Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen in 1928

Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (born Nellie Walker (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. She published two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.



Nella Larsen went by various names throughout her life. She was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 13, 1891 as Nellie Walker. She was the daughter of Marie Hanson, a Danish immigrant, and Peter Walker, a West Indian man of color from Saint Croix, who soon disappeared from her life. Her mother was a domestic case worker in social services.[1][2]

After her mother married Peter Larsen, a Scandinavian,[1] Nellie took his surname, also sometimes using Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen and, finally, Nella Larsen.[3] After Larsen married, she sometimes used her married name Nella Larsen Imes.[4]

As a child, Larsen lived several years with her mother's relations in Denmark. In 1907-08, she briefly attended Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically black university. The biographer George Hutchinson speculates that she was expelled for some violation of Fisk's strict dress or conduct codes; she then spent four years in Denmark, before returning to the U.S.[5]

In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the all-black nursing school at New York City's Lincoln Hospital.

Nursing career

Upon graduating in 1915, Larsen went South to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she became head nurse at its hospital and training school. While in Tuskegee, she came in contact with Booker T. Washington's model of education and became disillusioned with it. (Washington died shortly after Larsen arrived at Tuskegee.) Working conditions for nurses at Tuskegee were poor; their duties included doing hospital laundry. Larsen lasted only until 1916, when she returned to New York to work again as a nurse.[4]

Marriage and family

In 1919, Larsen married Elmer Imes, a prominent physicist who was the second African American to receive a Ph.D in physics. A year after her marriage, she published her first pieces. After working as a nurse through the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Larsen left nursing and became a librarian.[4]

Librarian and literary career

Larsen and her family moved to Harlem, where she was in charge of the children section of the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL).[4] after passing her certification exam in 1923. Later, in October 1925, she took a sabbatical from of job for health reasons and began to write her first novel.[6] In 1926, having made friends with important figures in the Negro Awakening that became the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen gave up her work as a librarian.

She began to work as a writer active in the literary community.[4] In 1928, Larsen published Quicksand (ISBN 0-14-118127-3), a largely autobiographical novel, which received significant critical acclaim, if not great financial success.

In 1929, she published Passing (ISBN 0-14-243727-1), her second novel, which was also critically successful. Her books dealt with issues related to experiences of mixed-race women.

In 1930, Larsen published "Sanctuary", a short story for which she was accused of plagiarism.[7] Her marriage was in trouble during this period.

"Sanctuary" resembled Sheila Kaye-Smith’s short story "Mrs. Adis", first published in the United Kingdom in 1919. Kaye-Smith wrote on rural themes, and was very popular in the US. Critics thought the basic plot of "Sanctuary,"’ and some of the descriptions and dialogue were virtually identical to her work. Compared to Kaye-Smith’s tale, "Sanctuary" is '... longer, better written and more explicitly political, specifically around issues of race - rather than class as in "Mrs Adis" [Pearce 2003]. Larsen reworked and updated the tale into a modern American black context. Pearce also mentions that much later, Sheila Kaye-Smith admitted in All the Books of My Life (Cassell, London, 1956) that she based "Mrs Adis" on an old story by St Francis de Sales. It is unknown whether she knew of the Larsen controversy.

No plagiarism charges were proved, and Larsen received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She used it to travel to Europe for several years, spending time in Mallorca and Paris, where she worked on a novel about a love triangle. The three protagonists were all white; the book was never published.

Larsen returned to New York in 1933 after her divorce was complete. She lived on alimony until her ex-husband's death in 1942.

She was not writing (and never would again), appeared to be depressed. After her ex-husband's death, Larsen returned to nursing. She disappeared from literary circles. She lived on the Lower East Side, and did not venture to Harlem.[8]

Many of her old acquaintances speculated incorrectly that she, like some of the characters in her fiction, had crossed the color line to "pass" into the white community. George Hutchinson's recent biography of Larsen demonstrated that she remained in New York, working as a nurse, and avoiding contact with her earlier friends and world.

Larsen died in her Brooklyn apartment in 1964, at the age of 72.[9]


Nella Larsen's first novel tells the story of Helga Crane, a fictional character loosely based on Larsen's own early life. Crane is the lovely and refined daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian black father. He abandoned Helga and her mother soon after the girl was born. Unable to feel comfortable with any of her European-American relatives, Crane lives in various places in the United States and visits Denmark, searching for people among whom she feels at home.

Her travels bring her in contact with many of the communities which Larsen knew. The reader meets Helga, a first-year teacher in "Naxos," a Southern Negro boarding school based on Tuskegee University, where she finds herself dissatisfied with the philosophy of those around her. She criticizes a sermon by a white preacher, who advocates the segregation of blacks into separate schools, and says their striving for social equality would lead blacks to become avaricious. Crane quits her teaching and moves to Chicago. Her white uncle, now married to a bigoted woman, shuns her. She then goes to Harlem, New York, where she finds a refined but often hypocritical black middle class obsessed with the "race problem."

Taking her uncle's legacy, Crane visits her maternal aunt in Copenhagen, where she is treated as a highly desirable racial exotic. Missing black people, she returns to New York City. Experiencing a near mental breakdown, Crane happens onto a store-front revival and a charismatic religious experience. After seducing and marrying the preacher who converts her, she moves with him to the poor Deep South. There she is disillusioned by the people's adherence to religion. In each of her moves, Crane fails to find fulfillment. She is looking for more than how to integrate her mixed ancestry; she expresses complex feelings about what she and her friends consider genetic differences between races.

The novel also tells the tale of Crane's search for a marriage partner: as it opens, she has become engaged to marry a prestigious Southern Negro man whom she does not really love, but with whom she can gain social benefits. In Denmark she turns down the proposal of a famous white Danish artist for similar reasons. By the final chapters, Crane has seduced and married a stereotypical black Southern preacher. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic. Crane had hoped to find sexual fulfillment in marriage and some success in helping the poor southern blacks she lives among. She has an endless chain of pregnancies and suffering. Disillusioned with religion, her husband, and her life, Crane fantasizes about leaving her husband, but never does.


Clare and Irene were two childhood friends, both of African and European ancestry. They lost touch when Clare's father died, and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, they allowed her to 'pass' as a white woman and marry a white man, who is racist.

Irene lives in Harlem, where she commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other's lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path as Irene becomes paranoid that her husband is having an affair with Clare. (the reader is never told whether her fears are justified or not, and numerous cues point in both directions). Clare's mixed race is revealed to her husband John Bellew. The novel ends with Clare's sudden death by "falling" out of a window.

The end of the novel is famous for its ambiguity, which leaves open the possibility that Irene has pushed Clare out the window, or that Clare has killed herself.

Many see this novel as an example of the plot of the tragic mulatto, a common figure in early African-American literature after the American Civil War. Others suggest that the novel complicates the plot by introducing the dual figures of Irene and Clare, who in many ways mirror each other. The novel also suggests erotic undertones in the two women's relationship. Some read the novel as one of repression, while others argue that through its attention to the way "passing" unhinges ideas of race, class, and gender, the novel opens spaces for the creation of new, self-generated identities.

Passing has received renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities and liminal spaces. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.



  • 1928 Quicksand
  • 1929 Passing

Other works

  • 1926 "Freedom"
  • 1926 "The Wrong Man"
  • 1930 "Sanctuary"


  1. ^ a b Pinckney, Darryl. "Shadows, a book review of In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, by George Hutchinson." Nation 283, no. 3 (July 17, 2006), p. 26
  2. ^ Sushama Austin, "Nella Larsen - Discovering Parallels to Nella Larsen", Literary Traveler. Accessed online 27 October 2006. (Citation for parents' names.)
  3. ^ Sachi Nakachi, Mixed-Race Identity Politics in Nella Larsen and Winnifred Eaton (Onoto Watanna), (doctoral dissertation, Ohio University), p.14. Accessed online 27 October 2006.
  4. ^ a b c d e Pinckney, p. 28
  5. ^ Pinckney, p. 26-28.
  6. ^ Henry Louis Gates, Nellie McKay, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2004, p.1085
  7. ^ J. Diesman, "Sanctuary", Northern Kentucky University
  8. ^ Pinckney, p. 30.
  9. ^ McDonald, C. Ann (2000). "Nella Larsen (1891-1964)". In Champion, Laurie. American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 182–191. ISBN 0-313-30943-4. Retrieved July 7, 2010. 


  • Pearce, H (2003) "Mrs Adis & Sanctuary", The Gleam: Journal of the Sheila Kaye-Smith Society, No 16.
  • Pinckney, Darryl. "Shadows", The Nation, July 17/24, 2006, p. 26–30. A review of Hutchinson's In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line.
  • Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II. Routledge; London. 2002. ISBN 0-415-15983-0. 

Further reading

  • Passer la ligne, A French translation of Passing, ACFA Editions, Marseilles, 2009. ISBN 978-2952425926
  • Thadious M. Davis, Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled ISBN 0-8071-2070-7.
  • George Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line
  • Sheila Kaye-Smith, All the Books of My Life, Cassell, London, 1956
  • Nella Larsen: links, secondary bibliography
  • Martha J. Cutter, "Sliding Significations: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen's Fiction," in Passing and the Fictions of Identity, ed Elaine Ginsberg, Duke UP 1996, pages 75–100.'

External links

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  • Nella — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Nella est un prénom, notamment italien, porté par : Nella Anfuso (1942), soprano et musicologue italienne ; Nella Buscot, sculpteur… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Larsen, Nella — ▪ American author married name  Nella Imes  born April 13, 1891, Chicago, Ill., U.S. died March 30, 1964, New York, N.Y.       novelist and short story writer of the Harlem Renaissance.       Larsen was born to a Danish mother and a West Indian… …   Universalium

  • Nellie Larsen — Nella Larsen im Jahr 1928 Nella Larsen (* 13. April 1891 in Chicago; † 30. März 1964; geb. Nella Walker; Pseudonyme: Nellie Walker, Nellye Larson, Nellie Larsen) war eine afroamerikanische Schriftstellerin, die der literarischen Bewegung der… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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