Nella Larsen graduates from the NYPL’s Library School and becomes the first professionally trained Black librarian.
In 1921, Nella Larsen, a full-time nurse who had worked in the Bronx through the 1918 flu pandemic, began volunteering nights and weekends at the New York Public Library, helping librarian Ernestine Rose put together the library’s first exhibit of “Negro art”—a show that Larsen’s biographer George Hutchinson credits with marking “the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance in the visual arts.”
The next year, encouraged by Rose, Larsen applied to the NYPL Library School. She was accepted, and on June 8th, 1923, she became the first Black woman to graduate. She spent her first year after library school working at the Seward Park branch, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, before transferring to the Harlem branch. She would soon become an active participant in the neighborhood’s cultural scene. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
In 1926, Larsen, who had already begun work on her first novel, left her job at the library. Quicksand was published in 1928, and Passing, her most famous (and recently adapted) novel, was published a year later. If you haven’t read it yet, just know that it’s as much a Great American Novel as The Great Gatsby. As usual: all hail librarians.
“Lies, injustice, and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure.”
in Passing (1929)
In other (old)
news this week
Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era abolitionist newspaper, kicking off a long American tradition of banning books (June 5, 1851) • Blessent mon cœur d’une langueur monotone—the second line of gun-toting love fiend Paul Verlaine’s 1866 poem “Chanson d’automne”—is broadcast over BBC Radio by the Allies as a coded message to the French Resistance (June 5, 1944) • Sex and the City, which is not only based on Candace Bushnell’s 1997 book of the same name but also includes the most realistic portrayal of a writer in television history, premieres on HBO (June 6, 1998) • The first English translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is published in New York, with a Street Fighter-style video game adaptation soon to follow (June 7, 1862) • Fyodor Dostoevsky delivers a speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow (June 8 (O.S.), 1880) • George Orwell’s 1984 (which you should really reread) is published (June 8, 1949) • The Philadelphia Spelling Book becomes the first book ever copyrighted in the United States (June 9, 1790) • Weirdo of Russian Literature Leo Tolstoy leaves on a pilgrimage to a monastery, disguised as a peasant (June 10, 1881) • The city of Troy is sacked and burned, inspiring a tale or two (June 11, 1184)
“I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter—you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.”
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”