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Reader’s Den

The Reader's Den: About the Author of "Passing"


"Nella Larsen attempts quite a different thing. She explains just what "passing" is: the psychology of the thing; the reaction of it on friend and enemy. It is a difficult task, but she attacks the problem fearlessly and with consummate art. The great problem is under what circumstances would a person take a step like this and how would they feel about it? And how would their fellows feel?" W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, "Review of Passing." Crisis 36:7, July 1929.

Passing is the second novel by Nella Larsen published during the Harlem Renaissance.  It was written while she was a librarian at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the location of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

135th Street, children at tables in Children's reading room, Digital ID 100853, New York Public LibraryBorn in Chicago to a Danish mother and a West Indian father in 1891, Larsen used her own mixed-race background to inform the heroines of her novels. She lived her adult life in New York City, first in Harlem and later in the West Village and mingled successfully with the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was the first African American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.  Unfortunately, she did not publish any novels after Passing, although she continued writing without accomplishment.  She returned to an earlier career of nursing to support herself after a divorce from her physician husband (an occupation shared by Irene Redfield’s husband, Brian, in Passing) in 1933.  She died in obscurity in 1964, just before a resurgence of interest in Harlem Renaissance writers.





For further biographical and critical information on Nella Larsen and her writing, please visit Literature Resource Center in NYPL’s Electronic ResourcesLarsen’s biography and her first novel, Quicksand, are available to take home from the Library.


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