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Reading Between the Lines: The Life of Nella Larsen

East Villager and Harlemite Nellallitea “Nella” Larsen (neé Walker, 13 April 1891 – 30 March 1964) was an American novelist who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and American Modernism literary movements. Born to a Danish mother and Afro-Caribbean father, Larsen identified as mixed race, and her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), explore race as a subjective concept like gender or sexuality. Although her work was relatively under-interpreted when it was published in the early 20th century, it has recently been the focus of multiple literary studies and motion pictures for its early examination of psychological concepts like Imposter Syndrome and Racial Passing.

Larsen's portrait taken by Carl Van Vechten. Image sourced from the Van Vechten Trust.
Larsen’s portrait taken by Carl Van Vechten. Image sourced from the Van Vechten Trust.

Larsen was originally born in Chicago in 1891 as the daughter of Danish seamstress Mary Larsen and mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant Peter Walker. At an early age, her father disappeared, and Mary married Peter Larsen, a fellow Danish immigrant, and moved the family to a predominantly White German and Scandinavian neighborhood, severing Nella’s access to African American culture and religion during her youth. While her family never explicitly identified Nella as black, she and her family encountered racial discrimination during this period of American history that coincides with the Great Migration. Young Nella was tormented by her polarized identity. Speaking to Nella’s situation, author and cultural researcher Darryl Pickney wrote in his 2006 article “Shadows” with the Nation:

“as a member of a white immigrant family, she [Larsen] had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church. If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up.”

Desperately looking for somewhere she belonged, Larsen moved to Denmark for a time, then to Nashville’s Fisk University, and briefly visited Tuskegee University in Alabama before settling in New York City in 1916 to work as a nurse for Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. In 1919, she married Elmer Imes (the second African American to earn a PhD in physics) and moved to Harlem. Through her husband, Larsen met significant figures in the Harlem Renaissance, and she began to dabble in short stories documenting her experiences. She also began working as a librarian’s assistant with Ernestine Rose at the NYPL 135th Street Branch (Now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Encouraged by Rose, Larsen became one of the first women of color to graduate from the New York Public Library School in 1923, paving the way for racial integration in our city’s library systems. She worked briefly at the Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side before returning to Harlem’s 135th Street Branch to be closer to the Harlem literary scene.

Toward the later half of the 1920s, Larsen ran in between Manhattan’s literary circles, and she took a sabbatical from her library work to write her novels in 1926. Very little is known about this era of her life. No collection of Larsen’s records or manuscripts exist publicly, and the Schomburg Center only holds two of her letters in its reference library. From the letters, we know that she frequently visited her friend, Edward Wasserman, a socialite who threw cultural soirees in his apartment at 25 East 30th Street. Wasserman was somewhat notorious at the time for his scandalous all-male, homosexual, racially-mixed parties; but, he introduced Larsen to his close friends and cultural icons Zora Neal Hurston, Carl Van Vecthen, Ethel Waters, and Blanche Knopf. Knopf and Van Vecthen were enamored with Larsen’s draft of her first novel Quicksand, and passed it along to Alfred Knopf, who made her a published author.

Larsen, second from left, receiving an award at the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem in 1929.
Larsen, second from left, receiving an award at the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem in 1929. Image sourced from Bettmann.

Quicksand received critical acclaim upon its publication in 1928, and, riding her wave of success, she quickly wrote Passing, which is acknowledged by many as her magnum opus. The title refers to Racial Passing, in which a member of a socially assigned racial group is accepted or perceived (“passes”) as a different race. Historically this has been used by light-skinned black or mixed-race individuals who assimilate into white hegemony to escape legal and social discrimination. In Passing, the novel follows the stories of Irene Redfield, a black Harlemite who occasionally assimilates into white culture downtown, and Clare Kendry, a mixed race woman who chooses to identify with white culture and socializes with black communities in Harlem. As the women balance their identities between the races, neighborhoods, and classes, they develop what we now call Imposter Syndrome, which is a psychological process that makes people doubt their abilities and identities in fear of being found out as a “fraud.” In recent years, both Quicksand and Passing have received resurged interest as historians and psychologists start to break down the social definitions of concepts like Race and Ethnicity. Passing was re-issued in 2001, and, twenty years later in 2021, the novel was made into a major motion picture by director Rebecca Hall and was released on Netflix. 

Actress Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield in the film, Passing (2021)
Actress Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield in the film, Passing (2021). Image sourced from IMDb and Netflix.

Passing launched Larsen into the upper echelons of the Harlem Renaissance, and in 1930 she became the first woman of color to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship (worth about $2,500 then). However, her success didn’t last for long, and Larsen’s life began to unravel during the Great Depression. Shortly after winning the Guggenheim award, she encountered an unsubstantiated charge of plagiarism, and, in 1933, she divorced her husband after rumors spread accusing him of an affair with a white woman. To escape scrutiny, she moved to the East Village to an apartment located on 2nd Avenue in what was then called the Lower East Side.* From there, she returned to nursing and worked in several hospitals in Lower Manhattan for the next 30 years, never again publishing a literary work. She died in 1963, long after the last of her books were out-of-print.

*Despite her story’s unfitting end, Nella Larsen remains one of the most significant authors of the Harlem Renaissance as well as a hugely significant cultural figure within our neighborhoods. I am currently attempting to find the address where Larsen lived in the East Village in order to uncover more information about the later years of her life. If you have any scholarly information related to her life in the Village, please feel free to pass it along to me at hew@villagepreservation.org, and I will update this blog accordingly. Thank you for your consideration of our research and support of our broader mission to document and celebrate the cultural heritage of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.

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