In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line

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Overview

Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere's most infamous vice districts, Nella Larsen (1891-1964) lived her life in the shadows of America's racial divide. She wrote about that life, was briefly celebrated in her time, then was lost to later generations--only to be rediscovered and hailed by many as the best black novelist of her generation. In his search for Nella Larsen, the "mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance," George Hutchinson exposes the truths and half-truths surrounding this central figure of modern literary studies, as well as the complex reality they mask and mirror. His book is a cultural biography of the color line as it was lived by one person who truly embodied all of its ambiguities and complexities.

Author of a landmark study of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson here produces the definitive account of a life long obscured by misinterpretations, fabrications, and omissions. He brings Larsen to life as an often tormented modernist, from the trauma of her childhood to her emergence as a star of the Harlem Renaissance. Showing the links between her experiences and her writings, Hutchinson illuminates the singularity of her achievement and shatters previous notions of her position in the modernist landscape. Revealing the suppressions and misunderstandings that accompany the effort to separate black from white, his book addresses the vast consequences for all Americans of color-line culture's fundamental rule: race trumps family.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
George Hutchinson has delivered a definitive biography of the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen (1891–1964)...[An] exhaustive and masterfully rendered narrative...[A] brilliant biography.
— Evelyn C. White
Booklist

Hutchinson draws on previously unused resource material to offer a startlingly intimate portrait of a woman often presented as an obscure figure in accounts of the literary scene of the time yet who was, in actuality, smack-dab in the middle of debates about racial uplift and about black writers selling out amid the vogue among white bohemians to associate with black artists. Hutchinson disputes earlier portraits of Larsen as pathological and instead offers a nuanced look at a complicated woman wrestling with racial identity and a fear of abandonment through her novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Primarily through her relationships, and correspondence, with luminary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson brings Larsen to life in all her glorious complexity in this sparkling examination of a critical period in American racial and literary development. (starred review)
— Vanessa Bush

Weekendavisen

Nine years in the making, George Hutchinson's exhaustively researched new biography offers a revelatory new reading of Larsen's life and work...In Search of Nella Larsen is a definitive biography.
— Martyn Bone

The Nation

George Hutchinson...has produced what must be the definitive biography of Larsen. It's hard to think of a stone he hasn't looked under in his quest to establish the facts, correct mistakes and trace her private life. But Hutchinson's biography also manages to be an insightful reconsideration of a much-studied period in American literature and black cultural history...Hutchinson's respect for his subject is so great that one feels Nella Larsen can at last be at rest.
— Darryl Pinckney

London Review of Books

Remarkable...In Search of Nella Larsen is three books in one: in the words of the subtitle, it is "a biography of the color line," a study of official racism; it also incorporates a lively history of the Harlem Renaissance; and, most engagingly, it is a record of the hunt for a significant literary figure who slipped into oblivion at the moment she should have been making the most of her modest but genuine success (two well-received novels, garlanded by awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship)...Hutchinson's tenacious adherence to documentary evidence, wherever he can find it, makes even his account of Larsen's later nursing career absorbing.
— James Campbell

Black Issues Book Review

George Hutchinson demonstrates a keen capacity for meticulous research in his exhaustive unraveling of the life of Nella Larsen, a biracial novelist and shining light of the Harlem Renaissance...[In Search of Nella Larsen] is essential for history buffs and students of the Harlem Renaissance.
— Sandra Rattley

Choice

Hutchinson takes the reader on an intriguing journey through Larsen's mysterious, often-befuddling life. He debunks the myths and lies about her, which were held as finite truths for most of the 20th century, by investigating primary sources that, for whatever reason, have been ignored by other Larsen biographers. Exploring more than the superficial aspects of her life as a biracial woman, the author presents as complete a picture as possible and does it without slighting her, as others have, for choosing to pursue a life outside the literature in her later years. This fluid, engrossing book not only treats the reader to a wonderful biography of one woman's life but also serves up a feast of literary and US history, setting Larsen against a visceral backdrop of a moment in time when anything and everything seemed possible for a race seeking its rightful place in the arts and politics. In short, Hutchinson paints a captivating image of a woman for too long overshadowed by literary figures considered more worthy of praise.
— A. F. Winstead

American Historical Review

Hutchinson's work brilliantly reinterprets Larsen's life in the context of early twentieth-century race, class, and gender restrictions and is now the definitive biography of this key figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
— Jerry Gershenhorn

Werner Sollors
In Search of Nella Larsen is a true challenge to conventional wisdom; there is no book like it in existence. The readings of Larsen's two novels make the case that she deserves to be reevaluated and considered the major Harlem Renaissance novelist of the 1920s.
Carla Kaplan
This biography of Nella Larsen, as much a cultural biography of Larsen's times as it is a story of her life, is a labor of love. It is extraordinarily well researched, comprehensive, and certain to be regarded, henceforth, as the definitive biography of Larsen's life. Larsen is a central figure for African Americanists, feminists, Americanists, and those interested in the Harlem Renaissance. In arguing that literary studies has worked to reinforce a black/white, either/or binary, this book complicates our picture of both Larsen and the Harlem Renaissance. And, perhaps most importantly for readers outside the Larsen/ Harlem Renaissance circle, this book complicates our picture of racialized America by focusing on the cultural erasure of biraciality and by making vivid what that erasure has cost, not only for biracial Americans, but all of us. This is a major book. It will be widely read, widely discussed, and highly influential. It is, in every way, a big book.
Arnold Rampersad
This book is above all, about how one reconstructs a life when there's little evidence but the life is important; and how one does so when that person was, in addition, an African-American woman who flourished during a crucial era--the Harlem Renaissance--before vanishing in broad daylight, as it were. Other biographers have constructed their own intriguing accounts, but they did so without the seminal facts now available to us. This excellent biography, building on those accounts but also bold, fresh, and original, tells the story of a writer who was in her mind neither black nor white and who lived much of her time feeling like a shadow, but who created invaluable art out of her pain.
, Washington Post Book World - Evelyn C. White
George Hutchinson has delivered a definitive biography of the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen (1891–1964)...[An] exhaustive and masterfully rendered narrative...[A] brilliant biography.
Booklist - Vanessa Bush
Hutchinson draws on previously unused resource material to offer a startlingly intimate portrait of a woman often presented as an obscure figure in accounts of the literary scene of the time yet who was, in actuality, smack-dab in the middle of debates about racial uplift and about black writers selling out amid the vogue among white bohemians to associate with black artists. Hutchinson disputes earlier portraits of Larsen as pathological and instead offers a nuanced look at a complicated woman wrestling with racial identity and a fear of abandonment through her novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Primarily through her relationships, and correspondence, with luminary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson brings Larsen to life in all her glorious complexity in this sparkling examination of a critical period in American racial and literary development. (starred review)
Weekendavisen - Martyn Bone
Nine years in the making, George Hutchinson's exhaustively researched new biography offers a revelatory new reading of Larsen's life and work...In Search of Nella Larsen is a definitive biography.
The Nation - Darryl Pinckney
George Hutchinson...has produced what must be the definitive biography of Larsen. It's hard to think of a stone he hasn't looked under in his quest to establish the facts, correct mistakes and trace her private life. But Hutchinson's biography also manages to be an insightful reconsideration of a much-studied period in American literature and black cultural history...Hutchinson's respect for his subject is so great that one feels Nella Larsen can at last be at rest.
London Review of Books - James Campbell
Remarkable...In Search of Nella Larsen is three books in one: in the words of the subtitle, it is "a biography of the color line," a study of official racism; it also incorporates a lively history of the Harlem Renaissance; and, most engagingly, it is a record of the hunt for a significant literary figure who slipped into oblivion at the moment she should have been making the most of her modest but genuine success (two well-received novels, garlanded by awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship)...Hutchinson's tenacious adherence to documentary evidence, wherever he can find it, makes even his account of Larsen's later nursing career absorbing.
Black Issues Book Review - Sandra Rattley
George Hutchinson demonstrates a keen capacity for meticulous research in his exhaustive unraveling of the life of Nella Larsen, a biracial novelist and shining light of the Harlem Renaissance...[In Search of Nella Larsen] is essential for history buffs and students of the Harlem Renaissance.
Choice - A. F. Winstead
Hutchinson takes the reader on an intriguing journey through Larsen's mysterious, often-befuddling life. He debunks the myths and lies about her, which were held as finite truths for most of the 20th century, by investigating primary sources that, for whatever reason, have been ignored by other Larsen biographers. Exploring more than the superficial aspects of her life as a biracial woman, the author presents as complete a picture as possible and does it without slighting her, as others have, for choosing to pursue a life outside the literature in her later years. This fluid, engrossing book not only treats the reader to a wonderful biography of one woman's life but also serves up a feast of literary and US history, setting Larsen against a visceral backdrop of a moment in time when anything and everything seemed possible for a race seeking its rightful place in the arts and politics. In short, Hutchinson paints a captivating image of a woman for too long overshadowed by literary figures considered more worthy of praise.
American Historical Review - Jerry Gershenhorn
Hutchinson's work brilliantly reinterprets Larsen's life in the context of early twentieth-century race, class, and gender restrictions and is now the definitive biography of this key figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Choice
Hutchinson takes the reader on an intriguing journey through Larsen's mysterious, often-befuddling life. He debunks the myths and lies about her, which were held as finite truths for most of the 20th century, by investigating primary sources that, for whatever reason, have been ignored by other Larsen biographers. Exploring more than the superficial aspects of her life as a biracial woman, the author presents as complete a picture as possible and does it without slighting her, as others have, for choosing to pursue a life outside the literature in her later years. This fluid, engrossing book not only treats the reader to a wonderful biography of one woman's life but also serves up a feast of literary and US history, setting Larsen against a visceral backdrop of a moment in time when anything and everything seemed possible for a race seeking its rightful place in the arts and politics. In short, Hutchinson paints a captivating image of a woman for too long overshadowed by literary figures considered more worthy of praise.
— A. F. Winstead
The Nation
George Hutchinson...has produced what must be the definitive biography of Larsen. It's hard to think of a stone he hasn't looked under in his quest to establish the facts, correct mistakes and trace her private life. But Hutchinson's biography also manages to be an insightful reconsideration of a much-studied period in American literature and black cultural history...Hutchinson's respect for his subject is so great that one feels Nella Larsen can at last be at rest.
— Darryl Pinckney
Booklist
Hutchinson draws on previously unused resource material to offer a startlingly intimate portrait of a woman often presented as an obscure figure in accounts of the literary scene of the time yet who was, in actuality, smack-dab in the middle of debates about racial uplift and about black writers selling out amid the vogue among white bohemians to associate with black artists. Hutchinson disputes earlier portraits of Larsen as pathological and instead offers a nuanced look at a complicated woman wrestling with racial identity and a fear of abandonment through her novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Primarily through her relationships, and correspondence, with luminary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson brings Larsen to life in all her glorious complexity in this sparkling examination of a critical period in American racial and literary development. (starred review)
— Vanessa Bush
London Review of Books
Remarkable...In Search of Nella Larsen is three books in one: in the words of the subtitle, it is "a biography of the color line," a study of official racism; it also incorporates a lively history of the Harlem Renaissance; and, most engagingly, it is a record of the hunt for a significant literary figure who slipped into oblivion at the moment she should have been making the most of her modest but genuine success (two well-received novels, garlanded by awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship)...Hutchinson's tenacious adherence to documentary evidence, wherever he can find it, makes even his account of Larsen's later nursing career absorbing.
— James Campbell
American Historical Review
Hutchinson's work brilliantly reinterprets Larsen's life in the context of early twentieth-century race, class, and gender restrictions and is now the definitive biography of this key figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
— Jerry Gershenhorn
Black Issues Book Review
George Hutchinson demonstrates a keen capacity for meticulous research in his exhaustive unraveling of the life of Nella Larsen, a biracial novelist and shining light of the Harlem Renaissance...[In Search of Nella Larsen] is essential for history buffs and students of the Harlem Renaissance.
— Sandra Rattley
Weekendavisen
Nine years in the making, George Hutchinson's exhaustively researched new biography offers a revelatory new reading of Larsen's life and work...In Search of Nella Larsen is a definitive biography.
— Martyn Bone
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674021808
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 624
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.10 (d)

Meet the Author

George Hutchinson is Professor of English and Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture at Cornell University.
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Table of Contents

Introduction

1. Nellie Walker

2. Inheriting the Color Line, 1892-1898

3. State Street Years, 1899-1907

4. Turning South: Nashville and Fisk, 1907-1908

5. Coming of Age in Copenhagen, 1908-1912

6. A Black Woman in White, 1912-1915

7. Rebel with a Cause: Tuskegee, 1915-1916

8. A Nurse in the Bronx, 1916-1919

9. Sojourner in Harlem: the Dawn of the "Renaissance," 1919-1921

10. Rooms Full of Children: Seward Park and harlem, 1923-1924

11. High Bohemia, 1925

12. New Negro, Model 1926

13. Quicksand

14. In the Mecca, 1927

15. Year of Arrival, 1928
16. Passing

17. A Star in Harlem, 1929

18. Trouble in Mind, 1930

19. A Novelist on Her Own, 1930-1932

20. The Crack-Ip, 1932-1933

21. Letting Go, 1933-1937

22. The Recluse on Second Avenue, 1938-1944

23. Nella Larsen Imes, R.N.

Epilogue

Abbreviations

Notes

Acknowledgements

Index

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