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In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line

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Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere's most infamous vice districts, 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, then was lost to later generations--only to be rediscovered and hailed by many as the best black novelist o Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere's most infamous vice districts, 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, 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 Nella Larsen, the "mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance," 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. Author of a landmark study of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson here produces the definitive account of a life long obscured by misinterpretations, fabrications, and omissions. He brings Larsen to life 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 culture's fundamental rule: race trumps family.


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Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere's most infamous vice districts, 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, then was lost to later generations--only to be rediscovered and hailed by many as the best black novelist o Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere's most infamous vice districts, 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, 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 Nella Larsen, the "mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance," 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. Author of a landmark study of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson here produces the definitive account of a life long obscured by misinterpretations, fabrications, and omissions. He brings Larsen to life 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 culture's fundamental rule: race trumps family.

30 review for In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I really wish I could have met this woman. Born to a poor Danish immigrant mother and a West Indian father in the 19th century, she was destined to be very much on the outs with any culture she might lay claim to. She was not someone who could have "passed" as far as her appearance. Still, she was able to rise above many of her white colleagues in the nursing and librarian fields, not to mention write the novels she is best known for. She lived abroad for periods as a child and an adult, was ube I really wish I could have met this woman. Born to a poor Danish immigrant mother and a West Indian father in the 19th century, she was destined to be very much on the outs with any culture she might lay claim to. She was not someone who could have "passed" as far as her appearance. Still, she was able to rise above many of her white colleagues in the nursing and librarian fields, not to mention write the novels she is best known for. She lived abroad for periods as a child and an adult, was uber stylish, partied with both blacks and whites of the Harlem Renaissance crowd, and somehow slipped through the cracks of history. Larsen's white half-sister, who along with her mother had disowned Larsen while she was still a child (for their own protection) ended up inheriting a substantial estate from this fascinating woman who died alone, in obscurity. Hutchinson does an amazing job of tracking down information about a person who left very little historical material to go on. It was only after I got into the book that I found out he teaches right here in Bloomington.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ida

    This was an incredibly well-written and detailed biography. It especially paints a vivid picture of life in Harlem among the literary elite in the late 1920s. I find Nella Larsen's life and writing absolutely fascinating, and what a great shame it is that none of her later correspondence and writings survived - if there were any.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nascha

    Nella Larsen, a noted writer from the Harlem Renaissance, led an interesting life that surpasses the lives of the characters she wrote about. In Hutchinson's biography of Larsen, he digs deep to unearth truths and dispel rumors, clearing a lot of falsities said about Mrs. Larsen. Her life was tragic but intriguing and her books were great. Hutchinson also gives a very detailed thesis on the relation of race in America and how this impacted Larsen and other people with mixed race heritage. This ta Nella Larsen, a noted writer from the Harlem Renaissance, led an interesting life that surpasses the lives of the characters she wrote about. In Hutchinson's biography of Larsen, he digs deep to unearth truths and dispel rumors, clearing a lot of falsities said about Mrs. Larsen. Her life was tragic but intriguing and her books were great. Hutchinson also gives a very detailed thesis on the relation of race in America and how this impacted Larsen and other people with mixed race heritage. This takes up the majority of the book but it helps to put Larsen's life into perspective and gives readers a history to relate to.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Incredible. Just incredible. Reading Passing again after reading this book was an eye-opening experience as well.

  5. 4 out of 5

    tortoise dreams

    The true story of Nella Larsen (1891-1964), the biracial star of the Harlem Renaissance, who had a sadly limited literary career. Book Review: In Search of Nella Larsen is more than a life story. George Hutchinson subtitled it A Biography of the Color Line, and while accumulating all that can be known about Nella Larsen herself, he also documents the larger and more painful picture of what it meant to be biracial in America in the early part of the 20th Century; how America viewed and views race. The true story of Nella Larsen (1891-1964), the biracial star of the Harlem Renaissance, who had a sadly limited literary career. Book Review: In Search of Nella Larsen is more than a life story. George Hutchinson subtitled it A Biography of the Color Line, and while accumulating all that can be known about Nella Larsen herself, he also documents the larger and more painful picture of what it meant to be biracial in America in the early part of the 20th Century; how America viewed and views race. An obvious labor of love, Hutchinson was determined to set right the often (deliberately) distorted record of this excellent and important writer. Correcting the massive amount of lies and misinformation about Larsen (even found on GR), this exhaustively thorough book documents a life as interesting as any novel. How many authors, having published two novels (Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929)) and three short stories, could have a compelling and fascinating 600-page biography? In Search of Nella Larsen is over twice as long as all Larsen's published work, and amply demonstrates her essential leadership in the Harlem Renaissance. Nella Larsen was born to a Danish immigrant mother and a West Indian father, who was at least partially black and died not long after Larsen's birth -- she never knew her father. In a little over a year her mother had a second daughter with another Danish immigrant. Because Nella was mixed race her family had trouble finding a place to live, the largely white family having to live in the seedy "border" areas of Chicago. Her white step-father rejected her, but her mother ensured that Nella received an education and the skills to make a living (which she didn't do for her white daughter). Although raised in a white family, Larsen's mother knew she would only be accepted by the black community. But Nella was unfamiliar with black and Southern culture when she left home (perhaps similar to American President Obama). As such, she was denied a "group" identity. Larsen married a black physicist, who later had an affair with a white woman. Although less than half black, Nella still wasn't white enough for her husband, and as in Chicago and with her step-father, she was once again rejected for her blackness. This seemed to be the proverbial straw and after the divorce she descended into depression and possible alcohol or drug use. She stopped writing and avoided her friends from the Harlem Renaissance, then a few years later emerged as Nella Imes (her husband's name) an extremely successful and talented supervisory nurse, which was her career for the rest of her life. Hutchinson is careful in his opinions, diligent in his research, reasonable in his speculation, and always persuasive in his exposition. In Search of Nella Larsen is a massive and masterful book, that reads quickly and easily. Larsen comes off as possibly traumatized in childhood, headstrong in running her own life, proud and loyal and alone in the world, but capable and intelligent in the face of any challenge. Although she had to rediscovered, as was Zora Neale Hurston, and was likewise buried in an unmarked grave, her position as an important and early leader in creating black American literature is secure. [5★]

  6. 5 out of 5

    Dream

    Involving an exhaustive amount of research, Hutchinson puts previous biographical works about Larsen to shame, and shows them in no uncertain terms that some of their assumptions about this so-called mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance are simply wrong. Larsen's is a story that is as fascinating (if not more so) than any of her books or stories, and Hutchinson tells her own story with great passion. The third recent biographer to devote a major biographical study on Larsen (after Charles Lar Involving an exhaustive amount of research, Hutchinson puts previous biographical works about Larsen to shame, and shows them in no uncertain terms that some of their assumptions about this so-called mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance are simply wrong. Larsen's is a story that is as fascinating (if not more so) than any of her books or stories, and Hutchinson tells her own story with great passion. The third recent biographer to devote a major biographical study on Larsen (after Charles Larson and Thadious M. Davis), Hutchinson attempts to discover the reason behind Larsen’s absence from the pen and the public eye. While Davis and Larson suggest that this disappearance was due to Larsen’s inability to accept the blackness of her skin and internalization of the prevalent racism of her time, Hutchinson, in what he calls a “biographical reclamation” found in his eight years of research new data (including records at the New York Public Library, blueprints, census data, and documents owned by Harlem Renaissance recorder & Larsen’s mentor Carl Van Vechten) to paint a slightly different picture. While detailing the various people with whom she connected and providing insight into the plagiarism scandal, Hutchinson also, more notably, suggests that she did not pass during the final decades of her life but instead effected a productive and successful career change (and, was in fact not as light-skinned as was previously thought). While the use of Van Vechten’s documents is controversial because of his reputation as a Harlem voyeur, this is a good accompaniment to the previous research done by Larson and Davis, with some added information that paints a fuller picture of the writer popularly known as the mystery figure of the Harlem Renaissance. With illuminating conviction, Hutchinson argues that, though Larsen “never stopped thinking of herself as a Negro” (186), she deliberately chose not to live on either side of the color line and rejected the limitations of racial categories.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dominique

    This book took FOREVER to get through- it’s not entirely the author’s fault, the paucity of sources for some eras and people, and the density of sources for others, unfortunately make it very difficult to write a consistently paced book. Nella was of course a complex, often difficult person, and Hutchinson does a good job of conveying that, although I found his rather heavy-handed judgment of her and those around her, consistent throughout the book, often distracting and unhelpful. This book is This book took FOREVER to get through- it’s not entirely the author’s fault, the paucity of sources for some eras and people, and the density of sources for others, unfortunately make it very difficult to write a consistently paced book. Nella was of course a complex, often difficult person, and Hutchinson does a good job of conveying that, although I found his rather heavy-handed judgment of her and those around her, consistent throughout the book, often distracting and unhelpful. This book is definitely a catalyst for wanting to read more on the Harlem Renaissance generally, and specific people in her social circle specifically. Carl Van Vechten for sure, but also James Weldon Johnson and Edna Thomas and Jessie Fauset and all the other girls from the 135th Street NYPL branch. My favorite thing about this book is the attention paid paid to the Black librarians and teachers and nurses who shaped the history of the arts scene in Harlem. Hutchinson mentions that his wife is a nurse in his acknowledgements, and the care he puts into blurring the line between artistic work and other professional pursuits for women is for me the best revelation of the book (and a lesson I wish more people would learn!) If you’re here for Harlem Renaissance gossip, there’s plenty of it, and it’s juicy, but sometimes you do have to wade through overlong passages of photo and literary criticism to get to it. It’s still worth it overall. I read the book bit by bit over the course of a few months, so while I can’t claim you won’t be able to put it down, there was always enough to keep me picking it back up.

  8. 5 out of 5

    mimo

    I feel as though I knew Larsen. I actually started crying when I got to the coda at the end of the last chapter, as if I'd experienced the loss of her myself. Hutchinson writes objectively, but with a warmth and sympathy and intelligence that I think Larsen would have appreciated. A great work of scholarship, and like the best biographies, evokes what was most human and irreducible about its subject.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lindi

    Nella Larsen was a fascinating woman -- on top of being a Black woman raised outside African American culture, she was involved in many momentous institutions during the early 20th century. A student at Fisk University, a nurse in New York City during the influenza epidemic of 1919 when so many public health policies were put into place, a teacher at the Tuskegee Institute, a librarian in NYPL system -- again when so many parts of modern public librarianship were initiated, a writer of the Harle Nella Larsen was a fascinating woman -- on top of being a Black woman raised outside African American culture, she was involved in many momentous institutions during the early 20th century. A student at Fisk University, a nurse in New York City during the influenza epidemic of 1919 when so many public health policies were put into place, a teacher at the Tuskegee Institute, a librarian in NYPL system -- again when so many parts of modern public librarianship were initiated, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, a member of its upper crust. Hutchinson's research is exhaustive and he does what he can to illuminate this mystery woman's life and legacy.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    This is a long, meticulously researched biography that I found fascinating. She was a unique character who lived in an amazing era. I found it tough going sometimes, and quite sad, but really recommend it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Fatima

    B larsen biography

  12. 4 out of 5

    Persia

    Excellent.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rita

  14. 4 out of 5

    Karen Chachere

  15. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

  17. 4 out of 5

    Karoliina

  18. 4 out of 5

    Miss Jones

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gina

  20. 5 out of 5

    Samantha

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jamia

  22. 4 out of 5

    Julia

  23. 4 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl Proc

  24. 4 out of 5

    William Mabry

  25. 4 out of 5

    M. Alhammad

  26. 4 out of 5

    iprefernot2

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dell

  28. 5 out of 5

    Marielle

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kamille A. Rigsby

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jamieanna

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