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.  

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.”

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.

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 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.

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 Quotes

Nella Larsen, photo by Carl Van Vechten
Nella Larsen photo by Carl Van Vechten

“Authors do not supply imaginations, they expect their readers to have their own, and to use it.”

“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?” (Quicksand, 1928)

“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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