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Last modified: Monday, December 3, 2007

Tracing the color lines

Dec. 3, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Indiana University Bloomington Professor George Hutchinson sat down to conduct research on an upcoming book, he had no idea that his subject matter would shift in a way that was so different from what he had planned.

Hutchinson, Booth Tarkington Professor of Literary Studies and chair of the IU Department of English, said he originally began researching interracial literature of American couples and their offspring. During the course of his research, he read several biographies on Nella Larsen, a novelist during the Harlem Renaissance, who was going to be a figure in the book. After reading a few biographies authored in the 1990s, Hutchinson realized that what had been written was not accurate.

George Hutchinson

George Hutchinson

Print-Quality Photo

"The interpretations of her life and psychology did not ring true," Hutchinson said. "They had a lack of understanding for someone who is biracial. I realized quickly that someone needed to do something about Nella Larsen because these other biographies were like character assassinations."

Gradually, Hutchinson shifted his research focus to Larsen and set out to uncover facts that no one had yet discovered.

Hutchinson's book, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, (Harvard University Press, 2006) has been selected for the 2007 Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa. Hutchinson will receive the award Dec. 7 at the Latham Hotel Georgetown in Washington, D.C. The $10,000 annual award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society is given for works of literary scholarship and criticism.

"To me there is no higher honor for a work of literary scholarship than the Christian Gauss Award. The list of past winners is a kind of pantheon," Hutchinson said. "I now know authentically what it means to feel proud and deeply humbled at the same time. The news was really something to absorb."

Phi Beta Kappa is the nation's oldest academic honor society. The Christian Gauss Award was first given in 1950, and it recognizes an outstanding book in any field of literary scholarship or criticism. Hutchinson is the first from IU to win the award.

The book is a cultural biography of the color line as it was lived by one person who truly embodied all of its ambiguities and complexities. In his book, Hutchinson exposes the truths and half-truths surrounding this central figure of modern literary studies, along with the complex reality they mask and mirror.

Larsen was born in 1891 in Chicago to a white Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere's most infamous vice districts. She lived her life in the shadows of America's racial divide, wrote about that life, and was briefly celebrated in her time. Later she was rediscovered and hailed by many critics as the best black novelist of her generation.

Beyond attempting to trace her life and understand her work, In Search of Nella Larsen is a biography of the color line from the 1890s to the present and a critique of color-line thinking as it continues to shape American culture.

"Are we finally emerging from the era when 'race' trumped 'family'?" Hutchinson asks. "That could only be a good thing."

For most of American history, said Hutchinson, interracial families have been invisible, if not completely suppressed, so that the line between black and white could be maintained. Legal interracial unions were prevented, and most states completely banned interracial marriages.

In Larsen's case, Hutchinson said it appears that Larsen's mother applied for a marriage license, but he cannot confirm that she and Larsen's father were married. Later, the father died or disappeared, and Larsen's mother married a white Danish immigrant and gave birth to another daughter.

"There was tremendous animosity toward interracial families at that time, and Nella, who looked like an African American, opened the family up to all kinds of persecution," Hutchinson said.

Larsen was sent to Fisk, an all black college, to become a teacher. From that time on, her half sister pretended that she was an only child. Even after Larsen's death, her sister maintained that she had no siblings.

"The lesson to take away from this is not that the sister is a bad person, but to recognize the pressures on such a family. It's an illustration of how the forces of American society were intent on forcing out any families that conflicted with the color line," Hutchinson said. "Nella could never be white, and her mother and half sister could never be black, so they separated as she reached adulthood. It made life easier."

Partly because of this experience, Larsen's novels remain unrivaled as explorations of the psychology of the color line as it pertains to blacks, whites and those caught between.

"People like Nella Larsen were literally not supposed to exist," said Hutchinson. "To tell her story and how she emerged as a novelist became for me a completely fascinating project, with significance beyond getting Larsen's life right. We have all inherited ways of thinking and feeling shaped by the subordination of family to race."

Hutchinson said society today can learn from Larsen, particularly about the way color-line thinking continues to shape our understanding of ourselves in American culture. The book reveals the suppressions and misunderstandings that accompany the effort to separate black from white. It also addresses the vast consequences for all Americans of color-line culture's fundamental rule: race trumps family.

Hutchinson received National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships in 1988 and 1989-90, and the Darwin Turner Prize of the Modern Language Association in 1995 for work in African-American literature. He was awarded a Chancellor's Citation for Outstanding Research at the University of Tennessee, where he was also the Phi Beta Kappa lecturer in 1998, and he has won teaching awards at both Tennessee and Indiana University.

In Search of Nella Larsen was also named 2006 Booklist Editor's Choice, was nominated for a Puliter Prize in biography, received an Honorable Mention from the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Annual Award Competition, and won a bronze medal in the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards. The Washington Post chose it for the Best Nonfiction list of 2006, and the New York Times Book Review named it an "Editors' Choice."

"This is an astonishing piece of literary detective work," observed Joe Trahern, chair of the Christian Gauss Award Committee. "Hutchinson's first-class scholarly research completely reverses the prevailing view of the life of an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance."