Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen (April 13, 1891 –March 30, 1964), was an American author born Nellie Walker in Chicago. He body of writing was modest, but hers is considered one of the most respected voices of the Harlem Renaissance. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from library school and to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing.


Larsen attended Fisk University, an historically all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee in 1907, but stayed only for a year. She trained as a nurse in 1914. Upon graduating the following year, she worked in that capacity at the renowned Tuskegee Institute. The poor working conditions, coupled with a disappointment with Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington’s educational philosophy, made this sojourn short-lived.

Mixed-race immigrants

Her mother, Marie Hansen, was a white Danish immigrant; her father was likely of mixed race and from the Danish West Indies. It’s thought that he died when Nella was quite young. Her mother remarried Peter Larsen, with whom she had another daughter; Nella took his surname. To be the only non-white member of her family put her in a precarious position at the time.

In his review of In Search of Nella Larsen by George Pinckney, Darryl Pinckney wrote, “”as a member of a white immigrant family, she had no entrée into the world of the blues  or of the black church. 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, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up.”

Marriage and divorce

Nella Larsen married Elmer Imes, a noted  African-American physicist in 1919 and had her first short stories published the following year. The couple moved to Harlem, where their connection with NAACP notables gave her entrée into the world of the Harlem Renaissance, but the marriage wasn’t to last; the couple divorced in the early 1930s.

Passing by Nella Larsen

You might also like:  Passing by Nella Larsen (1929): An Introduction
and 7 Insightful Quotes from Passing

Quicksand and Passing

Quicksand was her first novel; it was published in 1928 was received well, as was Passing (1929), her second novel. Her novels were somewhat autobiographical, telling of young women of mixed race growing up in a prejudiced world, grappling for a sense of identity and belonging. Larsen herself struggled with a sense of belonging for much of her life, never feeling quite at home in either the European community of her mother, nor back in the United States; neither in the black world or the white at a time when the “color line” was strictly drawn.

A change of careers

Eventually, Nella Larsen abandoned writing to focus on her nursing career, and in the course of her own lifetime her work had been all but forgotten. Fortunately, interest in it has grown over the years, as academic interest in race, history, and women’s studies has grown. Larsen  died at age 72 in Brooklyn in 1964.

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Nella Larsen, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Nella Larsen photo by Carl Van Vechten

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