Roberts, Elizabeth Madox
Elizabeth Madox Roberts 1881-1941
American novelist, poet, and short story writer.
A prominent figure in American literature of the South, Roberts is best known for her novel The Time of Man (1926), which Ford Madox Ford described as "the most beautiful individual piece of writing that has yet come out of America." While various contemporary critics rank Roberts along with such prominent southern writers as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Eudora Welty, she never attained either the critical or popular recognition of her peers.
Roberts was born in Perryville, Kentucky, and raised in Springfield. Her father held a variety of semi-skilled jobs and, like Roberts's grandmother, was an avid storyteller. A sensitive and physically frail child, Roberts was keenly interested in literature from an early age. After graduating from high school, she briefly attended the State College of Kentucky; Roberts withdrew because of ill-health and lack of money. In the succeeding decade she earned a living as a school teacher. In 1917, following time spent in Colorado and California, during which she recovered from a case of tuberculosis, Roberts entered the University of Chicago on a scholarship. She established herself as a central figure in the Poetry Club, started lifelong friendships with Glenway Westcott and Yvor Winters, and graduated with honors in 1921. Roberts spent the rest of her life in Springfield, writing full-time until her death from Hodgkin's disease in 1941.
Roberts's first published work, In the Great Steep's Garden (1915), is a collection of seven poems. Written while she was in Colorado, the poems were inspired by the flowers of the Rocky Mountains. While at the University of Chicago, she wrote the poems collected in Under the Tree (1922). Roberts called these "child poems" because they represent her adult attempt to imagine, or remember, what the experience of childhood was like. Most critics consider The Time of Man Roberts's masterpiece. The novel is a kind of bildungsroman which tells the story of Ellen Chesser, a young woman from a poor family whose forebears were Kentucky pioneers. The narrative recounts the harsh and difficult circumstances of her life, detailing her withdrawal from the world around her and her subsequent spiritual renewal as she learns acceptance and love. The Time of Man has been praised for its skillful and poignant evocation of Ellen's consciousness and for the poetry of its prose style. Somewhat similar to this work is My Heart and My Flesh (1927). This novel documents the fortunes of Theodosia Bell, a southern woman who loses her wealth and social standing, attempts suicide, and ultimately experiences a reaffirmation of life. Written while these two novels were still unfinished, Jingling in the Wind (1928) is an allegorical satire on the state of the modern world and the inadequacy of Christianity to deal with commercialism, decadence, and the corruption of the human spirit. Set during the revolutionary period in Virginia and Kentucky, The Great Meadow (1930) concerns the choice of Diony Hall to leave the comfort and stability of her family's farm for a life in the wilderness. The novel's main theme involves the wresting of order from a chaotic world. A Buried Treasure (1931) is about Andy and Philly Blair and the impact exerted on their lives by a found cache of gold coins. Thematically the novel examines the emergence of Andy and Philly's own self knowledge and their understanding of the depth of their love. The Haunted Mirror (1932) and Not by Strange Gods (1941) are both collections of short stories that critics regard as artistically less successful than her novels. He Sent Forth a Raven (1935) is set during World War I and concerns the personal and philosophical conflicts that arise between the people in the small town of Wolflick, Kentucky. The chaos represented by the war sets the beliefs and moral codes of the main characters in stark relief. Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938) is a somewhat allegorical novel about a woman's redemption. With main characters who, on one level, stand for the figures in the story of Genesis, the novel describes the rise and fall and return to grace of the protagonist, Dena, who is an everyman figure. Song in the Meadow (1940), a poetry collection, was the last work published during Roberts's lifetime. Some of the works collected here are "child poems" similar to the ones in Under the Tree; others are love lyrics, narratives about folk heroes, and poems expounding philosophical positions, particularly those concerned with self-discovery and the idealism of Bishop Berkeley.
In the Great Steep's Garden (poetry) 1915
Under the Tree (poetry) 1922; revised edition published in 1930
The Time of Man (novel) 1926
My Heart and My Flesh (novel) 1927
Jingling in the Wind (novel) 1928
The Great Meadow (novel) 1930
A Buried Treasure (novel) 1931
The Haunted Mirror (short stories) 1932
He Sent Forth a Raven (novel) 1935
Black Is My Truelove's Hair (novel) 1938
Song in the Meadow (poetry) 1940
Not by Strange Gods (short stories) 1941
I Touched White Clover (poetry) 1981
SOURCE: Review of The Time of Man, in The New Republic, Vol. XLVIII, No. 614, September 8, 1926, pp. 74-5.
[In the following review, Lovett describes The Time of Man as "an almost perfect blending of idea and substance, of soul and body."]
A recent school of criticism has made much of the fact that American literature has so rarely sprung directly from the American soil, has contained so meagrely the elements of folk culture: love of the land that sweetens the labor upon it; love of the life it brings forth, plant and animal; love of tools and material things fashioned by the hand of man for his work upon the earth; instinctive affection for fellow-men who born of the same mother, share the same inheritance. Pioneering has played a great part in American fiction, but the theme of the pioneer has been the conquest, not the growth of the soil. It has been our boast that we have never had a peasantry—social change and promotion have been too rapid to permit human life to sink its roots deeply into the earth. American treatment of the land has tended toward exploitation, not cultivation; and it is exploitation which is recorded in our literature. A sense of this poverty in the native sources of culture has shown itself in an attempt to claim for ourselves the civilization of the Indians of the Southwest and find in it the basis of a truly American art. Again, the racial inheritance of foreign peasant stocks has been laid under contribution, notably in Miss Cather's fine novel My Antonia. The recognition of the richness of Negro life in the primary sources of art is a sign of the same awakening. It is Miss Roberts's distinction that in her first novel she has followed a strain of American life which contains the elements in which American fiction has been so often lacking, seen them with the eyes of a poet, and entered into them with an instinctive knowledge and feeling which are the gifts of a true imagination.
The Time of Man is the story of Ellen Chesser, daughter of Henry and Nellie Chesser, poor whites, wanderers upon the Kentucky roads, sojourners here and there by chance on the land by which and for which they live. An instinct for permanence leads them in each new tarrying place to make a home of the two-roomed cabin which is allotted to them, to gather tools and utensils and household gear, a little stock—a cow, a few hens—to plant flowers. Then the sense of failure in permanent adjustment, the lack of ownership of the soil which they till, vaguely working, drives them forth. This is the pathos of their poor lives—the instinct for home constantly defeated yet constantly renewed.
Ellen at ten is a social being. When the wagon breaks down and the family is thrown on the land of Hep Bodine her first thought is to rehearse her story to tell to a woman, another wagon dweller, whom she has met on the road and lost again. For a long time she has no companions but the turkeys she tends and the heifer which she saved at birth. She cries out against her loneliness.
All at once she lifted her body and flung up her head to the great sky that reached over the hills and shouted:
"Here I am!"
She waited, listening:...
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SOURCE: "Miss Roberts' First Novel," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. 83, July, 1927, pp. 73-5.
[In the following review, Wescott praises Roberts for the "artfulness" of The Time of Man.]
In the beginning Miss Roberts was a poet, and a number of years ago Mr Huebsch published for her an admirable book of rhymed verses called Under the Tree. It is not merely a collection but a slight cycle exquisitely arranged—one little girl speaking in the first person from beginning to end. One might almost think it primarily intended for children; in any case, it is more like a lyric Alice in Wonderland than like A Child's Garden of Verses, containing neither...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in The Spyglass: Views and Reviews, 1924-1930, edited by John Tyree Fain, Vanderbilt University Press, 1963, pp. 44-8.
[In the following review of The Great Meadow, originally published on March 16, 1930, Davidson determines that Roberts "does show the excellences and advantages of provincial art at its best."]
Elizabeth Madox Roberts's fourth novel, The Great Meadow, shows all her fine qualities at their best.… What is the subject matter? In general, this time it is the westward push of the pioneers from Virginia across the mountains that brought the Watauga and Cumberland settlements into Tennessee, and...
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SOURCE: "A Child Sings," in Poetry, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, July, 1931, pp. 227-29.
[In the following review, Teasdale enthusiastically assesses of the verse in Under the Tree.]
[Under the Tree] is as fresh and full of music as an April morning. A child is overheard singing, and we listen, afraid that the song will end. The little girl, perhaps five or six years old, is as much in love with life as the heroines of Miss Roberts' novels are, and as sensitive as they are to the moods of the earth and to the other creatures living on its surface. She seems to herself and to us an inevitable part of the rich life of the farms and the woods.
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: Her Mind and Style," in The Private Reader: Selected Articles & Reviews, Henry Holt and Company, 1942, pp. 97-109.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1932, Van Doren comments on how Roberts's writing style adds another dimension to her novels.]
A reader of any novel by Elizabeth Madox Roberts is certain sooner or later to remark the presence of a style. Her style, say those who do not like it, is more than present; it is obtrusive. But even those who like it very much have it uppermost in their minds as they proceed, and when they have finished it is the language, or the way of writing, which they are most likely to...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Madox Roberts as Poet," in Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956, pp. 251-72.
[In the following essay, Campbell and Foster survey Roberts's poetry.]
As a child of eight, Miss Roberts saw a picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning under which was printed the single word, "Poet." She was so impressed by this that she pointed to the word and said, "That's what I want to be, a poet." And that she became. The very essence of her art is her poetry. The real key to the subtle appeal of her novels is poetry. [We will discuss] her two published volumes of poetry—Under the Tree and Song in the...
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SOURCE: "A Few Hard, Tender Sayings," in Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, University of Kentucky Press, 1960, pp. 129-48.
[In the following essay, Rovit concludes that Roberts's intricate style serves an important purpose in her prose, allowing the reader to identify more closely with the consciousness of her characters.]
Almost without exception, every literary review or critical analysis of Miss Roberts' work makes mention of her prose style, the inference being that somehow or other, her "style" is an element in her writing which thrusts itself obtrusively on the reader. Even those critics who make more than a superficial attempt to analyze...
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SOURCE: "The New Beginning," in Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1963, pp. 85-106.
[In the following essay, McDowell examines the characters, structure, and symbolism of The Great Meadow.]
I "A HALF-MYTHICAL LAND"
The spectacle of the pioneer surge westward had long played about the edges of Miss Roberts' mind; she once wrote that this subject had in fact fascinated her "almost … since first I began to think at all." In notes to the article written for the Literary Guild in 1930 when The Great Meadow was a selection, she told of the spell which the exploits of the Kentucky pioneers had cast over her...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in Pioneers & Caretakers: A Study of 9 American Women Novelists, University of Minnesota Press, 1965, pp. 123-35.
[In the following essay, Auchincloss remarks on key novels and short stories by Roberts.]
If Emily Bronté had survived the publication of Wuthering Heights to write a series of obscure and ponderous allegorical novels, would her reputation be as splendid as it is today? One may doubt it. There is something about the image of a life seemingly offered up on the altar of literature as the price of one perfect book that becomes part of the atmosphere in which the book is read. If Elizabeth Madox Roberts had...
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SOURCE: "The Mind & Creative Habits of Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in … All These to Teach: Essays in Honor of C. A. Robertson, edited by Robert A. Bryan and others, University of Florida Press, 1965, pp. 237-48.
[In the following essay, Spivey points out the strengths and weaknesses in Roberts's prose.]
Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941) deserved and deserves more readers than she had or has for her twelve books: seven novels, two volumes of short stories, and three volumes of poetry. [In the Great Steep's Garden (poems, 1913), Under the Tree (poems, 1922), The Time of Man (a novel, 1925), My Heart and My...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Madox Roberts and the Civilizing Consciousness," in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 64, No. 2, April, 1966, pp. 110-20.
[In the following essay, Murphy discusses Roberts's blending of historical fact with fiction in The Great Meadow, and her use of stream of consciousness in The Time of Man.]
In writing The Great Meadow, first published in 1930, Miss Roberts faced the common problem of the historical novelist, that of integrating fiction and historical fact. The excellence of this work, written in the tradition of Cooper's The Spy and countless novels dealing with the American Revolution and Civil...
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SOURCE: "Social Development in the Poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in The Markham Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, September, 1969, pp. 16-20.
[In the following essay, Niles addresses the theme of social awareness in Roberts's poetry.]
An examination of the poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts makes evident that she attempted to develop in this genre many of the same thematic concerns which she forcefully presented in her novels. Therefore, if one is to study thematic variations and development in these poems, wherein thematic ideas of the novel are somewhat fore-shadowed, it is helpful to have studied at least Roberts' four major prose works—The Time of Man, The Great...
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SOURCE: "Time's Own River: The Three Major Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 33-46.
[In the following essay, Tyree assesses the strengths and weaknesses of The Time of Man, The Great Meadow, and My Heart and My Flesh.]
In 1926, at the age of 45, Elizabeth Madox Roberts published her first novel, The Time of Man. It was immediately not only a popular success but a critical one, widely reviewed and praised. Sherwood Anderson said of it, "A wonderful performance. I am humble before it" [cited in Harry Modeen Campbell and Ruel E. Foster's Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Space in Elizabeth Madox Roberts' The Time of Man," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1985, pp. 61-72.
[In the following essay, McBride demonstrates the symbolism between the various homes of Ellen Chesser in The Time of Man and the character's stages of maturity.]
As Elizabeth Madox Roberts' novel, The Time of Man, nears its conclusion, the outer appearance of the heroine, Ellen Chesser Kent, reflects her inner wholeness. Indeed, the jubilant words of young Luke Wimble capture the aura of her full self-awareness when he exclaims, "You're a bright shiny woman, Ellen Kent … You got the very...
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SOURCE: "Place in the Short Fiction of Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in The Kentucky Review, Vol. VI, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 3-16.
[In the following essay, Hall discusses the importance of place in short stories by Roberts.]
Joan went down the path to the henyard, her mother's voice still telling her to feed the brooding hen. Away from the voices of the house she entered into the mid-morning quiet of the farm. She stopped at the hen's nest and she ran her hand among the soft feathers of the brooding mother, her sense of the place spiced with the odors of sweet lime and the odors of feathers that lay decaying in the dry...
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SOURCE: "Against the Chaos of the World: Language and Consciousness in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's The Time of Man," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XL, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 95-111.
[In the following essay, Tate investigates the integration of style and theme in The Time of Man.]
In a letter to Harriet Monroe, Elizabeth Madox Roberts wrote that she had "poured into [The Time of Man] the notes which might otherwise have gone into the making of many bits of verse." For her, the novel was the result of her theory of "poetic realism," as she sought to find points of union between the spiritual and the physical, the inner world and the outer....
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SOURCE: "History and the Will of the Artist: Elizabeth Madox Roberts," in The Fable of the Southern Writer, Louisiana State University Press, 1994, pp. 54-72.
[In the following essay, Simpson traces the development of Roberts's female protagonists as artists and as representations of artistic consciousness.]
"I feel myself to be a Kentuckian," Elizabeth Madox Roberts said, "and all my work … centers around Kentucky objects." Just as her younger contemporary William Faulkner took as his subject the history of the Deep South state of Mississippi, Roberts took as her subject the history of the border state of Kentucky. As with Faulkner, this choice was dictated by the...
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Tate, Linda. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Bibliographical Essay." Resources for American Literary Study 18, No. 1 (1992): 22-43.
Detailed discussion of Roberts's publishing history that includes an extended survey of critical reactions to her work.
Adams, J. Donald. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Virginia Quarterly Review 12, No. 1 (January 1936): 80-90.
Generally favorable assessment of Roberts's novels and an extended examination of her place in contemporary world literature at the time.
Bernstein, Stephen. "Comprehension, Composition, and Closure in Elizabeth...
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