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.