Elizabeth Madox Roberts Published by Salem Press, Inc.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts is best known for her novels, particularly her first, The Time of Man (1926), a story of Kentucky hill people, and The Great Meadow (1930), her epic story of American pioneers in Kentucky in the 1770’s. Her other five novels were less well received and are not well known. Of her three collections of poetry, only Under the Tree (1922) had much success.
While still in undergraduate school, Elizabeth Madox Roberts won the Fiske Prize for a group of poems highly praised by critics. She later won the John Reed Memorial Prize in 1928 and the Poetry Society of South Carolina Prize in 1931 for her poetry. Her first novel, The Time of Man (1926), earned her an international reputation when it was translated into several languages. Her story “The Sacrifice of the Maidens” won second prize in the O. Henry Memorial Award contest in 1932. In 1936 and 1937, she was awarded Doctor of Letters degrees by Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, and by the University of Louisville. She was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1940.
Before Elizabeth Madox Roberts was a novelist, she wrote poetry, including children’s verse—facts that explain much about her work as a novelist—and she continued to produce some poetry throughout her career. Her first collection of verse, privately printed in 1915, was In the Great Steep’s Garden, a pamphlet consisting of a few short poems accompanying photographs. A second collection of poetry, Under the Tree, appeared in 1922, published by Huebsch, which soon became the Viking Press and the publisher of Roberts’s subsequent work. A revised edition of Under the Tree appeared in 1930, and a third collection of Roberts’s poetry, Song in the Meadow, came out in 1940.
In addition, Roberts wrote short stories, which, like her poetry, found a ready market in leading magazines of the day. Her short fiction was collected in The Haunted Mirror (1932) and Not by Strange Gods (1941).
Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s reputation as a writer furnishes an interesting case study in literary fashions and critical evaluation. Few novelists have begun their careers to such popular and critical acclaim as Roberts achieved with The Time of Man in 1926, acclaim that was renewed and confirmed by The Great Meadow four years later. With the 1935 publication of He Sent Forth a Raven, however, Roberts’s literary reputation went into a precipitous decline. By her death in 1941, it had struck bottom. Since then, there have been intermittent attempts, including several book-length studies, to resurrect her reputation, frequently with highly inflated praise. Claims that she is among the half dozen or so great American novelists of the twentieth century do her as much disservice as does the vague “regionalist” label that her special pleaders decry.
Perhaps as a result of her early success and her relative isolation in Kentucky, Roberts seems likewise to have overestimated her powers: With talents along the lines of a May Sarton, Roberts was apparently encouraged to think of herself as another William Faulkner, with a little Herman Melville and Thomas Mann thrown in for good measure. Her style, so often termed “poetic,” achieves some fine effects indeed, but at immense cost to thenarrative flow of her novels. Her style is allied to her narrative focus, almost invariably the novel’s female protagonist, whose perceptions and...
Campbell, Harry Modean, and Ruel E. Foster. Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. This biographical/critical study includes a chapter on the short stories that focuses on the symbolism in several of her stories, particularly “The Scarecrow,” “The Sacrifice of the Maidens,” and “The Haunted Palace.” Also discusses analogies to music in Roberts’s stories, particularly her use of musical devices in “The Shepherd’s Interval.”
Hall, Wade. “Place in the Short Fiction of Elizabeth Madox Roberts.” The Kentucky Review 6 (Fall/Winter, 1986): 3-16. Discusses the ways that place affects Roberts’s short fiction: in the speech of her characters, in the creative relationship between character and place, and as the landscape of one’s life. Argues that in Roberts’s short fiction place has a bearing on who characters are, how they behave, what happens in the stories, and how they are structured and written.
McDowell, Frederick P. W. Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963. In this basic introduction to Roberts’s life and work, McDowell argues that her best short stories are the earliest ones, which resemble the novels in their expression of significant moments in the psychological life of their characters. Provides brief discussions of such stories as...