Harlem’s Mystery Woman


In the summer of 1929, Federico García Lorca was living in a dormitory up at Columbia University and trying to learn English. He was getting over a love affair with a man back in Spain and soon he would write the poems that marked a dramatic turning point in his work. Meanwhile, he sent to his worried family letters brimming with filial tenderness and his excitement at being in the New World:

I have also met a famous black writer, Nella Larsen, of the literary avant-garde, and with her I visited the black neighborhood and saw much that surprised me. To my great amazement, everyone understands my French. With this writer I spoke French the whole afternoon, and we managed to say whatever we felt like. Necessity, mother of invention, worked a miracle or two! The little French I knew came back to me, and I remembered all the words. And that made me very happy indeed.

This writer is an exquisitely kind woman, full of the deep, moving melancholy that all blacks have. She gave a party at her house, and there were only blacks. This is the second time I’ve gone somewhere with her, for she interests me enormously.

At the last party, I was the only white. She lives on Second Avenue, and from her windows you could see all the lights of New York. It was night and beacons were sweeping back and forth across the sky. The blacks sang and danced.

What marvelous songs! Only the cante jondo [flamenco] is comparable to them.

…The blacks are an extremely kind people. When I said goodbye, they all hugged me, and the writer gave me her books, with warm dedications—they told me this was quite an honor, for she has never done that for any of them.1

Nella Larsen is one Harlem Renaissance novelist we know little about, in spite of the shelves of critical studies of the period, a long, effortful biography by Thadious M. Davis, Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled2 (1994), and reprints of Larsen’s “lost” works. Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928), was republished in 1971, after the civil rights movement and black nationalism had helped to create popular interest in black literary history. In 1986, when Black Studies had grown as an academic field and had produced a crop of scholars dedicated to reconsidering black writers, Quicksand appeared again, together with Passing (1929), Larsen’s only other novel. Passing was then reprinted twice.3 The latest republication of her novels, The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen, edited by Charles R. Larson, includes “The Stories.” But there are only three of them. (“I can’t write short stories,” Larsen herself said.) Not only did she not write much, her writing life was brief.

Black Women in America tells us that she was born in Chicago in 1891, of an African-American (or perhaps Caribbean) father and a Danish mother. They were both working…

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