Gilchrist, Ellen (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Ellen Gilchrist 1935-
American short story writer, novelist, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Gilchrist's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 48.
Gilchrist is best known for her short stories that chronicle the decline of the Southern aristocracy. Much of her fiction is set in New Orleans, a city she describes in gritty detail to contrast the idealistic hopes of her upper-class female protagonists with the harsh reality of their lives. Gilchrist's characters often reappear in different works, allowing her to examine various stages of their personal development. Gilchrist is consistently praised for her use of vivid language and dialogue, and critics have particularly noted her ability to capture the dreams and frustrations typically experienced during adolescence.
Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1935. She spent her childhood on the Hopewell Plantation, the home of her maternal grandfather. Gilchrist left the family home at nineteen when she eloped. She subsequently divorced and married three more times before the age of thirty-two. She received her B.A. in philosophy from Milsaps College in 1967. In the 1970s, Gilchrist tried her hand at poetry and joined poet and novelist Jim Whitehead's writing class at the University of Arkansas. Gilchrist wrote poems and stories for various periodicals before publishing her first collection of short fiction, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), with a small university press. The book caught the attention of the reading public and the literary world alike and earned her a contract with Little, Brown for another collection of short stories and a novel. She won the American Book Award for fiction for Victory over Japan (1984) and has written several other short story collections and novels, as well as a collection of essays.
The stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams center on wealthy Southern women who escape the restrictions of their upper-class lives through unorthodox, sometimes destructive behavior. “Revenge” focuses on Rhoda Manning, a young girl who is stifled by the constraints placed on women in southern society. She is not allowed to use the pole-vaulting pit built by her brother and her male cousins because it is considered unbecoming for a girl to develop muscles. Instead she is lured to the more feminine pursuit of playing a role in her cousin's wedding. At the end of the story she rebels, triumphantly ripping off her formal dress after the wedding and vaulting across the pit. Gilchrist's first novel, The Annunciation (1983), follows the life of Amanda McCamey from her childhood on the Mississippi Delta to her married life in the familiar milieu of aristocratic New Orleans, and eventually to an artists' commune in the Ozarks. Some of the characters from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams also reappear in Gilchrist's later collection Victory over Japan, which traces the lives of several eccentric women. In this collection, the character of Rhoda Manning returns in “The Lower Garden District Free Gravity Mule Blight or Rhoda, a Fable.” In this story, Rhoda is middle-aged, recently divorced, and struggling with poverty and loneliness. She attempts to solve her problems by defrauding her insurance company and seducing her insurance representative. Other previously used characters also reappear in the stories of Drunk with Love (1986). In addition to exploring the lives of her female protagonists as they rebel against Southern social mores, this volume deals with greater social issues, such as interracial love affairs in “Memphis” and “The Emancipator.” Another story, “The Blue-Eyed Buddhist,” concludes in a manner atypical of the standard Gilchrist tale—the protagonist ends her life in a grand, self-sacrificing gesture. The novel The Anna Papers (1988) relates the experiences of Anna Hand, a dying author who wants to write her family's story in order to leave a legacy for the future. Although Anna is childless, motherhood and family are central to the narrative in this book. Net of Jewels (1992) involves Rhoda Manning once again, this time focusing on her adolescence and young adulthood. The book examines Rhoda's rebellious relationship with her parents and the Southern belle ideal. Starcarbon (1994) returns to the chronicles of the Hand family, who appeared in The Anna Papers. This time Olivia de Haviland Hand (Anna's niece) becomes the protagonist. Olivia is living in Oklahoma and struggling to reconcile her Cherokee roots with the Hand's Southern aristocracy.
Gilchrist is more often praised for the style than the substance of her work. Victoria Jenkins remarks, “Ellen Gilchrist's writing tumbles and spills off the page, seemingly without effort, like a voluble cousin breathlessly bringing you up to date on the liaisons and adventures of various members of a sprawling family.” Many critics are enamored with Gilchrist's rebellious female heroines since they break the fictional mold of the typical Southern belle. Jeannie Thompson and Anita Miller Garner state, “Gilchrist captures the flavor and essence of her region without drowning in its idiom. She does not diminish her work by parroting already established Southern voices or depending upon stereotypes of landscapes and character.” However, some reviewers desire more from Gilchrist's protagonists and argue that they are in no way heroic. Such commentators complain that, barring a few exceptions, Gilchrist's characters do nothing to change the wretchedness of their lives. Dorie Larue laments, “[Gilchrist's] characters are more thought about than thought through.” Generally, Gilchrist's short fiction is more favorably received than her novels, although her work is increasingly becoming a subject for critical study.
The Land Surveyor's Daughter (poetry) 1979
In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (short stories) 1981
The Annunciation (novel) 1983
Victory over Japan (short stories) 1984
Drunk with Love (short stories) 1986
Falling through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist (essays) 1987
The Anna Papers (novel) 1988
Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (short stories) 1989
I Cannot Get You Close Enough (short stories) 1990
Net of Jewels (novel) 1992
Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love (novel) 1994
The Age of Miracles (short stories) 1995
Nora Jane and Company (novel) 1997
Flight of Angels (short stories) 1998
(The entire section is 82 words.)
SOURCE: “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 101-14.
[In the following essay, Thompson discusses where the search for self-knowledge leads several of Gilchrist's protagonists.]
Few writers can achieve with a first collection of short stories published by a university press the kind of instant popular success and critical acclaim Ellen Gilchrist won with In the Land of Dreamy Dreams: Not only did it immediately sell out its first printing, the collection was literally the talk of New Orleans, selling many copies by word of mouth and winning for its author a substantial contract with a notable publisher for a novel and another collection of stories. Gilchrist’s regional success has been explained in much the same way the regional success of writers like Walker Percy, Eudora Welty and, more recently, John Kennedy Toole has been explained: that is, readers in the South cannot resist the descriptions of settings, landscapes, dialects and societies which, love them or not, are easily recognizable as home. Yet, like these writers, Gilchrist writes fiction that is more than regional. Indeed, if it is regional, it is so in the sense that the works of Dostoyevsky and Flaubert are regional, which is to say that it represents not regionalism so much as the successful capturing of a social milieu....
(The entire section is 6153 words.)
SOURCE: “Ellen Gilchrist's Characters and the Southern Woman's Experience: Rhoda Manning's Double Bind and Anna Hand's Creativity,” in New Orleans' Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 7-9.
[Bolsterli is Professor of English and Director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She has written several books on the South. In the following essay, she discusses how Gilchrist presents the Southern woman's experience through her characters Rhoda Manning and Anna Hand.]
Since the experiences of any powerless class are considered less interesting than those of the powerful, one of the differences between the writing done by men and women has been the tendency for women to ignore the basic facts of their existence because it was not considered significant enough to read about. On the other hand, because of their superior status, men’s every thought, feeling or movement has been considered valid subject for literature, easy access for a writer to a vast area of material. However, the current phase of the women’s movement has brought a gradual realization that women are not powerless in their own sphere, that as Adrienne Rich’s line goes in “From an Old House in America,” “my power is brief and local, but I know my power”—and that the key to transcendence for a writer lies in validating that experience rather than in repudiating it....
(The entire section is 2553 words.)
SOURCE: “New People in the Old Museum of New Orleans: Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann,” in Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 195-210.
[In the following essay, Woodland discusses how the literary tradition of New Orleans is changed and how New Orleans' society is portrayed in the fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, Sheila Bosworth, and Nancy Lemann.]
Experiences, reminiscences, episodes, picked up as only women know how to pick them up from other women’s lives,—or other women’s destinies, as they prefer to call them,—and told as only women know how to relate them; … that is what interests the women who sit of summer nights on balconies. For in those long-moon countries life is open and accessible, and romances seem to be furnished real and gratis, in order to save, in a languor-breeding climate, the ennui of reading and writing books.
—Grace King, Balcony Stories
Although an established literary tradition associated with a particular place, region, or city can be of enormous value to a writer, offering inspiration and teaching by example, it can also become an obstacle to success and a threat to the writer’s creativity. The danger is especially severe when the materials...
(The entire section is 6556 words.)
SOURCE: “The Evolution of Caddy: An Intertextual Reading of The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Gilchrist's The Annunciation,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 40-51.
[In the following essay, Bauer asserts that the fate of Amanda McCamey in Gilchrist's The Annunciation exhibits a more optimistic view of the future of the Southerner than the fate of Caddy Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.]
Certain parallels between the works of Ellen Gilchrist and William Faulkner might suggest to the reader that the South has not changed very much during the last century, though writers apparently continue to see the need for change. A comparison of The Sound and the Fury with Gilchrist’s The Annunciation reveals that the South is still filled with individuals who have a false and often destructive sense of themselves. The bitter irony is that those who suffer the consequences are the victims of this hypocrisy rather than its supporters, and two such victims are Caddy Compson and Amanda McCamey, the central characters of these two novels. Both are strong women who choose to live according to their own value systems rather than their families’ hypocritical codes of honor and morality.
The love and courage of Faulkner’s Caddy are ultimately broken down by her family, leaving her with a destructive self image, which...
(The entire section is 5522 words.)
SOURCE: “Progress and Prescription: Ellen Gilchrist's Southern Belles,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 69-78.
[In the following essay, Larue traces the common features of Gilchrist's female protagonists and complains that they take no positive action to better their own lives.]
Kathryn Lee Seidel describes the southern belle in the American novel as young, unmarried, skilled in the equestrian arts and in music, and the daughter of a landed (therefore aristocratic) father. Exuberant, vain and naive, she feels she deserves a “gallant cavalier” (10). Certainly that characterization of the southern belle appears in varying disguises in the work of many southern writers from John Pendleton Kennedy and John William De Forest to Ellen Glasgow and Gail Godwin. These characters range in degree of self-awareness from total obliviousness in the holes of their own logic to states of epiphany. One of the most modern treatments of the southern woman is by Ellen Gilchrist, whose female protagonists remain faithful to this tradition and also almost exclusively to that end of the continuum that precludes much self-awareness.
Ellen Gilchrist portrays many of her protagonists at different stages of their lives, in tragicomedic situations, and in such a way that attests to Gilchrist’s near-perfect ear for diction and eye for detail. Her protagonists are capable of...
(The entire section is 4778 words.)
SOURCE: “Too Many Hands,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4761, July 1, 1994, p. 21.
[In the following review, Broughton complains about the pretentiousness of the main characters in Gilchrist's Starcarbon.]
There are forty-five names mapped on to the family tree that prefaces this novel: forty-five characters, from five generations of Hands and Mannings. Readers who have followed Ellen Gilchrist’s saga of the Deep South will have a head start on newcomers and will recognize Olivia de Havilland Hand as the half-Native American niece, rescued by her novelist aunt, Anna (of The Anna Papers and elsewhere), and restored, in I Cannot Get You Close Enough, to her birthright of wealth and privilege as the long-lost daughter of the feckless and tipsy heart-throb, Daniel Hand. Even those familiar with the intricacies of Hand genealogy, and with its generations of trusty family retainers, will still have to contend with Olivia’s equally fecund Cherokee kin. To stay within the compass of human memory, sagas traditionally involve plenty of smiting hip and thigh. This is what Gilchrist’s oeuvre badly needs: a bout of bloody feuding to dispose of excess personnel.
Starcarbon unapologetically rehearses Gilchrist’s pet theme: the family romance. Boy meets girl. Girl is in love with her emotionally unavailable father. Boy wins girl by being unlike Daddy—happy...
(The entire section is 724 words.)
SOURCE: “The Rough-Edged Romantic,” in Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1995, p. 6.
[In the following review, Glass discusses the world Gilchrist creates in her fiction and asserts that the character of Rhoda is the dominating force behind Gilchrist's collection The Age of Miracles.]
Most fiction writers create in each of the stories they tell an autonomous world, filled with characters and settings that exist nowhere else. The various worlds they make may be neighborly, like planets in a single solar system, but each is unique. Ellen Gilchrist, however, delights in re-exploring the same world again and again. In nearly a dozen novels and story collections, Gilchrist has embroidered and reembroidered the lives of characters like Miss Crystal and Mr. Manny, an incompatible yet devoted New Orleans society couple; Traceleen, Miss Crystal’s adoring, circumspect maid; the Mannings and the Whittingtons, bourgeois Southern families full of dreamy rebels and hard-nosed tycoons.
Such familiars populate The Age of Miracles, but it is the irrepressibly scandalous Rhoda Manning who dominates the book; 8 of the 16 stories are hers. Rhoda, whom we met as a child in Victory over Japan, who married and became a mother in Net of Jewels, is now a divorced femme fatale on the wrong side of 50, a modestly successful writer and a grandmother several times over. As always, her adventures...
(The entire section is 1260 words.)
SOURCE: “Dressed for Success in the South,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4829, p. 23.
[In the following review, Tandon argues that there are profound moments in Gilchrist's The Age of Miracles, but that it is not her best work.]
Ellen Gilchrist, as readers of her stories will have noticed, has a gift for moving meticulously around the textures and ramifications of an event; and while her novels are always entertaining, this is a gift which lends itself more naturally to the short story, a form where epiphany is distilled and compressed. The Age of Miracles is a welcome return to Gilchrist’s Southern landscapes and charmingly fallible characters.
Fables depend on a sense of ritual and expectation, and although only “Madison at 69th” openly calls itself “A Fable”, Gilchrist’s talent for noticing the shapes of habit in everyday life runs deep. In “Statue of Aphrodite”, the disappointment of Rhoda Manning, the author’s recurring heroine, is articulated through her clothes. She sets off to meet an unknown admirer with “a sophisticated black three-piece evening suite … and an even more sophisticated beige Donna Karan to wear on the plane”, and a bathetic weight sounds in the description of the Laura Ashley dress he sends her:
Its full skirt covered up the only thin part of my body. Its coy little neckline made...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
SOURCE: “Ellen Gilchrist's Rhoda: Managing the Fiction,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 87-96.
[In the following essay, Johnson studies Gilchrist's character Rhoda and her desire to seek acceptance from society while at the same time attempting to free herself from its constraints.]
Ellen Gilchrist has said that in writing she has “finally found a socially desirable use for the fact that I talk too much” (Lyons 83). This statement is not only revealing of Gilchrist but also of her white female characters, who want to establish their independence from the social norm while also being accepted within that same society. The image for such characters to maintain is that of “the belle … a beautiful, intelligent, yet modest woman with impeccable morality” (Seidel 13). One of these, Rhoda Manning, the central character in both Gilchrist’s novel Net of Jewels and many of her short stories, likes to see herself in the role of rebel, an independent girl/woman who does what she wants to do, yet she never seems to be able to break the strong ties of family and society which bind her to the past.1 Although she says in Net of Jewels that “I wouldn’t be caught dead being a southern belle” (250), Rhoda is most certainly under the influence of this ideal. Her confusion over her own identity is evident when she tries to separate herself from the...
(The entire section is 7041 words.)
SOURCE: “The Patterns People Make,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4937, November 14, 1997, p. 24.
[In the following review, Emck lauds Gilchrist's novel Nora Jane and Company as “a sweet and enlightened novel in celebration of improbable love.”]
Ellen Gilchrist has written a sweet and enlightened novel in celebration of improbable love. Nora Jane and Company traces the randomness of human destiny in a story composed of brightly signposted coincidences, peppered with reflections on DNA and the vastness of the cosmos. “Nineteen ninety-five and we are still in orbit. Keep your fingers crossed”, says the prologue.
But this is a novel that is as interested in patterns as in randomness. Its most delightful characters are four girls between the ages of seven and eleven. Two are twins, born to the same mother but from the sperm of different fathers. Two are adopted girls from different families who act like twins. The improbable girl-pairs finally hook up, because their “mothers” are cousins. There is an inevitability about it all. We have a sense that what is most unlikely is most predestined. For a start, these characters, like other folk from Gilchrist’s books, are destined to have their lives carry on in further novels. The author plots multiple destinies with a deft mix of long-term vision and lightness of touch. And she is not averse to dropping hints...
(The entire section is 699 words.)
SOURCE: “Taking Wing,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 8, 1998, p. 10.
[In the following review, Rubin asserts that Gilchrist's fiction has been somewhat inconsistent, but that her short stories seem to be stronger, including those in her collection Flights of Angels.]
Novelist, poet and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist made an impressive literary debut in 1981 with her book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Her 1984 collection, Victory over Japan, won that year’s National Book Award for fiction. Since then, more than a dozen books—story collections, novels, autobiographical nonfiction—have appeared: a mixed bag, in which can be found much that is poignant, funny, charming, wry, moving, even wise, but also much that is coy, preachy, self-satisfied, well-nigh insufferable.
By and large, it seems fair to say that Gilchrist’s short fiction has been stronger than her novels. And, indeed, her new collection, Flights of Angels, contains many stories that well display her talents. Most of these 18 stories are set in the author’s native South: Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina or the little town of Fayetteville, Ark., although one takes place in Los Angeles.
Some stories are linked by a common narrator. In “Miss Crystal Confronts the Past” and “A Sordid Tale, or, Traceleen Continues Talking,” our...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
SOURCE: “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” in her The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 1-22.
[In the following essay, Bauer analyzes the development of Gilchrist's story cycle and her relationship to the short-story tradition.]
No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately. And I must also consider her—this unknown woman [writer]—as the descendant of all those other women whose circumstances I have been glancing at and see what she inherits of their characteristics and restrictions.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
I first encountered the fiction of Ellen Gilchrist by way of a short story entitled “Revenge,” in her collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, about a little girl who successfully pole-vaults, despite her brother’s insistence that such is not an activity for girls. After reading the story’s last line, “Sometimes I think...
(The entire section is 9442 words.)
SOURCE: “Gilchrist's Composite Personality and Story Cycle: Transforming Ernest Hemingway,” in her The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, University Press of Florida, 1999, pp. 23-56.
[In the following essay, Bauer analyzes Hemingway's influence on Gilchrist's work, especially her story cycle and her use of a composite personality.]
Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.
Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”
It was Ernest Hemingway’s new book, and it had come from the book club the day she left North Carolina. She had been waiting for it to come for weeks. Now she opened it to the first page, holding it up to her nose and giving it a smell … “This is going to be a good one. I can tell.”
Ellen Gilchrist, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams
In Gilchrist’s “1957, a Romance,” as Rhoda Manning begins to read Across the River and into the Trees, she tells her father that Ernest Hemingway is her “favorite writer” (In the Land of Dreamy Dreams 85; hereafter cited as LDD). In light of this detail about Gilchrist’s admittedly most...
(The entire section is 15115 words.)
Bain, Robert. “Ellen Gilchrist.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, pp. 169–84. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Presents a brief overview of Gilchrist's life and career, and traces both her major themes and critical response to her work.
Jenkins, Victoria. “Charmed Loves.” Chicago Tribune Books (22 May 1994): 5.
In this review, Jenkins discusses the techniques Gilchrist employed in Starcarbon.
MacDonald, D. R. “More Dreamy Dreams.” Washington Post Book World 25, No. 36 (3 September 1995): 6.
MacDonald asserts that Gilchrist's The Age of Miracles would be better with fewer stories highlighting Rhoda, who can be too much to take at times.
McDonnell, Jane Taylor. “Controlling the Past and the Future: Two-Headed Anna in Ellen Gilchrist's The Anna Papers.” In The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 187–93. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.
McDonnell analyzes the role Anna Hand plays between her family's past and future in Gilchrist's The Anna Papers.
Additional coverage of Gilchrist's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary...
(The entire section is 222 words.)