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  • Nella Larsen, Librarian at 135th Street
  • Karin Roffman (bio)

Nella Larsen's work as a librarian was a catalyst in her rethinking of social issues, particularly her concerns about how systems of classification work to inhibit the creation of new categories of thinking. From 1921 until 1929 while pursuing a writing career, Larsen worked full or part-time primarily at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library.1 During the year 1922–1923, she attended the Library School of the New York Public Library. A survey of Larsen's library career—course records, library school required texts, employment records at the 135th Street Library, and the publications of the other librarians on the staff—suggests that in the 1920s Larsen was immersed in the education and practice of a librarian. This information stands in contrast to the view promoted in scholarly studies of Larsen that she was a realist writer whose work as a librarian emerged from a powerful personal desire for gentility. Critics such as Thadious Davis and Cheryl Wall have suggested that Larsen's work in the library was an extension of her desire for social status, a desire that they claim is evident in her fiction and was ultimately crippling to her writing career (Davis 149, Wall 13).2 Even these critics who respect what she achieved artistically in her brief career, which lasted ten years from 1920 to 1930 (and in only four of those was significant work done), have suggested that her work as a novelist may have been inspired more by a powerful desire to belong to a lauded community than by any intrinsic desire to write. [End Page 752]

I suggest a different view of Larsen's intellectual development in the 1920s, through a reading of Quicksand (1928) and broadened by a more complete record of both the kinds of work she accomplished as a librarian and the kind of training she completed in library school. One of the difficulties with the arguments contending that Larsen lacked intellectual investment in her library training is that they promote what feminist library historians such as Dee Garrison call a "facilitating ideology" (203), assuming that Larsen must be a seeker of social status and gentility and that Larsen's writing must be genteel because her critics assume that the library was.3 Rather than claim that Larsen's library work serves to isolate her from the broader critique of middle-class values that she gives in Quicksand, this essay suggests that Larsen's complicated reaction to the ideologies she was asked to absorb in library school helped her to sharpen her explorations of those critical attitudes in her fiction.4 Claudia Tate has remarked that "the degree to which racism and sexism are culpable in her tragedy is an issue that reviewers and scholars have grappled with ever since the novel's first publication" (240).5 This essay contends that understanding Larsen's library work helps explain her novels as idiosyncratic efforts to invent a different system for conversing about gender and race than the one she saw popularized and instantiated through libraries and other cultural institutions—even those attempting to remake their own images as the 135th Library was doing in the 1920s.

Those involved in the development of the 135th Street Library generally did not view themselves as part of a genteel profession. Instead, they created a new attitude toward the library as a political tool in twentieth-century American culture. Whereas in the earliest days of the public library, men such as Charles Coffin Jewett, George Ticknor, Edward Everett, and even Thomas Jefferson had been considered librarian-scholars as they pursued their aims of building a national library, improving academic libraries, creating the Boston Public Library, and serving on Boards of Trustees, increasingly, after 1876, the word "scholar" was dropped from the phrase when describing the newly trained, mostly female librarians. At the 135th Street Library, a new type—what I call the librarian-artist—reconsidered what cultural institutions were meant to achieve in both their work and their writing. These librarians—in particular branch supervisor Ernestine Rose who later published her ideas in The...


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