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...

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(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.

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(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.)