American Literature Nella Larsen
Dorothy Stringer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0107


Nella Larsen (b. 1891–d. 1963) was born in Chicago to a white, Danish immigrant mother and a Black Virgin Islander father. Her father’s early death, and her mother’s remarriage to a white man, meant isolation and rejection in childhood, and limited contact with her natal family as an adult. Larsen visited Denmark in childhood, and again in her late teens, and was educated at Fisk University briefly, at Lincoln Hospital’s nursing school in the Bronx, and at the Library School of the New York Public Library. She married Elmer Imes, an African American physicist, in 1919, and the couple developed a Harlem-based circle of writers, performers, artists, and intellectuals. Larsen’s earliest known works are two 1926 pulp stories about presumptively white characters. However, in response to the cultural ferment of post–Great Migration Harlem, and with the encouragement of her friend Carl Van Vechten—a white, gay critic, novelist, and saloniste interested in Black culture—Larsen wrote an autobiographical first novel, Quicksand (1928). This story of a biracial young woman unable to find a place among Southern Blacks, Black Harlemites, or white Danish relatives appeared with Van Vechten’s publisher Knopf and was well received by African American and white reviewers alike. Passing (1929), a short, expressionistic novel about phenotypically ambiguous African American women, also received positive notices, and in 1930 Larsen became the first Black woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her success was fragile, though; earlier the same year, a short story brought accusations of plagiarism, and in 1931 Knopf rejected the Guggenheim manuscript. Her marriage also ended in the mid-1930s, and Larsen withdrew from literary friendships and networks. She never published again, and all her manuscripts have been lost. From the mid-1940s almost to her death, she worked as a nurse. Larsen’s fiction was neglected for decades, but interest revived as feminist and African Americanist scholars gained places in the academy during the 1970s and 1980s. After a 1986 reissue of her novels by Rutgers University Press, she became the subject of a new, intense vogue across many sectors of literary study, including not only US and African American literary fields and women’s studies, but also literary theory and queer studies. Readers today emphasize Larsen’s formal polish, intellectual range, psychological depth, and ironic subtlety and have often employed the novels as tools for examining the relationships among class, gender, sexuality, and racial identification in African American literature.

Primary Texts

Once out of print for decades, Larsen’s two novels are available in many inexpensive editions today, though only Kaplan 2007 offers significant apparatus. McDowell 1986 was important for Larsen’s recanonization and remains widely cited. Larsen’s three known stories are collected in Larson 2001. See also Bibliographies and Textual Scholarship for information on textual variants and the “plagiarism” scandal attached to Larsen’s final publication, “Sanctuary.”

  • Kaplan, Carla, ed. Passing: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

    This edition includes reviews; selections from Larsen’s letters; selections from other, 19th- and 20th-century black fiction about racial ambiguity; and historical documents related to the “Rhinelander Case,” a sensational New York lawsuit from 1925, involving an accusation of racial passing; as well as a broad selection of secondary sources (some excerpted).

  • Larson, Charles R., ed. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen. New ed. New York: Anchor, 2001.

    First published under the title An Intimation of Things Distant in 1992, this collection includes all three of Larsen’s short stories, “The Wrong Man,” “Freedom,” and “Sanctuary.” Its biographical note is outdated; see Biographies.

  • McDowell, Deborah E., ed. Quicksand; and, Passing. By Nella Larsen. American Women Writers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

    This reissue fueled interest in Larsen across wide swathes of literary studies, Black studies, women’s studies, and literary theory and likely constituted the biggest institutional factor in her rapid recanonization during the early 1990s. McDowell’s “Introduction” remains widely cited.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.