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 librarian to a Harlem branch.
If Larsen was to be a writer, she could not have been at a better place at a better time. Not only was Harlem the center of black society, but black writers and intellectuals were also using it as the base for a new cultural movement, to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. This creative community did more than enable the members of a black intellectual elite, including such writers as Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Walter White, to meet and exchange ideas; through their contacts in the white publishing establishment, older writers, such as Larsen’s close friend Carl Van Vechten, a white critic and novelist, could help younger ones get their works published.
Davis points out that Larsen first ventured into print in 1926 with two short stories about white characters. According to Jessie Fauset, however, it was Larsen’s reading of Birthright (1922), a novel by the white writer T. S. Stribling about an educated man of mixed race, that inspired her to write her novel Quicksand (1928), in order to present a truer picture of what it was like to be descended of two different races. Although in Nigger Heaven (1926) Van Vechten had glorified the simpler, more primitive existence of uneducated, lower-class black people, he admired Larsen’s book about the prosperous black middle-class and persuaded his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, to accept it. The novel won praise from reviewers and a Bronze Medal from the Harmon Foundation. With her second novel, Passing (1929), Larsen’s reputation was solidly established. In 1930, after becoming the first black woman creative writer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, she began planning a year of research in Spain and France, which would result in a new...
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