Nella Larsen Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How did Nella Larsen’s experience of living her formative years in a white environment influence her attitude toward African American culture?

What is the “uplift” tradition, and what is the price a writer like Larsen must pay for choosing to become part of it?

Explore the metaphor that serves as the title of Larsen’s novel Quicksand.

Explain “passing” and how it becomes an “argument against assimilation” in Larsen’s second novel.

How does Larsen develop the theme of personal identity in her two novels?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Nella Larsen is known primarily known for her novels, her first foray into writing consisted of two works for children, “Three Scandinavian Games” and “Danish Fun,” which were published in 1920 in The Brownies Book, a magazine for children published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In addition to a few book reviews, she also published three short stories. The first two, “The Wrong Man” (1926) and “Freedom” (1926), which appeared under the pseudonym Allen Semi (Nella Imes, her married name, in reverse), share a number of plot similarities with her novels, except that the characters in the short stories are not identifiable as African American. In 1930, Larsen became the first African American author to have a work of fiction—her short story “Sanctuary”—published in the prestigious Forum magazine. This honor was eclipsed, however, as she was accused of plagiarizing the work. Based on rough drafts Larsen sent to the publishers, they concluded that the similarities were coincidence; nevertheless, “Sanctuary” was Larsen’s final published work.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Nella Larson is considered one of the important novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. Her first novel, Quicksand, was awarded the Harmon Foundation Bronze Award, and in 1930, following the publication of her novel Passing, she became only the fourth black writer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bontemps, Arna, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd Mead, 1984. Provides a contextual understanding of Larsen’s writing.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Provides a contextual understanding of Larsen’s writing.

Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. A meticulous biography.

Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Provides a contextual understanding of Larsen’s writing.

Larson, Charles R. Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. Emphasizes the “African”-ness of these two mixed-race writers.

McDowell, Deborah E. Introduction to “Quicksand” and “Passing,” by Nella Larsen. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. An excellent introduction to this reprint of the original 1928 and 1929 editions of Larsen’s novels.

McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995. A study of the theme of the “tragic mulatto” in the novels of these two writers.

Miller, Erika M. The Other Reconstruction. New York: Garland, 2000. A study of themes of racism, lynching, and other forms of violence in the works of Larsen, Angelina Grimké, and Ida Wells-Barnett.

Shockley, Ann Allen. “Nella Larsen.” In Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A short biography and critical assessment.

Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923-1933. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. Provides a contextual understanding of Larsen’s writing.

Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1995. Studies Larsen along with Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston.

Washington, Mary Helen. “The Mulatta Trap: Nella Larsen’s Women of the 1920’s.” In her anthology Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1987. Biographical information about Larsen.