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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