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Filling in Blanks: Nella Larsen's Application to Library School

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

Abstract

In 1922 Nella Larsen Imes was the first African American applicant accepted to the library school of the New York Public Library; soon she would be a promising novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Larsen's library school application is a rich text that discloses the encounter of a conflicted subject with the norms and values of an institution. Bureaucratic forms do not have readers—at least as literature professors generally use that word—but filling out an application requires cultural competence, and evaluating one requires interpretive activity. Responding to a standard question on the application, Larsen compiled a book list that reflects her pragmatic, aesthetic, and emotional investment in reading. Stylistically and thematically, this ephemeral document anticipates Larsen's best work; it intimates conflicting perspectives on race, gender, and national belonging while exposing the limits of “imagined community” in one culturally typical American institution.

Type
Special Topic: Cultures of Reading
Copyright
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2018

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