibits ‘same-sex desire between the two female protagonists’. 

With her second novel in press and no other upcoming projects, Nella went back to work full time as a librarian before publishing a short story titled ‘Sanctuary’ in 1930. 

However the author became embroiled in an ugly plagiarism controversy, accused of stealing the work of British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith.  

Kaye-Smith’s Mrs. Adis follows a poor woman who hides a young stranger who begs her for protection after being caught poaching on the nearby estate and accidentally killed a local gamekeeper.  

After discovering her late son was a childhood friend of the man, she takes him in and protects him – even after it’s revealed that he was the man who killed her child.  

In Larsen’s Sanctuary, a poor black woman helps a black thief who accidentally killed a man while attempting to steal tires from a factory and refuses to give him up, even after discovering he killed her son.    

At the time of her death in 1964 aged 72, Nella’s novels were regarded as ‘trivial, misguided and poorly written’

Nella denied plagiarising the works, claiming she had heard the story through friends many years ago, and while her editors eventually exonerated her of wrongdoing – she was never published again.  

Three years later, she and her husband divorced after years of strain on their marriage – with some academics claiming Elmer had an affair in the early 1920s.  

Soon after their divorce a novel about a love triangle, using white characters, was rejected by publishers and Nella withdrew from Harlem Renaissance friends like Van Vechten.

After their divorce in 1933, Nella lived on generous alimony payments until Elmer’s death in 1941 when she returned to work as hospital administrator in New York and lived in a small apartment on Second Avenue.

At the time of her death in 1964 aged 72, Nella’s novels were regarded as ‘trivial, misguided and poorly written’. She was childless and estranged from her half sister who denied knowing she existed after inheriting the $35,000 of savings she left her behind.    

In 1980, Mary Helen Washington published an article in Ms Magazine dubbing the author the ‘mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance’ and calling her works ‘for the most part unknown, unread and dismissed – both by black critics and their white counterparts’.  

In George Hutchinson’s 2006 book, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Colour Line, he writes: Larsen herself no doubt felt like a shadow through much of her life. She did not long inhabit the sort of place in which she could feel at home.

‘Nella Larsen did not write a string of significant novels, or found an institution, or lead a movement. 

‘She seems to have had little interest in leaving a legacy. She lived a life that should never have been, one that many seem to think could not have been.’  

How Rebecca Hall’s black family history inspired new film Passing: Actor reveals how her and grandfather who were both biracial ‘passed’ themselves off as white

Director Rebecca Hall previously revealed how her family’s own complex biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ as white. 

Hall, 39, is the daughter of white British director Sir Peter Hall and Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing, 71, whose mother was white Dutch and father was of African American, and possibly Sioux Native American and white European descent.

Like the characters in Passing, Hall’s maternal grandfather Norman Isaac Ewing spent his life ‘passing’ as a white man and raised his children, including Maria, as white.

Rebecca Hall has revealed how her family’s own biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ as white. Pictured, Rebecca in 2010 with her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, whose mother was white Dutch and father was of African American, and possibly Sioux Native American and white European descent

Rebecca described her grandfather’s ‘passing’ as something that was ‘known and not known’. Adapting Passing for the screen was a way of processing her own complicated family history. Pictured, Rebecca as a baby with her mother Maria and father, director Sir Peter Hall 

‘He was almost definitely African American. I say he passed for white; there was no language for that within even my family… it was it was mysterious even for [my mother] and complicated for her,’ Hall said in an interview with Screen Daily. 

‘I then dug a little deeper, and it became very clear that he was white passing. And more than that, it was likely that his parents were also both white passing. And I started thinking more and more about the legacy of passing in a family.’  

Norman Isaac Ewing was born c. 1892-1894 to John William Ewing and Hattie Norman, who are both reportedly described in U.S. Census records as ‘mulatto’, an outdated term used to describe a child born to a Black person and a white person.

On the 1910 U.S. Census, Norman’s race is listed as ‘mulatto’. In 1920 he describes himself as ‘Native American Indian’.

Norman married Hermina Maria Veraar, who was born in Amsterdam, in 1938 in Ontario, Canada. The couple settled in the US and welcomed four daughters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pankratz, Frances Ewing and Maria Ewing.

Norman died in 1968, when Maria was a teenager, and Hermina died in 2004, aged 88.

Maria graduated from Finney High School, Detroit, in 1968 and made her professional debut just eight years later in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

She met Sir Peter at Glyndebourne in 1979. He directed her as Carmen and as Salome, whose Dance Of The Seven Veils left her totally naked on stage, and fell ‘madly in love’, despite being married to his second wife Jacky at the time.

Jacky and he were divorced in 1981, and in 1982 he married Maria, who that same year gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca.

Hall explained she was recommended Passing by a friend about 10 years ago, when she was considering her own racial identity, and the privileges she was afforded as a white-presenting person.

‘I began to think about how racial passing is representative of the American dream, in the sense that you can be self-made and turn yourself into something else, but also representative of the lie at the center of the American dream, which is that you only get to [participate] if your complexion is a certain color,’ she told the LA Times.

‘And as I started thinking more about that, I started wanting to know more and see how I sit in relation to that.’

 

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