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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Elizabeth Madox Roberts
(1881-1941)


Elizabeth Madox Roberts was one of eight children born to Mary Elizabeth Brent and Simpson Roberts, two strong-minded, passionate people, who, through stories and written memoirs, blended fact and imagination. This background helped shape Roberts’s complex sensibility. Elizabeth loved to listen to the rich tales her father and maternal grandmother spun about ancestors dating back to the early eighteenth century, and to the stories recounted from Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable. Much of this after-dinner lore was woven into her novels and short stories, especially her historical novel The Great Meadow.

Ardent southern sympathizers, her parents struggled meagerly through the Civil War and the Reconstruction period in Perryville, Kentucky. In 1884, the family moved to Springfield, a small, agrarian community, which bustled to life once a month on County Court Day to catch up with trading, haggling, and gossiping. Roberts, a keen observer, later depicted these Pigeon River country scenes with skill and flair. In spite of being situated in a particular time and place, and making use of “local color” devices, her novels take on archetypal dimensions and become universal in theme.

Elizabeth Madox Roberts was intelligent, sensitive, and artistic even as a child. She had a great love for music; in fact, the folksong, as well as the symphony, gave substance and shape to her art. Having excelled as a student in the small private schools of Springfield, she was sent by her parents to Covington to complete high school in a city school system. With little money and ill health, Roberts did not attend college full-time for another eighteen years. During these years she taught in various rural towns, boarding with residents and noting in detail the idiom of the people, their mores and customs. On June 8, 1917, she enrolled in the University of Chicago, her long-awaited dream come true. She graduated at the age of forty.

During her four years in Chicago, Roberts studied with Robert Morss Lovett and was active in a group of writers which included Glenway Wescott, Yvor Winters, and Harriet Monroe. Members read their own works, discussed the current literary scene (including Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Sherwood Anderson), and shared an intense interest in literature and the arts. Roberts’s writing career began with the publication of Under the Tree (1922), a volume of “child poems,” “butterbeans” she called them, for which she won the Fiske Poetry Prize. She returned home frail and ill both physically and emotionally, but brought with her a Bachelor of Philosophy degree.

The Time of Man (1926) and The Great Meadow (1930) represent Roberts at her best, and with these novels she achieved the status of one of America’s most popular and critically acclaimed novelists. In both novels Roberts uses a feminine central consciousness to shape her subject: “the total mind, not thinking or reason, but the instincts and emotions of all memories, imaginings, sensations of the whole being.” In 1932 she published her first volume of stories, The Haunted Mirror. Her stories demonstrate her innovative craftsmanship, her use of “symbolism working through poetic realism” and regionalism, her belief in the intimate connection between the past and the present, and her penetrating dramatization of psychological crises. “Life is from within,” she would say, “and thus the noise outside is a wind blowing in a mirror.”

Roberts never married. She seldom made public appearances and, except for medical reasons, rarely traveled. During the last few years of her life, she spent the cold winter months in Orlando, Florida, where she died after years of suffering from a severe skin ailment and what was finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease. Although her writing career was comparatively short, she was surprisingly productive and original. With The Time of Man, her richest novel, she claimed her place as the first major novelist of the Southern Renascence. Her style markedly influenced later southern writers such as Jesse Stuart and William Faulkner, as well as Robert Penn Warren, who acknowledged this indebtedness when he said: “Elizabeth Madox Roberts was that rare thing, a true artist....She was one of the indispensables.”

Sheila Hurst Donnelly
Orange County Community College


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Death at Bearwallow (1932)

Other Works
The Time of Man (1926)
My Heart and My Flesh (1927)
The Great Meadow (1930)
A Buried Treasure (1931)
The Haunted Mirror (1932)
He Sent Forth a Raven (1935)
Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938)
Song in the Meadow (1940)
Not by Strange Gods (1941)



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Links

Water Noises"
(http://www.legendsandlore.com/poem_waternoises.html)
Roberts's poem available online.


Secondary Sources

Harry Modean Campbell and Ruel E. Foster, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist, 1956

A.K. McBride, "The Poetry of Space in Elizabeth Madox Roberts' Time of Man," Southern Literary Journal 18 (Fall 1985): 61-72

Frederick P.W. McDowell, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, 1963

"Recovering Elizabeth Madox Roberts," The Southern Review 20 (Autumn 1984): 749-835

Earl Rovit, Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, 1960

Linda Tate, "Against the Chaos of the World: Language and Consciousness in EMR's The Time of Man," Mississippi Quarterly 40 (Spring 1987): 95-111

Wade Tyree, "Time's Own River: The Three Major Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts," Michigan Quarterly Review 16 (1977): 33-46





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