In Search of Nella Larsen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

George Hutchinson, author of The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (1996), brings his considerable knowledge of African American life in the 1920’s to this definitive biography of Nella Larsen. Larsen wrote two novels acclaimed by contemporary critics and readers then disappeared from the Harlem social and literary scene where she had played a prominent role. Hutchinson’s detective work uncovers previously overlooked evidence from public records and private letters and diaries to dispute the conjectures of Larsen’s two previous biographers. In his reconstruction of her life and work, the “mystery woman” emerges as one of the most significant writers of the Harlem Renaissance, that exuberant flowering of African American arts and literature of the 1920’s. In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line restores Larsen’s work to its position as a prescient feminist portrait of the fragile lives of black women whose roles were defined by the rules of race and gender in a racist American society.

With painstaking detective work, Hutchinson uses such documents as a ship’s passenger list, records of the New York Public Library system, and public health nursing records to prove the truth of events previously considered inventions of Larsen’s imagination. Most significantly, he combs the diaries and letters of Carl Van Vechten, Larsen’s close friend, to chart her activities during her Harlem years.

Nellie Walker was born in Chicago on April 14, 1891, the daughter of Mary Hansen, a Danish immigrant, and Peter Walker, a West Indian of mixed race. Her father disappeared shortly after her birth, and her mother married Peter Larsen, a white man. She gave birth to a second daughter, Anna Elizabeth, in 1892. The unwritten rules of Jim Crow at that time decreed a total separation of the races. Nella Larsen, as she began to call herself as an adolescent, was a mulatto, with dark, honey-colored skin. Because of her skin color, she would live in the hidden spaces between the black and white races, belonging to neither.

Larsen’s early childhood Chicago neighborhood was the site of saloons, a high crime rate, and interracial prostitution. The circumstances of her birth were a source of shame throughout her life. Hutchinson believes that her seemingly inexplicable choices in life originated from Larsen’s fear that her lower-class origins would be discovered and her anxiety that she would be rejected by those whom she loved.

In 1895 Mary Larsen and her two daughters traveled to Denmark, where they lived for three years. They returned to Chicago in 1898, and Nella later enrolled in English literature and creative writing classes at Wendell Phillips High School, training that would support her in her future writing. When the Larsen family moved to a middle-class neighborhood, Nella, the dark child in a white family, felt alienated. Mary Larsen, understanding this, enrolled sixteen-year-old Nella as a boarding student at Fisk Normal School in Tennessee to prepare for a teaching career. However, Nella was expelled at the end of the school year. Since her grades were acceptable, Hutchinson speculates that she had rebelled against the strict social conventions of the school’s conservative black community.

Larsen returned to Denmark to live with her mother’s relatives from 1908 to 1912. She later claimed educational credentials, probably inflated, for her informal schooling there. She left Denmark at the age of twenty-one, having discovered a different kind of discrimination in a society that regarded her as strange and exoticagain an outsider.

In New York City Larsen trained as a nurse at Lincoln Hospital, receiving a progressive education in liberal arts as well as medical studies. In 1915, a skilled professional, she moved to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as a teacher and nursing supervisor. A year later she resigned this position, apparently rebelling against the stifling atmosphere of this conservative black institution that exploited its nurses and repressed her individuality.

She returned to New York to teach at Lincoln Hospital. Her course in the history of women in nursing would be reflected in the feminist vision that would distinguish her fiction. In 1919 she married Dr. Elmer Imes, a successful black physicist, and moved to Harlem. Her first published writing, in 1920, was a series of children’s games and poems recalled from her early years in Denmark. These pieces appeared in The Crisis, the publication of the NAACP.

Deciding to change her career, Larsen broke precedent as the first black woman to earn her certification in the New York Public Library system. Her experience as a librarian undoubtedly encouraged her to write. In 1924 Larsen was appointed head of the Children’s Room at the 135th Street Library, a center for African American culture, where she made an important contribution to developing the resources of the children’s collection.

That year also marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, the vigorous outpouring of literature, art, and...

(The entire section is 2089 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Black Issues Book Review 8, no. 5 (September/October, 2006): 40.

Booklist 102, no. 18 (May 15, 1006): 16.

London Review of Books 28, no. 19 (October 5, 2006): 21-22.

The Nation 283, no. 3 (July 17, 2006): 26-30.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (August 27, 2006): 20.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 6, 2006, p. 26.

The Washington Post, May 21, 2006, p. BW14.