Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen, née Nellie Walker (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance.

She was born in a poor district of Chicago, the daughter of Peter Walker, a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies, and Marie Walker, née Hansen, a Danish immigrant who worked as seamstress and domestic worker. After Peter Walker abandoned the family, Nella’s mother married Peter Larsen, also a Danish immigrant, with whom she had another daughter, Anna. As a child, Nella lived for a few years with maternal relatives in Denmark.

She attended Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. After being expelled from the University for violating its strict conduct code, Larsen lived in Denmark for four years. In 1914, she then enrolled in the nursing school at New York City’s Lincoln Hospital and Nursing Home. After graduating in 1915, Nella went South to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she became head nurse at its hospital and training school. Disillusioned with its working conditions and model of education, Nella left after a year, and returned to New York in 1916, where she worked as a nurse for two years at Lincoln Hospital and at the city Bureau of Public Health.

In 1919, Nella married Elmer Imes, a prominent physicist, and the couple moved to Harlem in the 1920s. A year after the marriage, she published her first short stories. In 1921, Nella worked as a volunteer, to help prepare for the first exhibit of “Negro art” at the New York Public Library (NYPL). She later graduated from the NYPL Library School, run by Columbia University, and started working as a librarian.

In 1930, Larsen published “Sanctuary”, a short story for which she was accused of plagiarism. “Sanctuary” was said to resemble the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith’s short story, “Mrs. Adis”, first published in the United Kingdom in 1919.

Nella divorced in 1933 and, while  struggling with depression,  returned to nursing. She died in Brooklyn in 1964.




  • Quicksand (1928)
  • Passing (1929)
  • The complete fiction of Nella Larsen, edited by Charles R. Larson (2001)

Short stories

  • “Freedom” (1926)
  • “The Wrong Man” (1926)
  • “Playtime: Three Scandinavian Games,” The Brownies’ Book, 1 (June 1920): 191-192.
  • “Playtime: Danish Fun,” The Brownies’ Book, 1 (July 1920): 219.
  • “Correspondence,” Opportunity, 4 (September 1926): 295.
  • “Review of Black Spade,” Opportunity, 7 (January 1929): 24.
  • “Sanctuary,” Forum, 83 (January 1930): 15-18.
  • “The Author’s Explanation”, Forum, Supplement 4, 83 (April 1930): 41-42.

About her

  • In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, by George Hutchinson (2006)
  • Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, ed. Yolanda Williams (2007)
  • Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, by Hazel V. Carby (1987)
  • American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, org. Laurie Champion (2000)
  • Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition – 1892-1976, by Barbara  Christian (1980)
  • Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled, by Thadious M. Davis (1994)
  • Passing and the Fictions of Identity, ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg (1996)
  • The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction, by Ann DuCille (1993)
  • Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsenby Charles R. Larson (1993)
  • The politics of color in the fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, by Jacquelyn Y. MacLendon (1995)
  • In Search of Nella Larson. A Biography of the Color Line, by George Hutchison (2006)
  • Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s, ed. Lisa Botshon and Goldsmith (2003)
  • Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith (2001)
  • Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature, by Samira Kawash (1997)
  • Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature, by Werner Sollors (1997)
  • Women of the Harlem Renaissance, by Cheryl A. Wall (1995)

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