Book Review: In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line
Publication Date: May 30, 2006
List Price: $42.00
Format: Hardcover, 624 pages
Imprint: Belknap Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Parent Company: Harvard University
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Book Reviewed by Thumper
I’m back! It’s good to be back, although I have to tell you that
it took me a minute to find groove, before I was able to fall
into it. But, I came with a little something. I did pick up a
book, a thick ass one, entitled In Search of Nella Larsen: A
Biography of the Color Line by George Hutchinson.
I am a fan of the Harlem Renaissance. By fan, I am referring to the true representation of the word, fanatic. I believe I have read every novel by every author associated with the period, and a few biographies of the Harlem Renaissance authors; Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I can now add this thoroughly engaging biography of Nella Larsen to the list. In Search of Nella Larsen: a Biography of the Color Line is a biography of the author of the novel Quicksand and Passing. The popular notion concerning Nella Larsen is that her writing career was cut short by an accusation of plagiary. Also, because her biographical facts, as she relayed them seemed sketchy, at best, and with the plagiarism charge, she is widely remembered as a liar. don't get ticked off at me. I did not call Larsen a liar, but that’s the perception that I got when I read anything about her. Fortunately, for me and any other followers of the Harlem Renaissance era, Hutchinson wrote a well detailed, at times fascinating, at other times boring as Hell, biography of the mysterious Larsen. I am glad I read it.
Hutchinson did an extraordinary job documenting Larsen’s life, with no help from Larsen herself. Because Nella Larsen was not an open forthcoming person in life, she was downright tight lipped when it comes to her papers. Larsen literally left no papers behind, which is highly unusual for a one time popular, published writer. There was barely a paper collection left behind, and that paper trail is from other people, the bulk from the Carl Van Vetchen papers. Van Vetchen was a white man who was a prominent figure during the Renaissance. He, or shall I say his photographs of authors and other black artists are still in print today.
Hutchinson provides an extremely extensive accounting of Larsen with what little he had to work with. Hutchinson used what I like to call the ’here, not here’ approach to this biography. The ’Here, not here’ approach is when an author has little to nothing on the subject (Larsen) he is researching, so he takes the position that if he tells the reader everything about events and issues that the subject (Larsen) encountered, the subject (Larsen) will become clear indirectly. For instance, the subject lived in an apartment building, in a studio, across the street from the Empire State Building. Then the biographer proceeds to tell me all about the Empire State Building. Now, the author doesn't know if the subject looked at the Empire State Building or not; whether the subject was fascinated with building or considered it an eyesore. All the biographer can do is relate the fact that the subject had a studio apartment across the street from the Empire State Building, which will in a roundabout way the reader could infer the subject’s financial situation, or the subject’s social circle, would the subject’s friends or associates see the apartment as a step up or a step down, etc.
Due to Hutchinson going the ’here, not here’ route, I received a brief history of the Chicago neighborhoods Larsen spent her childhood in; the social and political atmosphere Larsen lived in throughout her life; small, yet detailed, history of nursing starting from the Greek origin (now did I really need to know that’ah nope) and how the nursing professional was looked upon at the turn of the 20th century for both the white and black communities when Larsen began her nursing training; and the education and role of the librarian at the turn of the 20th century (oddly enough, I found this section fascinating) all of the elements that directly affected Larsen. While Hutchinson was unable to hear Larsen’s point of view, he constructed her world; thereby, allowing him (and me) to draw conclusions, albeit, the conclusions drawn from an informed sources.
Hutchinson dispelled a number of falsehoods concerning Larsen. What I loved the most about this was that he provided references to back up his claims. For example, Hutchinson made clear Larsen’s library career and how she was vital to the Renaissance at the beginning of the era. Larsen was the first black person to graduate from the Library School of the New York Library; thereby, becoming the first professionally trained librarian in New York. This was my first time hearing about a Library School, as well as learning how hard it was for a black person to be a librarian. Hutchinson uncovers the fact that it was Larsen who assisted in developing the 135th Street branch of the New York Library as a meeting place for the authors of the Renaissance. The credit is usually given to a Regina Anderson Andrews, who Hutchinson argues, could not have been in the position professionally nor geographically to achieve what Larsen did, yet she is given the kudos and not Larsen.
Although, Hutchinson was meticulous in his research and it shows throughout the book, I have to admit; at times I was bored to tears with it. I could care less about the origins of nursing, Fisk University, or Larsen’s social calendar, going to a dinner party here, or the theatre there. Logically, I can understand what Hutchinson was doing by discussing these subjects (Larsen’s position in black upper society is important when she withdraws from it) but, I have to say that there were times when the book was looking at me more than I was looking at it.
What I loved most concerning this biography is that Hutchinson discussed the other two biographies of Larsen: Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled by Thadious M. Davis and Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen by Charles R. Larson. Hutchinson calls into questions several of the facts in which the two authors used to base their opinions on, for instance both books, according to Hutchinson, concluded that Larsen lied about her early life. Hutchinson proves that she did not. Hutchinson states why those beliefs are incorrect, and states where he obtained his facts and why his conclusions are more accurate. *eyebrow raised* Ain’t that some nerve or what? *LOL* A man after my own heart. I love it.
I will not say that In Search of Nella Larsen was "off the hook"’I fell asleep in too many of its chapters to make that claim. I have no problem stating that this biography is the definitive biography of Nella Larsen. Not only did I receive an education on Larsen, the author, I got one on New York, librarians and the Harlem Renaissance itself. Hutchinson did a remarkable job.