Ellen Glasgow

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Ellen Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia, on April 22, 1873, to Anne Jane Glasgow and Francis Thomas Glasgow, manager of Tredegar Iron Works. Ellen was the eighth of ten children. During her childhood, she was particularly sensitive to the nervousness and depression from which her gentle, aristocratic mother suffered, undoubtedly the result of Anne Glasgow’s almost incessant childbearing. This experience was to motivate Ellen’s later work for women’s rights and was clearly reflected in her fiction.

Ironically, in temperament, Glasgow was more like her father than her mother. Even though she rejected her Calvinistic faith, she retained a strong ethical sense, which is evident throughout her works. Furthermore, her own fierce independence of thought and rebelliousness of spirit were the very qualities which had motivated her Presbyterian ancestors in their defiance of monarchs.

In lieu of formal instruction, Glasgow was educated by relatives and, perhaps even more important, was allowed to choose books at will from her father’s extensive library. When she was still a child, she began to write. Although later she accused her family of lacking sympathy for her ambitions, Glasgow was probably exaggerating their unkindness. Always delicate, always aware of her mother’s unhappiness, Glasgow seemed destined to develop a sense of alienation. Even while she was flirting and dancing at the innumerable balls to which a young lady of a good Richmond family would be invited, she was becoming more and more convinced that her real interests were creative and intellectual.

Guided by George Walter McCormack, the husband of her sister Cary Glasgow McCormack, Ellen read the works of philosophers, economists, playwrights, and novelists. She also continued to write. When she was eighteen, she took a novel that she had written to a New York agent, but when he made advances to her, she was so angry that she destroyed the manuscript. When Glasgow was twenty, she was so shattered by her mother’s sudden death from typhoid fever that she destroyed the manuscript of another novel. Fortunately, after two years had passed, she reconsidered and reconstructed the work. This novel, her first full-length work to be published, The Descendant, appeared anonymously in 1897.

With its illegitimate, politically radical hero and its independent, art-student heroine, both southerners in New York, The Descendant was a marked departure from the sentimental, nostalgic novels which had come to be expected from southern writers. The book was well received and sold well. It was followed in 1898 by Phases of an Inferior Planet, which took another young southern woman, in this case a singer, to New York and explored her doomed relationship with another intelligent, alienated hero. Partly because of inherent flaws, partly because of her publisher’s failure to advertise it, Phases of an Inferior Planet was unsuccessful.

For the setting of her third book, Glasgow wisely turned back to her native Virginia. The Voice of the People (1900) is significant because it is the first of a series of novels that analyze Virginia society rather than simply voicing Glasgow’s anger with the social and religious expectations which threatened her freedom. In later works, Glasgow viewed her society from various angles. In The Battle-Ground (1902), she turned back to the Civil War period for her story, and in The Deliverance (1904), she wrote about the Reconstruction era. In neither book was there any regret for the loss of what she saw as a social structure based on repression and one that had condemned its women to frustration and despair.

Despite problems with her hearing, which were to culminate in total deafness by the time she was forty, Glasgow later...

(This entire section contains 1084 words.)

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called the period between 1899 and 1905 the happiest of her life. Her works were best sellers, as well as critical successes. She was being compared with such literary giants as American writers Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser. Furthermore, she was involved in the great love affair of her life. Although her lover was married, Glasgow and he met for romantic intervals, such as the summertime rendezvous in the Swiss Alps which she described so rhapsodically in her autobiography.

When the relationship ended in 1905, she was shattered. The books that followed, The Wheel of Life (1906), The Ancient Law (1908), and The Romance of a Plain Man (1909), lack the energy of Glasgow’s later works. Her three-year engagement to the Episcopal minister Frank Ilsley Paradise, which was broken in 1909, did not assuage her grief over the loss of her illicit lover.

There were other losses for Glasgow during this period. In 1909, her brother Frank committed suicide. Within a year, her beloved sister Cary developed cancer; her death was slow and agonizing. After Cary died, Glasgow fled from Richmond to New York, where she lived for five years. The novels published during that period, The Miller of Old Church (1911) and Virginia (1913), indicate that she had regained her former creative energy.

After her father’s death in 1916, Glasgow moved back to the family home in Richmond, where she spent the rest of her life. On the surface, her situation seemed ideal. With the money she had inherited, she could live well and travel whenever she liked; she was not dependent on the success of her literary works. She was entrenched in Richmond society, and, perhaps more important to her, she had made numerous friends in the literary world.

In 1918, however, Glasgow attempted to commit suicide. She was evidently distraught by the involvement of her fiancé, the prominent Richmond lawyer Henry Watkins Anderson, with Queen Marie of Romania. This episode, along with Glasgow’s general depression about World War I and its aftermath, resulted in a period of unimpressive literary output.

With Barren Ground (1925), it was evident that Glasgow had recovered. During the decade that followed, most of her best novels were published: The Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped to Folly (1929), The Sheltered Life (1932), and Vein of Iron (1935). During this period, she won many honors. Perhaps her most significant achievement, other than her novels, was her leadership in the first Southern Writers Conference, held in 1931 at the University of Virginia, over which she presided.

At the end of the decade, Glasgow’s health declined, and once again her works reflected the diminution of creative energy. Even though it won a Pulitzer Prize, In This Our Life (1941) is less impressive than Glasgow’s earlier works. On November 21, 1945, Glasgow died. She left in manuscript an autobiography, later published as The Woman Within (1954), which, though it appears to have many factual errors, provides important insights into the psychological makeup of an important southern realist.

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