Nella Larsen Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because of Nella Larsen’s reticence, until recently many biographical details were either unknown or cited erroneously. For example, her biographer, Thadious M. Davis, is responsible for establishing Larsen’s correct date of birth as April 13, 1891, not 1893, as was previously thought. Larsen was born in Chicago to a Danish mother and a black West Indian father. Her father died when she was two, and her mother then married a man of, in Larsen’s words, “her own race and nationality.” While it is known that Larsen did go to a small, private elementary school with her white half sister, evidently her parents found her existence increasingly embarrassing in their society of Germans and Scandinavians. Although Larsen had been raised in an all-white world, as an adult she felt herself shut off from it, as well as from her own family. As she told an interviewer many years later, she had little contact with her mother and her half sister, because her presence would be “awkward” for them.

Larsen first ventured into the black world in 1909 when, after attending secondary school in Chicago, she was sent for a year to the high-school department of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The following year, she went to Denmark to visit her Danish relatives. From 1910 to 1912, she audited classes at the University of Copenhagen. When she returned to the United States, Larsen once again enrolled at a black institution, the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York City. After her graduation in 1915, Larsen spent a year as assistant superintendent of nurses at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She was not happy there, however, and in 1916 she returned to New York City and to Lincoln Hospital. Two years later, she took a nursing job at the New York City Department of Health.

On May 3, 1919, Larsen was married to the physicist Dr. Elmer S. Imes, to whom she was to dedicate her first novel. She was now a socialite, the wife of a man who moved in the highest levels of Harlem society. In 1921, Larsen decided to make another change in her life, this time in her career. She became a library assistant at the New York Public Library and, in 1923, after receiving a library-school certificate, she was assigned as a children’s...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Nella Larsen Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Larsen’s two novels gained her a place as one of the most important black women writers of her time. When no more works appeared and Larsen disappeared into obscurity, critics became more and more puzzled about the author’s intentions.

While it was always clear that Larsen was preoccupied with matters of racial and cultural identity, as viewed from her own middle-class perspective, modern critics have also pointed out her obvious interest in gender issues. Even though Larsen’s novels are marred by puzzling ambiguities and flawed conclusions, because of their psychological and social realism, they must be considered masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance.

Nella Larsen Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In common with her protagonists—Helga Crane in Quicksand and Clare Kendry in Passing— Nella Larsen, throughout her life, never thoroughly resolved the crisis of her identity. Larsen often invented details about her life to suit her audience and the effect she wanted to have on it; it may be said that she learned this habit of invention from her parents. Mystery surrounds her identity because she wanted it that way.

Even in such matters as her birth certificate, school records, and early childhood whereabouts, it is possible that no absolutely definitive history will arise. Thadious M. Davis, in the biography Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled, makes a thorough summary of the information available on the basics of Larsen’s identity. Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker, child of a Danish woman and a cook designated as “colored.” The baby was designated, therefore, as “colored.” When the girl entered school, she did so under the name Nellie Larson. It is possible that her supposed stepfather, Peter Larson, was in fact the same person as her “colored” father, Peter Walker, and that Peter Walker had begun to pass for white. Nellie Larson also attended school as Nelleye Larson. In 1907, she began to use the surname Larsen. The 1910 census of her household does not include her (her officially white sister, Anna, is mentioned), perhaps because her birth certificate, with the...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Nella Larsen Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although regarded as one of the most outstanding novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen has also been described as its mystery woman, having “disappeared” from both literary and historical standpoints. In fact, when she was found dead in her New York City apartment in 1964, no one recognized that an important writer had died; there was only a brief notice in The New York Times, which identified her as Nella Larsen Imes, a name recognized by few, as she had divorced three decades earlier. Since the 1970’s, however, there has been a burgeoning interest in Larsen, and a number of scholars have attempted to reconstruct her life. As a result, much more has come to be known about her.

Although she listed the year of her birth as 1893, Larsen was born Nellie Marion Walker on April 13, 1891, in Chicago, the daughter of Mary Hansen (or Hanson), a Danish immigrant, and Peter Walker, a black man of Caribbean descent (the Danish West Indies, now the Virgin Islands). Her father died when she was two years old, and her mother remarried, to a man of her own race, and had a second daughter; as a result, Nellie was an outsider in her own family. After leaving to attend the secondary school at Fisk, where she remained for one year, Nellie (now known as Nella) had little contact with her family.

Part of the mystery surrounding Larsen concerns her whereabouts during the period 1908-1912. According to George Hutchinson, one of her biographers, she spent these years, or part of them, in Denmark, as she stated in her 1926 biographical blurb for the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf; nonetheless, it is also thought that she might have spent these years in Chicago. That Larsen was vague regarding these years accounts for the discrepancy between her purported and her actual age.

When Larsen resurfaced, it was in New York City, where she entered the Lincoln School of Nursing, a training program for African Americans....

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Nella Larsen Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nella Marian Larsen Imes wrote two novels considered to be among the finest connected with the Harlem Renaissance period of American literature. While her reputation as an author is relatively well known, many biographical details of her life remain unknown or are contradictory. Larsen’s mother was an immigrant from Denmark and her father, who died when she was two years old, a Danish West Indian. Soon after Larsen’s father’s death, her mother remarried a man of her own race and nationality; these two adults and their daughter, Larsen’s white half sister, made up the family of Larsen’s childhood. The effects on Larsen of being the only black member of her immediate family are unclear, but she has suggested that this race difference was the primary cause of her later estrangement from her family.

In 1907, after attending a private elementary school where most of her classmates were of Scandinavian or German ancestry, Larsen enrolled in the high school at Fisk University, a Nashville, Tennessee, black college. Upon leaving Fisk in 1908, she attended the University of Copenhagen and lived in Denmark for three years. Returning to the United States, she studied nursing at the Lincoln School for Nurses, Bronx, New York, from 1912 to 1915. During the following year she was head nurse at the John A. Andrew Hospital and Nurse Training School at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Little is known about her brief stay at Tuskegee, but her description in Quicksand of a fictitious academic institution in the Deep South suggests that Larsen found the values perpetuated by the school cruelly small-minded and hypocritical. After moving back to New York City she continued working as a nurse until 1921, when she left the field of nursing to become an employee at a Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.

In 1919 Larsen married Dr. Elmer S. Imes, a physicist. Her social status as a physicist’s wife brought her into contact with the African American cultural awakening then taking place among the upper classes of blacks in Harlem....

(The entire section is 842 words.)

Nella Larsen Biography

(eNotes Publishing)

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was as mysterious and complicated a woman as the fictional characters she created. She never revealed much about her personal life and even her biographer, Thadious M. Davis, has had to speculate about various periods in her life about which little is known.

Writer and critic T. N. R. Rogers states that one “can probably get a pretty good idea of Nella Larsen’s personality from the depiction of her alter ego, Helga Crane, in Quicksand.” Like Helga, Nella Larsen was the child of a white mother and black father. Larsen’s mother was Danish and her father was probably West Indian. Larsen’s father died when she was young and her mother remarried a white Danish man from whom Nella...

(The entire section is 722 words.)