Nella Larsen is best known as the author of two of the most famous novels of the Harlem Renaissance, QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929). Both novels deal with the complicated lives of light-skinned African American women who are faced with both discrimination and the temptation to forsake their heritage and “pass” for white. Readers have often assumed that the two novels reflected in some part Larsen’s own life-experience. Despite Larsen’s celebrity during the 1920s, however, there has been no conclusive evidence to support this interpretation other than the author’s own ambiguous and often contradictory statements.
In NELLA LARSEN: NOVELIST OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE, literary critic Thadious Davis answers through extensive archival research the questions concerning Larsen’s sudden flowering as a novelist and her equally abrupt disappearance from the literary world. Born in Chicago in 1891 to a Danish mother and a West Indian father, Larsen grew up as a child of color in an otherwise Scandinavian family. She briefly attended Fisk Normal School in Nashville, Tennessee, and subsequently moved to New York City, where she studied nursing. She married the prominent African American physicist Elmer Imes in 1919, and soon became part of the set of writers, intellectuals, and activists that formed the core of the Harlem Renaissance. Her brief celebrity in the 1920’s was followed by the breakup of her marriage in the 1930’s and the end of her writing career. Davis does not, however, portray Larsen as the tragic mulatto of her novels; instead, she concludes that Larsen’s return to a productive nursing career in the latter decades of her life indicated yet another stage in Larsen’s ever-changing identity, in this case a return to a strong and supportive community of women. Davis’ examination of the confluence of race, sex, and class in the life of Nella Larsen make this biography a fascinating case study of life in the first half of the twentieth century.