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Ellen Glasgow’s work is often credited as being the first of the powerful new Southern literature that dominated the American literary scene during the early twentieth century. A realist with a tragic view of human potential, Glasgow began her career at a time when most Southern fiction works were romanticized portraits of the ideals and institutions lost after the Civil War. She rebelled against this unrealistic tradition, depicting the South s social and moral code as restrictive and false, along with satirizing its idealization of the past.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Quiet World of Isolation
Born in Richmond, Virginia, on April 22, 1873, Ellen Glasgow was the eighth of ten children of Francis Thomas Glasgow, a manager of an iron works company, and Anne Jane Gholson, a descendant of one of the oldest families in Tidewater, Virginia. Receiving little formal education, Glasgow was privately tutored and read science and history books, as well as fiction and poetry, from her father s expansive library. Despite her siblings, Glasgow often felt isolated from everyone, and her deafness at the age of sixteen certainly contributed to her loneliness. When her mother, a delicate woman whose mental and physical health deteriorated quickly after she had a nervous breakdown, died in 1893, Glasgow felt even more alienated from her family.
Because writing was not considered an appropriate pursuit for a young Southern woman in the late nineteenth century, Glasgow secretly wrote her first novel, Sharp Realities (1890), but destroyed the manuscript after a literary agent told her to go home and have babies. Nevertheless, her determination to be a writer triumphed. Still, Glasgow’s first distributed novel, The Descendant (1897), was published anonymously. With a storyline involving an educated liberal trying to overcome the stigma of his illegitimate birth and an aspiring painter whose self-sacrifice for her lover results in her own destruction, the work created a mild uproar for its daring social commentary. When the book was attributed to Harold Frederic, a popular writer of the day, Glasgow was pleased, for she believed that being assumed to be a male writer was a high compliment.
Love Affairs and Social Histories
During the years from 1899 to 1905, Glasgow was involved in a devastating love affair with a married man whom she later referred to in her writing as Gerald B. Despite the emotional pain caused by this relationship, Glasgow was artistically productive. Turning to Virginia’s social history in Civil War times, Glasgow’s next three works, The Voice of the People (1900), The Battle-Ground (1902), and The Deliverance (1904), blend tragedy and comedy in depicting characters from various social classes in the South. In 1918 Glasgow attempted suicide when another relationship ended, and her subsequent work for several years reflects a halfhearted approach to her writing.
By the 1920s, Glasgow was creating women characters who chose to live independently and to have careers rather than marry unsuitable men. The culmination of this theme came with Barren Ground (1925), the novel many consider to be her masterpiece. Glasgow’s tendency to criticize male characters while praising her feminine creations continued in the three satiric novels that followed: The Romantic Comedians (1926) , They Stooped to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932). In addition to writing at the top of her ability during the 1920s and 1930s, Glasgow had also begun to be recognized as an important novelist, not simply as a writer of best sellers for women readers.
More Than a Southern Woman
Late in her life, Glasgow became especially sensitive about being described as merely a ”Southern writer” or, worse, a ”maiden lady.” She viewed herself as both a distinguished writer, not limited to local-color excellence, and a well-traveled woman, rich in experience and scholarship. By the time of her death from heart disease in 1945, Glasgow had received a number of awards in the literary world, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for her last completed novel, In This Our Life (1941), though critical consensus contends that the award was given for Glasgow’s whole body of work rather than for only this novel. As Glasgow had instructed, her literary executors published her memoirs under the title The Woman Within (1954) after her death.
Works in Literary Context
That Glasgow succeeded as a writer can be partly attributed to her unwillingness to be conventional in any role. Unapologetic for her literary ambition, she was content to be judged by the literary standards that had traditionally been established for male writers, as such evaluation equated her with the masters who had so influenced her as a writer. In her late teens, her sister’s fiance, Walter McCormack, introduced her to Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and other thinkers who helped shape her views of humankind and society. With his philosophy of fate and social determinism, novelist Thomas Hardy also had a profound impact on much of her work. By the end of her career, Glasgow’s work was similar in scope to those panoramic Russian novels she so admired—covering a wide span of time, many characters, many experiences, and with themes that carry import to any reader, regardless of generation.
Southern Literary Renaissance
Many scholars of Southern literature regard Glasgow, along with Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening (1899), as a precursor to the literary movement known as the Southern Literary Renaissance that emerged in the 1920s. Generally not sharing philosophical principles to the regional movement, the Southern Literary Renaissance, according to literary academic Anne E. Rowe, similarly emphasized the importance of southern heritage and environment in people’s lives. Following the path Glasgow helped pave, most of the writers of the Southern Literary Renaissance, including William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Thomas Wolfe, view individual lives through setting and tradition in works that nevertheless are universal in their implications. Glasgow was, says scholar C. Hugh Holman, ”the first writer to apply the principles of critical realism and a detached and ironic point of view to the people, the region, and the problems of the American South.”
Like no other writer of her time, Glasgow attempted to relate the South to the rest of the world, thus laying the foundation for the Southern Literary Renaissance. Her fiction is an account of the old plantation civilization invaded by industrialization and a rising middle class; of a society dying under outmoded manners, opinions, and methods; and of a woman’s place in such an environment. Her novels vary in range and tone from the comic to the tragic, the two opposing realms bridged by her ironic sense of the disparities in human existence. In Barren Ground and Vein of Iron (1935), Glasgow creates fiction of epic and, occasionally, tragic depth. These novels are notable for their lifelike characters, controlled language, and the infusion of what Glasgow called ”blood and irony,” a phrase she coined for the realistic, critical focus of her narration. Most importantly, these are the primary novels that led to the Southern Literary Renaissance.
Works in Critical Context
At the time she was writing, Glasgow was discussed alongside contemporaries Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, other writers praised for capturing the social aura of a transitory period in American history. Contemporary critic Henry Seidel Canby deemed Glasgow ”a major historian of our times, who, almost single-handedly, rescued southern fiction from the glamorous sentimentality of the Lost Cause.” Even so, in later years, Glasgow’s work slipped into critical disregard and popular neglect. Glasgow herself had predicted that in time she would be considered little more than a regional writer or a minor novelist of manners, an insight that has unfortunately proven correct, despite her being one of the most important Southern writers of her day and the winner of the 1942 Pulitzer Prize.
Early in Glasgow’s career, critical opinion of her work varied according to its origin: in the South, she was severely criticized for her negative portrayals; in the North, she was lauded as the South’s first realist and as a master of satire. With the passage of time, however, Glasgow’s realism was interpreted as something more akin to idealization; her plots were often felt to be unreal, and the uncommon success of her heroines led many critics to believe that she refused to accept the world as it was. Though many have praised her knowledge of Virginia social life and manners, her ability to interpret the complexities of Southern history, and her insight into the intricacies of human nature, other critics have attacked Glasgow for her failure to pay closer attention to the structure and form of her novels.
Although Glasgow received recognition for Virginia (1913), she did not gain wide critical acclaim until the publication of Barren Ground in 1925. Other than a few reviewers who thought the plot of the novel too slow and boring, the critical reception of Barren Ground was overwhelmingly positive. Many reviewers praised the novel as a distinguished epic masterpiece. In Ellen Glasgow: The Contemporary Reviews, Dorothy Mclnnis Scura quotes critic Archibald Henderson, who com-pares Glasgow to Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola and says, ”Surely Barren Ground is a great novel—great in austerity, great in art, great in humanity.” Perhaps the highest compliment of all came from New York Herald Tribune Books editor Stuart P. Sherman: ”She treats provincial life from a rational point of view; that is, without sentimentality, without prejudice, with sympathy, understanding, passion, and poetic insight, yet critically and with a surgical use of satire.” Despite what reviewers at the time wrote, however, Barren Ground was not a commercially popular book, most likely because of its solemn tone.
Recent feminist criticism of Barren Ground has heightened interest in Glasgow by emphasizing her concern with the roles of women in society and with the values of patriarchal culture, in which males are the dominating force. Many critics consider Barren GTround to be Glasgow’s greatest achievement, the one novel in which she most poignantly expresses the feminist struggle for freedom and individuality in a hostile environment. Glasgow’s characterization of Dorinda Oakley embodies the complexity of the female mind and heart. Often compared to Glasgow herself, Dorinda is the author’s concept of the model woman who refuses to feel guilt or repentance over an illegitimate child; instead, she utilizes her talents and reaps success from the supposedly barren land.
- Auchincloss, Louis. Ellen Glasgow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.
- Goodman, Susan. Ellen Glasgow: A Biography. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
- Holman, C. Hugh. Three Modes of Southern Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1966.
- Raper, Julius Rowan. From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945.
- Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
- Rouse, Blair. Ellen Glasgow. Boston: Twayne, 1962.
- Scura, Dorothy Mclnnis. Ellen Glasgow: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
- Canby, Henry Seidel. ”Ellen Glasgow: Ironic Tragedian: The Virginia Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow.” Saturday Review of Literature 18 (September 10, 1938): 3-4.
- Sherman, Stuart P. ”The Fighting Edge of Romance: Barren Ground.” New York Herald Tribune Books (April 9, 1925): 22.
- Steele, Oliver. ”Ellen Glasgow’s Virginia: Preliminary Notes.” Studies in References: (1974): 265-289.
- Rowe, Anne E. Library of Southern Literature. Retrieved September 29, 2008, from http://docsouth.unc. edu/southlit/regionalism.html. Last updated on September 29, 2008.
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