Cover image for In search of Nella Larsen : a biography of the color line
In search of Nella Larsen : a biography of the color line
Hutchinson, George, 1953-
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Physical Description:
x, 611 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphereʼs most infamous vice districts, Nella Larsen (1891-1964) lived her life in the shadows of Americaʼs 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 Nell Larsen, the ʺmystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance, ʺ 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. We see Larsen vividly 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 cultureʼs fundamental rule: race trumps family. Book jacket.

Includes information about African Americans in nursing, Chicago, color line, Counte Cullen, Denmark, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fisk University, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Elmer S. Imes, Spanish flu influenza pandemic, interracial marriage, James Weldon Johnson, miscegenation, Dorothy Peterson, New York Public Library (NYPL), first black librarian, racial segregation, Ernestine Rose, Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten, Walter White, etc.
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PS3523.A7225 Z69 2006 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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, and then was lost to later generations. This work exposes the truths and half-truths surrounding this central figure of modern literary studies.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Larsen's racial heritage--black West Indian father, Danish mother--was further complicated by her mother's later marriage to a white man, the birth of a white half sister, and an early life spent between Chicago's vice district and Copenhagen in the late 1800s. Estranged from her family, Larsen spent the remainder of her life looking for a place to belong, finding it, for a while, in the glittering Harlem Renaissance. 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. --Vanessa Bush Copyright 2006 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this biography of novelist Nella Larsen, Hutchinson (The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White) explores her work, life and place in social history, positing that the reason for Larsen's shadowy status as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance is tied to the shifting color line in American society. Larsen, whose mother was a Danish immigrant and whose father was a black laborer, identified with her blackness yet also confronted and struggled with prejudice within the Harlem literary community. She eventually withdrew from her friends and colleagues and pursued a successful career as a nurse. Cracking open the few authoritative narratives on Larsen, Hutchinson finds a noteworthy theme: "As I read these books, I recognized a pattern not atypical of the way children from interracial families had often been misunderstood and-there is no other word for it-pathologized." Not only does he put forth a correct and complete narrative of Larsen's life, but he also uses Larsen's story as a mixed-race woman of the Harlem Renaissance to portray the lasting issues of race and color politics from then until now. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Choice Review

Hutchinson (Indiana Univ.) 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 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. ^BSumming Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. A. F. Winstead Our Lady of the Lake University

Table of Contents

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