Nella Larsen was a novelist of the Harlem Renaissance and a landmark figure in the Black women's literary tradition. She was born Nellie Walker in Chicago, to a Danish mother and a West Indian father who died when she was two years old. In 1909 Larsen left home to attend Fisk University, where she first experienced life within an all-black community.
A year later she traveled to Denmark, and spent the next two years living with relatives and studying at the University of Copenhagen. Larsen studied nursing in New York and also became a children's librarian. In 1916 she returned south to Tuskegee Institute to become assistant superintendent of nurses.
Unhappy in the South, Larsen returned to New York and worked as a nurse and a children's librarian for the next ten years. In 1919 she married Dr. Elmer Imes, a prominent physicist. Her marriage brought her into the upper classes of New York's Black society, including many writers who were already active in Harlem.
As a writer, Larsen's first two essays were on Danish children's games. In 1926, she began writing full-time. Larsen's two novels, Quicksand and Passing, were published in 1928 and 1929 and well received. A charge of plagiarism came that same year, over the short story Sanctuary that Larsen had published in January 1930. In 1930 Larsen became the first black woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. She never published again.
This was followed by the "humiliation" of her 1933 divorce, which stemmed from her husband's alleged affair. Newspapers covering the story falsely claimed that she had tried to commit suicide. Larsen did not, but she did close herself off from all contact with her former life. She moved to New York's lower East Side, where she lived alone and worked quietly as a nurse for the next thirty years.
Larsen was found dead in her apartment in New York. Despite the obscurity at the end of her life, Larsen's reputation and writings have been resurrected. Contemporary critics now regard her as one of the most sophisticated and modern novelists to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, and her two books are regarded as landmark examples of Black women's attempts to explain their complex identities.