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

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

Harvard University Press
May 2006
624 pages
6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
37 halftones
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674021808

George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture
Cornell University

  • 2006 Booklist Editor’s Choice
  • 2006 Honorable Mention of the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Annual Award Competition, Biography & Autobiography
  • Finalist, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards, Biography Category
  • 2007 Christian Gauss Award for literary scholarship or criticism, Phi Beta Kappa Society
  • Choice Magazine A Best Academic Book of the Year

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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