Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled

Overview

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) is recognized as one of the most influential, and certainly one of the most enigmatic, writers of the Harlem Renaissance. With the instant success of her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), she became a bright light in New York's literary firmament. But her meteoric rise was followed by an equally sudden fall: In 1930 she was accused of plagiarizing a short story, and soon thereafter she disappeared from both the literary and African-American worlds of New York. She lived the...
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Overview

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) is recognized as one of the most influential, and certainly one of the most enigmatic, writers of the Harlem Renaissance. With the instant success of her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), she became a bright light in New York's literary firmament. But her meteoric rise was followed by an equally sudden fall: In 1930 she was accused of plagiarizing a short story, and soon thereafter she disappeared from both the literary and African-American worlds of New York. She lived the rest of her life - more than three decades - out of the public eye, working primarily as a nurse. In a remarkable achievement, Thadious Davis has penetrated the fog of mystery that has surrounded Larsen to present a detailed and fascinating account of the life and work of this gifted, determined, yet vulnerable artist. The exact circumstances of Larsen's birth, especially the racial identities of her parents, probably cannot be definitively sorted out; but what is certain and most significant is that Larsen was a child of mixed race who was raised for a few years in Chicago as if she were white but then, while an adolescent, sent off to the Fisk University Normal High School with the understanding that she would prepare to assume a position among the black middle class. Throughout her life Larsen appears to have cultivated a sense of mystery about herself. She was born Nellie Walker but from childhood on changed her name several times to reflect different self-conceptions, and when she did offer information about herself, she gave differing versions of the basic facts. At first glance Larsen seems to have been a strange amalgam of arrogance and insecurity. But Davis' analysis of Larsen's personality and her position as a woman of mixed race in the America of her time - a person whom society defined as marginal in several ways - shows that such contradictions were only to be expected. In addition to unraveling the details of Larsen's personal life, Davi
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Davis, a professor of English at Brown University ( Faulkner's ``Negro'' Art ), rescues an African American writer from neglect in an oustanding, masterfully researched study that also provides a vivid picture of life in Harlem during the 1920s. Larsen (1891-1964), the daughter of a white mother and a black father, was initially raised as white by her mother and stepfather, then was sent to live and study at black schools. She married Elmer Imes, an African American physicist, and the two socialized with the Harlem Renaissance authors who were to inspire Larsen to write. Acclaimed for her novels, Quicksand and Passing , which dealt with women from racially mixed backgrounds, Larsen was later accused of plagiarizing a short story. After her marriage ended in divorce, she stopped writing and spent the rest of her life in obscurity, working as a nurse. Davis theorizes that Larsen's painful childhood caused her to continually reinvent herself and shroud herself in mystery. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Larsen 1891-1964, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote two short novels, Quicksand 1928 and Passing 1929. In 1930, she was accused of plagiarizing her short story ``Sanctuary.'' She effectively dropped out of society, living the rest of her life quietly, working as a nurse and, perhaps, ``passing'' as white. In her well-researched biography, Davis English, Brown Univ. uncovers many nebulous details about the life of this talented but undoubtedly troubled woman. Larsen's mother was white and her father black, and there is evidence that when her mother remarried, she denied ever having given birth to Larsen. This rejection, Davis argues, fueled Larsen's lifelong tendency to obscure her own biography. As compelling as this tale may seem, Davis's litany of facts and speculations do not provide a fleshed-out portrait. As a scholarly work, however, it deserves a place in African American collections.-- Diane Gardner Premo, SILS, SUNY-Buffalo
Booknews
The exact circumstances of Larsen's (1891-1964) birth are uncertain; but it is known that she was a child of mixed race who was raised for a few years in Chicago as if she were white but then, while an adolescent, was sent off to the Fisk University Normal High School with the understanding that she would prepare to assume a position among the black middle class. She wrote two successful novels--Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929)--and gained literary prominence in New York; but after 1930 she dropped from the limelight and lived the rest of her life out of the public eye. Davis has undertaken to profile Larsen's enigmatic life and personality. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807120705
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1996
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 1,229,488
  • Product dimensions: 6.03 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

LSU Press

LSU Press

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