Nella Larsen (April 13, 1891 –March 30, 1964), was an American author born in Chicago. She may not have produced a large body of writing, but is considered one of the most respected voices of the Harlem Renaissance. She went on to be the first black woman to graduate from library school and to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. When not writing, she worked as a nurse (at the Tuskegee Institute) and a children’s librarian.
Quicksand was her first novel; it was published in 1928 was received well, as was Passing, her second novel. Her novels were somewhat autobiographical, telling of mixed race girls growing up in a prejudiced world, grasping for a sense of belonging. When Larsen herself was young, her white mother did not want to raise a black daughter and kept her distance. Her work was occasionally seen as controversial, but mostly to the unenlightened.
Eventually, Nella Larsen abandoned writing to focus on her nursing career, and by the time she died in Brooklyn in 1964, her work had been all but forgotten. Fortunately, interest in it has grown over the years and is studied at the university level.
Biographies about Nella Larsen
- In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line by George Hutchinson
- Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled by Thadious M. Davis
- Nella Larsen Letters, 1928 – The New York Public Library, New York, NY
- Nella Larsen’s Grave – Cypress Hills Cemetary, Brooklyn, NY
- Quicksand and Passing on Librivox
Nella Larsen Quotes
“It was . . . enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was brutality, and undeserved.” (Passing, 1929)
“These people yapped loudly of race, of race consciousness, of race pride, and yet suppressed its most delightful manifestations, love of color, joy of rhythmic motion, naive, spontaneous laughter. Harmony, radiance, and simplicity, all the essentials of spiritual beauty in the race they had marked for destructions.” (Quicksand, 1928)
“To each his own milieu. Enhance what was already in one’s possession.” (Quicksand, 1928)
“What are friends for, if not to help bear our sins?” (The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and The Stories, 1929)
“Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?”
“Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable. She went through moments of overwhelming anguish. She felt shut in, trapped.” (Quicksand, 1928)
“I think being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world.” (The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and The Stories, 1929)
“Children aren’t everything. There are other things in the world, thought I admit some people don’t seem to suspect it.” (The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and The Stories, 1929)
“Everything can’t be explained by some general biological phrase.” (Passing, 1929)
“She hated to admit that money was the most serious difficulty. Knowing full well that it was important, she nevertheless rebelled at the unalterable truth that it could influence her actions, block her desires. A sordid necessity to be grappled with.” (Quicksand, 1928)
“Lies, injustice, and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure.”
“She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.” (Passing, 1929)
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