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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Nella Larsen

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.

Quicksand 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.

After 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.

Why 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.

For 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.

Both 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
from Passing
      One and Two (1929)

Other Works
Quicksand (1928)
Passing (1929)

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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, offers a forum for discussion on Larson.

Voices from the Gaps
Biography, criticism, selected bibliography, and links.

Secondary Sources

Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood, 1987

Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976, 1980