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Nella Larsen (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), born Nellie Walker in Chicago was an American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance movement. Her body of writing was modest, but she was considered a respected voice of her time. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from library school and to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. The theme of her life, and in effect, her work, was a sense of never belonging — not to any community, nor even to an immediate family.
Her mother, Marie Hansen, was a white Danish immigrant; her father, Peter Walker, was likely of mixed race and from the Danish West Indies. He may have died when Nella was quite young. Her mother remarried Peter Larsen, another white Danish immigrant, 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. The family moved to a mostly white neighborhood, and thus began a life in which Nella never felt a sense of belonging.
In his review of In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson, 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.”
Education and nursing career
Nella attended Fisk University, a historically all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee in 1907. For the first time, she was part of an all-black community. Not having any real connection with the students, who were primarily from the South, she once again felt out of place and dropped out after a year. She then spent four years in Denmark with relatives.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1914, Nella enrolled in a nursing school program in New York City. After completing the one-year program, she worked as head nurse at the renowned Tuskegee Institute (Alabama). The poor working conditions, coupled with a disappointment with Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington’s educational philosophy, made this sojourn short-lived. She returned to New York and resumed work as a nurse.
You might also like: Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
Marriage and divorce
Nella Larsen married Elmer Imes, a physicist, in 1919. He was notable as the second African-American to earn a doctorate in physics. The following year, her first short stories were published. The couple moved to Harlem shortly thereafter. A connection with NAACP notables gave her entrée into the world of the Harlem Renaissance. Their peers and colleagues were highly educated blacks, a cultural elite, and with her lack of formal education and mixed ancestry, Nella once again felt a keen sense of being out of place.
During the marriage, Nella sometimes wrote under the name Nella Larsen Imes. The marriage was not a happy one, and the couple divorced in the early 1930s.
Career as a librarian
In the early 20s, Nella volunteered at the legendary Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, which was a hub of cultural activity. She was encouraged by head librarian Ernestine Rose to get training, and received certification from the NYPL’s own school. Pausing her nursing career, she began working as a librarian on the Lower East Side before returning to the Harlem branch.
1925 was a turning point for Nella. Though she had to take a sabbatical from work for health reasons, she used the time to start her first novel, and made an effort to become more engaged in the cultural activities of the Harlem Renaissance.
Quicksand and Passing
Quicksand (1928) was her first novel, published in 1928. Though it was well-received critically, its sales were modest. The story was partially autobiographical. Like Larsen, Helga Crane, the main character, is the mixed-race daughter of a white Danish mother and a mixed-race father from the Caribbean. She travels back and forth from Denmark, teaches at “Naxos,” a thinly veiled episode base on Larsen’s Tuskegee experience, and lives in Harlem. Everywhere Helga goes, she never finds a comfortable place for herself.
Passing (1929), her second novel, was also well-received, if not a best-seller. It’s the story of two friends, Irene and Clare, both of mixed race. Both have a mostly white appearance, but Clare has crossed over the color line to live as white, even getting married to a white man who turns out to be a bigot. Irene “passes” when convenient, but lives as black, with her black doctor husband and two sons. The women reunite after an absence of twelve years from their friendship, with dramatic consequences.
Both novels are eminently readable and fascinating snapshots of the stringent racial lines of 1920s America. Though Passing came out just a year after Quicksand, it is a more mature and delicately told story.
Nella Larsen’s stories of young women of mixed race growing up in a prejudiced world, grappling for a sense of identity and belonging, mirrored her own life. Larsen struggled mightily for most 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.
Leaving the literary world for good
Nella lived on alimony until her ex-husband’s death in 1942, but subsequently returned to nursing and medical administration. She moved to the Lower East Side, abandoned her literary circles, and never ventured back to Harlem. She struggled with depression, and stopped writing. In the course of her lifetime, her work had been all but forgotten. She died at age 72 in Brooklyn in 1964.
Nella Larsen page on Amazon
A revival of interest
Passing was reissued in 2001. Richard Bernstein, a New York Times book critic, wrote: “reading it and knowing that its author wrote very little after it imparts a sense of loss, giving as it does a glimpse of an original and hugely insightful writer whose literary talent developed no further.”
Fortunately, interest in Nella Larsen’s writings, modest though her body of work was, has grown over the years. Academic interest in race, history, and women’s studies has shed a new light on her work, and has been reconsidered in numerous academic studies. According to The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction (2011), Nella Larsen is described as “not only the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but also an important figure in American modernism.”
More about Nella Larsen on this site
- Insightful Quotes from Passing by Nella Larsen
- Quotes from Quicksand and Others by Nella Larsen
- Passing (1929): An Introduction
- In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson
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 Larson on Black History Now
- Reader discussion of Larsen’s works on Goodreads
- Nella Larsen page on Amazon.com
- 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 photo by Carl Van Vechten
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