Born in 1891, Nella Larsen came of age in a time of radical change in the realms of both world culture and American race relations. Larsen's childhood featured multiple trips to Denmark; Larson would later filter her experience of being an African-American into her novel Quicksand (1928). However, Larsen did not confine her career activities to writing and literature by any means. She obtained a nursing degree in her early 20s, and found employment with the New York Department of Health in 1918.
In 1919, Larsen married Elmer S. Imes; in that same year, some of her earliest published writings appeared in The Brownies' Book. The 1920s found Larsen working as a librarian in New York City, along with composing short stories (under a pseudonym) for Young's Magazine. Her real breakthrough came late in the decade, when she published the two short novels on which much of her current reputation rests. Quicksand, the first of these, details the life of Helga Crane, a well educated woman of mixed black and Scandinavian descent who finds herself, again and again, dissatisfied with the possibilities that life offers her. Passing, the second, describes the fraught adventures of Clare Kendry, an African-American woman who "passes" as white for the sake of social gain.
Within her own lifetime, Larsen's writing was recognized with a Bronze Award for Literature from the Harmon Foundation and with a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her reputation, unfortunately, was tarnished by the charges of plagiarism that surrounded her 1930 short story "Sanctuary," and her life with Elmer ended in 1933 with divorce. For the last three decades of her life, Larsen's literary activity was minimal; instead, she pursued a nursing career until 1963, the year she retired.
Larsen died in 1964. Today, she is remembered for her intense portraits of privileged African-American social circles, and for her understated yet potent contributions to the literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Study Guides on Works by Nella Larsen
A tightly constructed, psychologically incisive commentary on race relations in the early decades of the 20th century, Passing (1929) is the single best-known work of African-American novelist Nella Larsen. On one level, the book is a study of a...