It's Black History Month, and book hounds are bound to run into the now-standard look at famous black authors of the past. We're gonna skip the usual, well-deserved nods to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and company, and tell you about a couple of our favorite classic African-American authors you may not be as familiar with: Nella Larsen and Charles W. Chesnutt. Here we go.
Nella Larsen was one of America's finest fiction writers of the 1920s, even though she only finished two novels. Born in Chicago in 1891 to a Danish immigrant and a West Indian man of African heritage, Larsen spent a number of her early years in Denmark. At 24, she became a nurse at the Tuskegee Institute, and then a librarian in New York City, where she married the prominent physicist Elmer Imes, the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. in his field. They moved to Harlem, she began to write, and published her first short pieces in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance period. She gave up her librarian gig and became part of the growing artistic excitement of that time and place, although according to accounts of the era, she was considered an enigmatic figure whose background was shrouded in self-imposed mystery.
Larsen's first novel, Quicksand, was released in 1928 by the prestigious publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, and drew instant rave reviews. Her next novel, Passing (1929), sealed her reputation as a daring, exquisitely talented author who explored the ever-shifting social, racial and sexual borders of the New York life she inhabited. Her honesty in dealing with themes of identity, living on cultural margins, and class, were, as one critic put it, "like a slap in the face you needed but didn't know it." She became the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship.
At the peak of her writing career, Larsen was accused of plagiarizing a British short story and, although she was exonerated, the ordeal soured her on the "literary life." She took her Guggenheim money, moved to Paris and Mallorca for a few years, and divorced her husband. Upon returning to the U.S., she lived on alimony until 1942, and spent her last 30 years as a supervising nurse at a Brooklyn hospital. After the plagiarism scandal, she never wrote again; she died in 1964.
Larsen's work was out of print for years, but was rediscovered during the 1970s. She's regarded today as the first African-American novelist to create deep, fully realized, three-dimensional portraits of black American life, steering clear of caricatures to depict lives filled with yearnings and questioning.
Charles W. Chesnutt is probably most renowned these days for having written The Marrow of Tradition, a novel about the infamous 1898 "race riot"/white coup in Wilmington, N.C. He was once considered an icon of 19th century U.S. fiction, and although his reputation rose, fell, and rose again, he's still largely unfamiliar to the general public. That's a shame, because he's an important figure, if only for being the first African-American novelist to garner critical acclaim nationwide.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1858 and raised in Fayetteville, N.C., Chesnutt inherited the skin tone of his white grandfather, although he self-identified as African-American his entire life. He taught school in Charlotte, then became the principal of what is now Fayetteville State. After marrying, moving to Cleveland and establishing a profitable business, he began writing short stories that heralded a new type of African-American story: emotionally complex pieces shot through with irony, dealing with social place and skin color, and written in a style heavily influenced by his studies of Western literature.
His fairly formal style was rejected by writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, and his reputation fell. He was rediscovered starting in the 1960s, and is generally lauded by lit scholars today for his complicated narratives, psychological subtlety, groundbreaking use of everyday African-American speech, and his skewering of the Jim Crow era. Chesnutt died in 1932. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor in 2008, as part of its Black Heritage Series.