Great Authors: Nella Larsen

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I’ve written about Nella Larsen previously on my blog, when I discussed two biographies which focused on her life story.  Read here.

Larsen is one of my favorite authors from the Harlem Renaissance, one of my favorite historical eras.  Larsen, was the biracial daughter of a mulatto man of color from the Danish West Indies and a woman from Denmark.  She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and an independent young woman on her own at sixteen years old when she was sent away to school at Fisk University.  Nella, who was clearly a young woman of color, could not “pass” for white and was unable to remain with her family who lived among other immigrants from Scandinavia, Denmark etc. in the Chicago area. 

While it is believed that her mother married a Caucasian man, Peter Larsen, who became a stepfather to Nella and the father of her youngest sister.  It is also believed that this same Peter Larsen was actually Nella’s birth father, Peter Walker, who rebranded himself as “white” with a change of his name and occupation. (George Hutchinson argues that this is case in his book, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line.) Whatever the case, it allowed the family to move from a rough and crime-ridden ghetto neighborhood in Chicago to a safer neighborhood whose residents were a mix of immigrants from Scandinavia and Denmark.

After completing her studies at Fisk University, she moved to New York City where she studied first to be a librarian and then later to be a nurse.  She worked in New York and then again at Tuskegee Institute where she met and married Dr. Elmer Imes, a physicist.  She took up writing, and published two novels, “Quicksand” and “Passing.”  Both novels were successful and brought about literary and critical acclaim.  She also received the much-coveted Harmon Bronze Medal Award for her work.

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Much is not known about her early years and her final years.  Like many of the women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen did not continue her literary career.  After the Harlem Renaissance was over, Nella remained in Harlem for a period of time.  She became friends with other socialites and creatives who remained living in the city.  But after a falling out with a group of friends, she moved down to the Lower East Side and became a virtual recluse.  She continued working as a nurse but no one knows if she continued writing.

The most disturbing question about Nella’s life is if it was her decision to stop writing or was it a decision not to seek publication of her work.  This question remains unanswered as Nella Larsen died without fanfare and had been forgotten by the literary world.  Upon her death, her apartment and personal effects were cleared and any literary papers were lost.

As an aside, one of my mother’s older cousins, Mary Dorsett, worked with Nella Larsen as a nurse on Governor’s Island.  When she died, Cousin Mary told us that no one knew that she had another life as a writer and that she had never mentioned it, but had been a wonderful nurse.

She remains one of my favorite authors and I cherish her literary works.  After reading her biographies, I have an even greater respect for her.  She went through a lot as a woman in difficult times and still had a full life.

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Cheers to Nella!

Naj