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.