Charles R. Larson, pioneering scholar of African literature, dies at 83
By Emily Langer,
By his own account, Charles R. Larson knew almost nothing of Africa — not even where Nigeria was located — when he arrived in the West African nation in 1962 with one of the first cohorts of Peace Corps volunteers. What little knowledge he had came from two books by Nigerian writers that he read in preparation for his experience, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” by Amos Tutuola.
A budding literary scholar, Dr. Larson planned, upon completion of his Peace Corps service, to pursue a doctorate in American literature. But “Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education,” he later recalled.
“Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers,” he said, “but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer.” He was not alone: Then and for years after, most literature students in the United States encountered Africa only through such Western works as Joseph Conrad’s Congo-set novella “Heart of Darkness.”
After his time in Nigeria — where he taught English just a few miles from the village where Achebe grew up — Dr. Larson returned to the United States, obtained a doctoral degree in comparative literature and helped found the academic study of African literature in the United States.
As a professor at American University in Washington, where he joined the faculty in 1970, Dr. Larson taught some of the first classes offered to U.S. students on African writers. At a time when the literary canon consisted almost entirely of works by British and American authors, he helped secure a place in American academia for writers including Achebe and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright who in 1986 received the Nobel Prize in literature.
Dr. Larson championed African writers in books including “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” (1975).
He was “a brilliant intellectual” and “a great bridge builder across cultures,” Tijan M. Sallah, a widely published Gambian-born poet and writer, said in an interview.
Dr. Larson died May 22 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 83. The cause was prostate cancer, said his daughter, Vanessa H. Larson, a copy editor at The Washington Post.
Dr. Larson’s first major work of criticism was “The Emergence of African Fiction,” in which he 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, said Amadou Kone, a professor of African literature at Georgetown University.
The book was “a trailblazer . . . in the American Academy,” Sallah wrote in an email. Such was the respect surrounding him, Sallah said, that Dr. Larson became a literary “kingmaker” of sorts, one whose attention could help propel a writer to greater renown.
Beyond his literary criticism, Sallah observed, Dr. Larson “genuinely worked to support literary culture in Africa.” 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 sought to promote African writers through the numerous anthologies that he edited. In “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,” James Alan McPherson, the first Black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, wrote in a New York Times review.
Dr. Larson’s last anthology, “Under African Skies: Modern African Stories” (1997), included writings by Achebe and Tutuola, Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri of Nigeria, Nuruddin Farah of Somalia, Camara Laye of Guinea and Grace Ogot of Kenya, among many others.
“There’s no better way to understand Africa, which is still mysterious to most people,” Dr. Larson told an interviewer, “than by reading the novels of the writers from the continent.”
Charles Raymond Larson was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 1938. His father managed a department store, and his mother, a homemaker, gave dance lessons.
Dr. Larson enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a master’s degree in 1961, both in English literature. 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.
After serving in the Peace Corps, Dr. Larson continued, “I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.”
Dr. Larson taught high school English before joining the Peace Corps, which placed him at an Anglican grammar school for boys in the Nigerian town of Oraukwu from 1962 to 1964. He did not wish to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, he told AWOL, a student-run publication at American University, and joined the fledgling international volunteer organization in order to obtain a draft deferment.
Dr. Larson returned to the United States hoping to pursue a doctoral degree in African literature but, unable to find such a program, studied African American literature at Howard University. He later transferred to Indiana University, where he received a PhD in comparative literature in 1970.
He taught for more than four decades at American University before his retirement in 2011, serving for several years as chair of the literature department. In addition to his courses on African writers, he taught classes on African American literature and non-Western literature.
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.
Dr. Larson was a frequent book reviewer for publications including The Post and the Times. He also 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.
With his wife, Roberta Rubenstein, also a literature professor at American University, Dr. Larson co-edited “Worlds of Fiction” (1993), a collection of works by Western and non-Western authors.
Besides his wife of 50 years, of Chevy Chase, survivors include his daughter, of Silver Spring, Md.; a son, Joshua Larson of Denver; and a brother.
Reflecting on his career, Dr. Larson marveled at the momentous importance of his decision to join the Peace Corps.
“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.”
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