Passing Through

Nella Larsen made a career of not quite belonging.

larsen-photo-postTHE TENANT IN THE GROUND FLOOR APARTMENT at 315 Second Avenue lived alone. She was long divorced, had no children, and did not see much of anyone. For almost twenty years, starting shortly after the Second World War, she’d worked as a nurse in the hospitals nearby. The last of her employers was the psych unit at the Metropolitan Hospital on East 97th Street. It was the managers there who sent her into exile at seventy-two, an age she’d concealed precisely because she didn’t want to leave.

No doubt they didn’t think of it as a final blow. They probably thought they were sending her off to rest. Within a year of her last shift, though, she was discovered by her building superintendent lifeless on her bed, wearing a sweater, dress, and socks, just like someone who had laid down for a moment and thought herself right out of her life. The official cause of death was a heart attack around Easter Sunday, 1964.

That is how Nella Larsen, celebrated novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, died.

Thinking about her life is like sifting ashes. You believe you see the clear outline of a message, but it inevitably disintegrates before you can be sure of its sense. The mantle of a “rediscovered writer” has never settled firmly around Larsen’s shoulders; she has a way of resisting the platitudes of remembering. There are scholars and biographers obsessed with Larsen, of course, but their work is rent with (polite, academic) infighting about what her legacy means, tangled as it is with ideas about race and identity that Larsen had conflicted feelings about herself. It’s become clear in the fifty years since her death that there was a lot Larsen didn’t want us to know. >>READ MORE

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Source: Michelle Dean || Lapham’s Quarterly || April 2015

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