| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Southern literature was romantic when Ellen Glasgow
began writing. She saw herself as a realist bringing “blood and irony” to a
society based on pretense. The vantage from which most of her nineteen novels
were written was the family home at One West Main Street in Richmond. As a
child she watched her gentle mother, a lady of the Virginia aristocracy,
decline to nervous invalidism after bearing ten children. Her father, manager
of an ironworks, appeared self-righteous and unfeeling to a daughter who would,
nevertheless, give some of her more admirable characters a Scots-Calvinist
background like his and a similar “vein of iron.”
a young woman Ellen Glasgow refused to attend church with her father, an act of
intellectual rebellion. Without much formal schooling she read, on her own,
advanced thinkers of the time and was particularly influenced by Social
Darwinism, a philosophy which hardly consoled her for what she saw as life’s
cruelty. Poor health and loss of hearing that sent her to many doctors over the
years increased the pessimism.
hero of Glasgow’s first novel is an “illegitimate” outcast from a southern town
who becomes, briefly, a radical journalist. Written in secret and published
anonymously, The Descendant (1897) was intended to shock. The author, who later
provided newspapers with a photograph of herself in white ruffles, was aware of
the incongruity of her writing on matters about which a young lady was supposed
to know nothing. Yet Glasgow did not at first make women’s roles her major
theme, and she was slow to place heroines rather than heroes at the centers of
Virginia (1913) the protagonist is a woman, though not a rebel. Virginia
Pendleton, based on Glasgow’s mother, is an old-fashioned southern lady raised
on “the simple theory that the less a girl knew about life, the better prepared
she would be to contend with it.” The author was capable of irony about such
figures, sustained by illusion, at times controlling through weakness. Blind
Mrs. Blake in The Deliverance (1904) is protected by her family from knowing
the Civil War is lost and the slaves freed. But Virginia is treated
sympathetically, even idealized, as Glasgow tended to idealize all her
author depicted a new kind of woman that feminism and confidence in evolution
made her believe possible. She had difficulty, though, imagining a woman’s life
that combined love and work. The feminine quality of sympathy which made a
heroine worthy of interest would lead her, like Judith Campbell in “The
Professional Instinct,” to choose love over ambition. In The Woman Within
(1954), an autobiography written for post-humous publication, Glasgow tells of
a long, secret affair with a married man she had met in New York. Later she was
engaged twice, even collaborating on novels with one fiancé, but did not marry.
Her best work was done when love was over, she said.
novel of greatest personal importance to the author was Barren Ground (1925),
in which she felt she had reversed the traditional seduction plot. When
Glasgow’s heroines are strong, they are so only because men are weak, and the
women’s victories are sad triumphs. She thought that writing Barren Ground, a
“tragedy,” freed her for the comedies of manners The Romantic Comedians (1926),
They Stooped to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932). These late works
are the most artful criticism of romantic illusion in all her long career.
In the Heath Anthology
The Professional Instinct
The Romantic Comedians
They Stooped to Folly
The Sheltered Life
Vein of Iron
A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction
The Woman Within
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Representative American Story Tellers: Ellen Glasgow
A complete text of Frederic Taber Cooper's book on Glasgow, published on the web by UVA's Electronic Text Project.
Documenting the American South: Glasgow Biography
A detailed biography and literary introduction; the larger project from which this bio stems offers four complete texts of Glasgow's work.
Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site, which provides primary and secondary bibliographies.
Ellen Glasgow: A Biography, 1998
E. Stanley Godbold, Jr., Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within, 1972
M. Thomas Inge, ed., Ellen Glasgow, Centennial Essays, 1976
Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936, 1981
Edgar MacDonald and Tonette Blond Inge, Ellen Glasgow: A Reference Guide (1897-1981), 1986
Pamela R. Mathews, Ellen Glasgow and a Woman's Traditions, 1994
Julius R. Raper, From the SunkenGarden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945, 1980
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., No Place on Earth: Ellen Glasgow, James Branch Cabell, and Richmond-in-Virginia, 1959
Linda Wagner, Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention, 1982