Among the writers who have given new perspectives to southern life and character in fiction, Elizabeth Madox Roberts is notable for her sympathetic portrayal of humanity and the poetic qualities of her style. To the folk materials of her region she added the techniques of the modern novel of sensibility. As a result the final effect of her writing is quite different from anything found in the older local colorists whose stories demonstrate an art based on pictures of the quaint and strange enclosing sentimental or melodramatic plots. Local in her choice of setting but never provincial in outlook, she transformed her Kentucky background into a landscape of the imagination and the spirit, filling it with living figures realistically and regionally true to its manners and its climate but recognizable as part of the greater human world as well.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts was born in Perryville, October 30, 1881, in the Pigeon River country that her family had settled generations before. Among her earliest recollections were a grandmother’s stories of ancestors who came over Boone’s Trace in the 1770’s; thus the history of Kentucky became for her a personal account of family tradition. Ill during much of her early life, she lived for several years in the Colorado Rockies after her graduation from high school. In the Great Steep’s Garden, an uneven but promising first book of poems, appeared in 1915. Two years later she entered the University of Chicago, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1921; she later received a doctorate in English from the school. During her undergraduate days she was a member of a literary group that included Glenway Wescott and Yvor Winters, and she wrote poetry and prose, winning the McLaughlin Prize for essay writing and the Fisk Prize for a group of poems that, expanded, became Under the Tree, published in 1922.
Roberts came to the writing of fiction after several false starts during the years of her literary apprenticeship in New York. One novel had been started but abandoned in despair and another was left unfinished when she began The Time of Man, which brought her critical recognition and fame in 1926. Working on her second novel during a stay in California, she wrote day after day in her Santa Monica apartment, watched from her windows the rolling surf of the Pacific, and grew eager to return to Kentucky. Perhaps that is why the limits of the state expand to become a satirical symbol of American...
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