Home Book publication The plagiarism scandal that ended Nella Larsen’s career

The plagiarism scandal that ended Nella Larsen’s career

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With the release of the film version of his 1929 novel Who passed, there is renewed interest in the work of author Nella Larsen. But it is another of his plays, the short story “Sanctuary”, published in 1930, which is the most controversial. The story entangled Larsen in an accusation of plagiarism and, as literary scholar Hildegard Hoeller explains, “sparked a scandal from which she – as many critics pointed out – would never quite recover.” .

The story that sparked the controversy was British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith’s “Mrs. Adis”, published eight years earlier. The stories of Kaye-Smith and Larsen share a similar premise: a man walks into a house isolated trying to hide from the police after a robbery and shooting. The house is occupied by a woman who agrees to hide the man. In the end, she discovers that the person who was shot is her son and that ‘she helped her murderer. And as American literary scholar Kelli A. Larson points out, reading the two stories, “the similarities [are] too many to be a coincidence.

So, case closed? It might not be that simple.

When Larsen’s story started to circulate, it caused a stir in the literary world. The accusations of plagiarism came almost instantly. Letters full of gossip flew between literary figures, who were shocked that this talented rising star resorted to theft. In a letter to writer Countee Cullen, arts patron and teacher Harold Jackman wrote: “If you can get your hands on the Forum and Smith’s book do and compare them. But isn’t that a terrible thing? Forum, the newspaper that published “Sanctuary,” did a full investigation of the story, both the final work and the early drafts. The newspaper even published a response from Larsen, with the editors concluding that it was really just a coincidence. But the bigger question persisted: if it wasn’t plagiarism, how did it happen?

Many scholars readily acknowledge the similarities between the two stories, but is that because the story never really belonged to either woman? In his explanation published in the Forum, Larsen claimed that the story came to him as folklore. Prior to her writing career, Larsen was a nurse, and this story was told to her by a patient between 1912 and 1915. As Larson writes, the explanation was that the story was actually part of black “almost folklore.” existing in hundreds of versions, [Larsen] further postpones the origin of the story, refusing that it can have a specific property because “anyone could have written it at any time.”

Researcher Rosemary V. Hathaway agrees, saying Larsen’s story is firmly rooted in folk lore. “In the case of ‘Sanctuary,’ she writes: ‘Trusting both the tale and the storyteller supports an interpretation of the story like Larsen’s literary tale of an oral tale. Even Kaye-Smith admitted that the story wasn’t entirely her own either, recounting how she first stumbled upon the story in an account by a 17th-century French bishop.

Many scholars today argue that Larsen’s story fits into the modernist tradition of adaptation and, as Larson suggests, it “embarked on a literary tradition that was successfully employed by writers long before and after his time ”. But subsequent reflections on the merits of the story came too late for Larsen. As Hathaway writes, “Although Larsen wrote three more novels in the early 1930s, none of them were accepted for publication, and Larsen eventually resumed the nursing career she had left behind. years ago ”.


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By: Hildegard Hoeller

African-American Journal, vol. 40, n ° 3 (autumn 2006), pp. 421-437

The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the African American Review (University of St. Louis)

By: Kelli A. Larson

Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 30, n ° 4, Reading the margins of modernism (summer 2007), pp. 82-104

Indiana University Press

By: Rosemary V. Hathaway

The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 130, n ° 517 (summer 2017), pp. 255-275

University of Illinois Press on behalf of the American Folklore Society