Charles R. Larson: The American who fell in love with Africa and never looked back

Charles R. Larson: The American who fell in love with Africa and never looked back

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 8:37 am

Charles R. Larson

Charles R. Larson

By Nehru Odeh

Charles R. Larson, the man who took African literature to the doorsteps of Americans and the rest of the world died on 22 May at his home in Chevy Chase, Md,  United States.

He was 83.

According to his daughter, Vanessa H. Larson, a copy editor at The Washington Post, he died of prostate cancer.

Larson’s death, indeed, spelt the end of a boisterous love affair between him and the continent, a love affair he never failed to show through his literary works and actions. He didn’t just say it, he showed it.

It was love at first sight. Larson was deeply in love with Nigeria, the country through which he first had contact with Africa. And he never looked back. A pioneering scholar of African literature, he fell in love with this country on his first visit in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer at 26.

Before then he had known nothing about Africa or where Nigeria was located.

The only perception he and his colleagues had about Nigeria at the time was negative and through the prism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella that has been heavily criticized for portraying Africans as savages and primitive.

However, prior to embarking on his journey to Nigeria, he had read two books while preparing to experience a country he knew next to nothing about. The novels were Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Amos Tutuola’s “The Palm-Wine Drinkard”. Those literary works did the magic. They changed not only his negative perception of Africa but also his life. And he fell in love with the continent.

“Nigeria changed my scholarly life,” he said. “When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions. The rest,” he added, “is history.”

That indeed was the beginning of the love affair between Larson and Africa that lasted for almost three decades. He, indeed, never hid his love for Africa. After encountering Achebe and Tutuola textually, he not only became obsessed with Nigeria but fell  in love with African literature so much so that when he returned to the United States instead of doing a doctorate in American literature as he had earlier planned, he obtained a doctorate in comparative literature and helped found the academic study of African literature in the United States.  “Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education,” he later recalled.

“There’s no better way to understand Africa, which is still mysterious to most people than by reading the novels of the writers from the continent,” Larson once told an interviewer..

A brilliant intellectual” and “a great bridge builder across cultures,” as Tijan M. Sallah, a widely published Gambian-born poet and writer, once described him in an interview, he lived his more than four score years on earth promoting African literature and writers.

Emily Langer, writing in the Washington post, said at a time when the literary canon consisted almost entirely of works by British and American authors, he helped secure a place for writers including Achebe and Wole Soyinka who ended up winning the Nobel in literature in 1986.

Larson not only introduced African writers to students of the first classes he taught in the United States, he championed them in books such as: “The Emergence of African Fiction” (1972) and “The Ordeal of the African Writer” (2001), as well as in seminal anthologies that he edited, among them “African Short Stories” (1970) and “Opaque Shadows and Other Stories From Contemporary Africa.

Indeed he promoted Africa through his works in numerous ways. Amadou Kone, a professor of African literature at Georgetown University, for instance, said Larson, in his first major work of literary criticism, “The Emergence of African Fiction”, challenged readers to consider African literature in the context of the African oral tradition instead of judging it strictly by Western concepts of plot and character.

However Ayi Kwei Armah, one of Africa’s foremost novelists, took Larson to task on what he wrote about him in the first edition of that book, “The Emergence of African Fiction.”  Armah’’s argument in his critique entitled, “Larsony: Fiction as Creation of Fiction”, is that Larson distorts the publication history of his books, pretends to have a personal knowledge of him, which he does not possess and tends to pander to Western prejudices about African writers not capable of originality and are influenced by writers in the West.

According to Armah, Larson betrayed not only lack of knowledge about him but also wrote fiction. And he practically called Larson a racist for saying that he (Armah) was influenced by James Joyce when he hadn’t read the Irish writer at the time and that he had forgotten his native language.

Armah therefore submitted that the best word to describe that critical style of distorting African truths to fit Western prejudices, the art of using fiction as criticisms of fiction, would be “Larsony”.

According to the Washington Post, Sallah described the book as a trailblazer in the American Academy. Such was the respect surrounding him that Larson became a literary “kingmaker” of sorts, one whose attention could help propel a writer to greater renown. In “The Ordeal of the African Writer,” he chronicled the difficulties that many African authors faced as they competed for the interest of European publishing houses and struggled to disseminate their works in their home countries, where many people lacked money to buy books.

He promoted African writers through the numerous anthologies that he edited. James Alan McPherson, the first Black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, wrote in a New York Times review that in one of the anthologies “Opaque Shadows,” he “selected superb stories that focus, without self-consciousness or remonstration, on the human condition as it presently exists among a variety of African people.

Born in  Sioux City, Iowa, on 14 January 1938, his father managed a department store, and his mother, a homemaker, gave dance lessons. He later attended the University of Colorado, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a master’s degree in 1961, both in English literature.  As the Washington Post reported,  “such was the inadequacy of his early education, he later realized, that by that point he had read none of the writings of major African American authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.”

“The man who directed my MA thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American,” Dr. Larson recalled years later in remarks at the University of Texas at Austin, where his papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Center.

His scholarly books included a work on American Indian fiction and “Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen” (1993), a biography of two noted writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. A frequent book reviewer for publications including The Post and the Times, he wrote three works of fiction, the satirical “Academia Nuts” (1977); “The Insect Colony” (1978), about an entomologist ensconced in a remote village in Cameroon; and “Arthur Dimmesdale” (1983), a retelling of “The Scarlet Letter” focused on the guilt-wracked minister of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel.

He also co-edited “Worlds of Fiction”” (1993), a collection of works by Western and non-Western authors, with Roberta Rubenstein, his wife of 50 years and literature professor at American University.

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