Nella Larsen Additional 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....

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(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....

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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...

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