InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ellen Glasgow

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.”

As 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.

The 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 the stories.

In 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 heroines.

The 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.

The 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.

Linda Pannill
Transylvania University

In the Heath Anthology
The Professional Instinct (1962)

Other Works
Virginia (1913)
Barren Ground (1925)
The Romantic Comedians (1926)
They Stooped to Folly (1929)
The Sheltered Life (1932)
Vein of Iron (1935)
A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction (1943)
The Woman Within (1954)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


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.

Secondary Sources

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