Nella Larsen was a novelist who found fame during the Harlem Renaissance. She was the first African-American woman to be awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Larsen’s career was short-lived, however, but recent interest in her work has placed her in the conversation as one of the period’s most important voices.
Larsen was born Nellie Walker on April 13, 1891 in Chicago, Ill. to a white Danish mother and Black West Indian father. She was primarily raised in Chicago’s European immigrant community and didn’t have much contact or connection with Blacks from the Deep South.
When her mother married fellow Dutch native Peter Larsen, she was the only person of color in her mixed family. Some historians say that this early occurrence in Larsen’s life may have shaped some of her later writing.
It wasn’t until she entered Fisk University that she became exposed to Black people and their struggles of the time. In 1914, she entered the nursing program at New York’s Lincoln Hospital, graduating in a year’s time. She then worked at the Tuskegee Institute, but the conditions weren’t favorable. She returned to New York and worked as a public health nurse for the city, mostly serving white patients.
In 1919, she married famed physics professor Elmer Imes, just the second black person to earn a Ph.D in physics. The pair moved to Harlem the next year and Larsen began writing a series of short stories. Because of Imes’ status in the community, Larsen was exposed to other Harlem Renaissance greats such as the NAACP’s Walter White, W.E.B. Du Bois and other related figures.
Working as a librarian through the early part of her marriage to Imes, Larsen was the first Black woman to graduate from the New York Public Library School, and helped integrate libraries in the city. As a result of her connection with Harlem’s elite, she quit her job as a librarian and began writing full-time.
She published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928, which was mostly autobiographical. The tale of struggling to find racial identity would continue in her next book, Passing, which came out the following year.
The books themselves were not huge financial hits, but they were critically acclaimed and praised for their handling of some of the most sensitive subjects of the time.
In 1930, Larsen was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship but disappeared from the scene as the decade went on. After a divorce from Imes in 1933, Larsen never returned to writing and instead worked as a nurse for a Brooklyn hospital. She never returned to Harlem and remained in Brooklyn until her death in 1964.
In recent times, scholars and literary fans have rediscovered Larsen’s work stating that she and Zora Neale Hurston are among the Harlem Renaissance period’s most important voices, especially for women.