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Nella Larsen

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Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen only wrote two novels in her short-lived literary career, but we still remember her today for her contribution to the Harlem Renaissance and her unique perspective as a mixed-race woman.

Nella Larsen Biography

Nella Larsen Biography Portrait of Nella Larsen StudySmarterPortrait of Nella Larsen,

Nella Larsen Biography: Early Life

Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891 to parents Mary Hanson, a Danish woman, and Peter Walker, a Black man from the West Indies. Unfortunately, Nella Larsen’s father passed away when she was only two. Her mother remarried a Danish man, Peter Larsen, and they had one child together, Nella’s half-sister.

Growing up in a white household in a predominantly white community, Nella Larsen felt as though she didn't quite fit in. It was not until she went to Fisk University in Nashville that she experienced a predominantly Black environment. But she found she struggled to fit in there as well. So, in 1909, Nella Larsen left the United States to spend time in Denmark with her relatives and get a sense of her heritage. While there, she audited courses for the University of Copenhagen.

Nella Larsen Biography: Nursing Career

Upon her return to the United States in 1912, Nella Larsen enrolled at the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York City, and by 1915, she was a practicing nurse. During this time, she also met and married Dr. Elmer Samuel Imes, a Black physicist and eventual chairman of the Physics Department at Fisk University.

Nella Larsen served as the head nurse of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute for a year.

Nella Larsen Biography: The Harlem Renaissance

Dr. Imes’ prestigious position enabled Nella Larsen to rise in society where she became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, she also worked as a librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York City Public Library. There, she found herself at the center of the literary scene.

The Harlem Renaissance

a cultural movement based in Harlem in the 1920s that celebrated Black culture, art, and literature.

Encouraged by the notable literary figures around her (e.g., Langston Hughes), Nella Larsen published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. She followed up quickly with her second novel, Passing, in 1929. For her work, she became the first Black woman to win the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Another notable black woman to win the Guggenheim Fellowship was Zora Neale Hurston.

Unfortunately, in 1930, Nella Larsen’s life and career turned upside down. While working on her third novel in Spain, her short story, “Sanctuary,” began facing false allegations of plagiarism. Additionally, she discovered her husband was cheating on her with a white woman. They divorced in 1933 and Nella Larsen’s third novel remained unfinished.

Contributions to the Harlem Renaissance

Nella Larsen was a part of the it-group during the Harlem Renaissance. Her two novels were major successes, and they received almost universal praise. However, after the plagiary accusations and her husband's affair, she stopped contributing to the black literary canon. Her work was largely forgotten until a resurgence in the late 20th century.

Nella Larsen Biography: Later Life

Embarrassed by her divorce and the plagiary accusations, Nella Larsen withdrew from the literary scene and moved to the Lower East Side, away from her friends of the past. She did not receive enough money from her books to survive without alimony checks, so when her ex-husband died in 1941, she returned to nursing, this time at the Bethel Hospital in Brooklyn. She worked this job until her death in 1964.

Nella Larsen Novels and Quotes

One of the major tropes in Harlem Renaissance literature was a character type known as the "tragic mulatto." The character is mixed-race and goes through trials and tribulations trying to define themselves and find their place in the world. Typically, the character discovers they do not feel as though they belong in black or white society, hence, the tragedy. Nella Larsen explored this doomed fate through the protagonists in her novels.

Nella Larsen Novels and Quotes: Quicksand

Nella Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand, was semi-autobiographical. The main character, Helga Crane, had the same mixed heritage down to a Danish mother and an Afro-Caribbean father. Being mixed-race during a time when the racial divide was so rigid was extremely difficult. So, just like Larsen, Helga traveled far and wide to find a place where she belonged, only to be ultimately unsuccessful.

She could neither conform nor be happy in her unconformity. This she saw clearly now, and with cold anger at all the past futile effort. What a waste!” - Nella Larsen, Quicksand, 1928

Nella Larsen Novels and Quotes: Passing

In Passing, Nella Larsen dives into the lives of two black women and explores the concept of “passing as white”:

It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it. - Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929

Irene, married to a Black man, only tried to “pass” as a white woman when it benefited her. In contrast, Clare, married to a white man, lived her life as though she was a white woman.

Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it.” - Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929

Nella Larsen - Key takeaways

  • Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891 to a Danish mother and Afro-Caribbean father. Her mother remarried a Danish man which led Nella Larsen to grow up in a white household where she felt like she didn't truly belong.
  • She studied at Fisk University where she first experienced a predominantly Black community, but she still felt like she didn't belong because of her mixed race.
  • After spending time with relatives in Denmark, she began work as a nurse. During this time, she met and married Dr. Samuel Imes.
  • At the center of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen worked as a librarian and wrote two critically acclaimed novels, Quicksand and Passing.
  • In the 1930s, things fell apart when a short story faced false allegations of plagiarism and she discovered her husband was cheating. She withdrew from the literary scene by the end of the decade.
  • Her novels did not make her much money, so she relied on alimony until her husband died in 1941. She began work as a nurse again in Brooklyn until her death in 1964.

Frequently Asked Questions about Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was a writer at the center of the Harlem Renaissance.

Nella Larsen was of mixed race.

Nella Larsen never had kids.

Nella Larsen stopped writing after the embarrassment of false plagiarism accusations and the discovery of her husband's affair.

Final Nella Larsen Quiz


When was Nella Larsen born?

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What country did Nella Larsen vist after studying at Fisk University?

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Who did Nella Larsen marry?

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Dr. Elmer Samuel Imes

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What job put Nella Larsen at the center of the Harlem Renaissance?

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her job as a librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York City Public Library

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What was Nella Larson's first occupation?

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What was Nella Larsen's first novel?

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Nella Larsen was the first black woman to earn what honor?

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The Guggenheim Fellowship

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Why did Nella Larsen stop writing?

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her husband's affair

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What career did Nella Larsen return to after she stopped writing?

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When did Nella Larsen die?

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