| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Until the early 1970s when previously “lost” work by
women writers began to be recovered and reprinted, Nella Larsen was one of
several women writers of the New Negro Renaissance relegated to the back pages
of that movement’s literary history, a curious fate since her career had such
an auspicious beginning. Touted as a promising writer by blacks and whites
alike, Larsen was encouraged by some of the most influential names on the 1920s
arts scene. Walter White, onetime director of the NAACP, read drafts of
Quicksand and urged Larsen along to its completion. Carl Van Vechten, popularly
credited with promoting many Harlem Renaissance writers, introduced the novel
to his publisher, Knopf. These efforts paid off. Larsen won second prize in
literature in 1928 for Quicksand from the Harmon Foundation, which celebrated
outstanding achievement by Negroes.
was also well received by the critics. In his review of the novel, W.E.B. Du
Bois praised it as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced
since the heyday of Chesnutt.” Passing was similarly lauded. One reviewer gave
the novel high marks for capturing, as did no other novel of the genre, the
psychology of racial passing with “consummate art.” Due largely to the success
of these first two novels, Larsen won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1930—the first
black female creative writer to be so honored—to do research on a third novel
in Spain and France. That novel was never published.
the release of Passing, Larsen published her last piece, a story entitled
“Sanctuary.” The subject of much controversy, many speculate that the scandal
it created helped to send Larsen into obscurity. Following the appearance of
the story in 1930, Larsen was accused of plagiarism. One reader wrote to the
editor of the magazine about the striking resemblance of Larsen’s story to one
by Sheila Kaye-Smith entitled “Mrs. Adis,” published in the January 1922 issue
of Century magazine. The editor of The Forum conducted an investigation and was
finally convinced that the resemblance between the stories was an extraordinary
coincidence. In compliance with the editor’s request, Larsen wrote a detailed
explanation of the way in which she came by the germ for her story, trying to
vindicate herself. Despite her editor’s support, Larsen never recovered from
the shock of the charge and disappeared from the literary scene altogether. She
died in Brooklyn in 1964, practically in obscurity.
a career with such auspicious beginnings had such an inauspicious ending has
continued to perplex students of the New Negro Renaissance. Many search for
answers in the scattered fragments of Larsen’s biography, which reveal a
delicate and unstable person. Though there is very little information about
Larsen, some pieces of her life’s puzzle are fairly widely known. Born in
Chicago in 1891 (though no birth certificate has been found), she was the
daughter of a Danish mother and a black West Indian father who died when Larsen
was a young girl. Larsen’s mother remarried, this time a white man who treated
his step-daughter with some disfavor. Never feeling connected to this newly
configured family, Larsen searched vainly for the sense of belonging it could
not provide. Fickle and unsettled, Larsen roamed from place to place, searching
for some undefined and undefinable “something.” She studied at Fisk University
in Nashville, Tennessee; audited classes at the University of Copenhagen; and
studied nursing at Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York,
graduating in 1915.
a brief time after her nurses’ training, she was superintendent of nurses at
Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Unable to tolerate its stifling atmosphere, she
left after only a year and returned to New York. There she worked as a nurse
between 1916 and 1918 at the hospital where she was trained; and between 1918
and 1921 for New York City’s Department of Health. Dissatisfied with this
career, she began work in 1921 at the children’s division of the New York
Public Library, enrolling in its training program. During her employment as a
librarian, she published her only two novels.
Quicksand and Passing illuminate the peculiar pressures on Nella Larsen as a
woman writer during the male-dominated New Negro Renaissance. They show her
grappling with the conflicting demands of her racial and sexual identities and
the contradictions of a black and feminine aesthetic. While these novels often
appear to be concessions to the dominant ideology of romance—marriage and
motherhood—viewed from a feminist perspective, they can be seen as radical and
original efforts to acknowledge a female sexual experience, repressed, more
often than not, in both literary and social realms.
Deborah E. McDowell|
University of Virginia
In the Heath Anthology
One and Two
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Short story originally published in Forum 83 (1930)
Harlem Renaissance Project
Student project containing a biography, a photo, and links.
Nella Larsen Bulletin Board
Sponsored by Catharton.com, offers a forum for discussion on Larson.
Voices from the Gaps
Biography, criticism, selected bibliography, and links.
Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood, 1987
Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976, 1980