Ellen Glasgow 1874-1945
(Full name Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow) American novelist, shory story writer, essayist, and autobiographer.
Considered one of America's leading regional writers, Glasgow was a realist who also employed satire and irony in her depictions of southern society during the period of economic and social transformation after the Civil War. Rebelling against the romanticized portraits of the Old South prevalent in the writings of many of her contemporaries, Glasgow portrayed both realistically and critically what she saw as a decaying civilization clinging to outmoded manners, opinions, and methods in the face of rapid industrialization and a rising middle-class. The place of women in such an environment is a central concern in her fiction, and her short stories in particular explore the difficult relationships between men and women that result from their different sensibilities, social attitudes, and mores. Glasgow's renown is primarily as a novelist, but her twelve short stories also reveal her acuity as an observer of manners who masterfully represents the complexities of the human struggle through her female characters.
Born into a well-established family in Richmond, Virginia, Glasgow was predominantly self-educated, in part because her health was too delicate for her to attend school regularly. She read widely in the classics from her father's extensive library and was guided in her reading in philosophy and science by her brother-in-law. She began writing with little encouragement, as it was considered inappropriate for young Southern women to have literary ambitions; at age eighteen she secretly wrote and destroyed her first book, and she published her first novel, The Descendant (1897), anonymously. After the death of her mother in 1893, Glasgow suffered severe depression as well as partial loss of her hearing, conditions she struggled with the rest of her life. Except for a few years in New York—from 1911 to 1916—and frequent but brief travels, during which she made the acquaintance of other prominent writers, Glasgow lived in the family home in Richmond. She was engaged briefly during her forties to a Southern lawyer, Henry Anderson, whose influence on Glasgow's fiction has been noted by critics. Although the two never married, their friendship lasted until Glasgow's death. Glasgow's autobiography suggests that she faced many of the same dilemmas as those of her fictional female characters: whether or not to marry, whether or not to abandon a career for marriage, whether or not to maintain independence. Glasgow was dealing realistically with these and other "feminist" issues long before women's rights became a subject of national discussion.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Glasgow's first published work was a short story written when she was twenty-two years old, "A Woman of Tomorrow." The theme of a woman's conflict between marriage and a career was to figure prominently in all her fiction. Two other short stories appeared early in her career, but in 1897, after the publication of The Descendant and on the advice of her editor, Glasgow halted her work in the short story genre, avowing, "I shall write no more short stories and I shall not divide my power or risk my future reputation. I will become a great novelist or none at all." She did not entirely keep her promise, but she did thereafter concentrate on writing novels. Glasgow published thirteen novels between 1898 and 1922, many of them popular; but only one, the historical work Virginia (1913), received serious critical attention. The only collection of short fiction published during her lifetime, The Shadowy Third and Other Stories (1923) was a compilation of seven pieces written mostly between 1916 and 1923. The tales emphasize the supernatural, and in them Glasgow often satirizes men, whom she characterizes as insensitive, insipid, or treacherous, in contrast to her sensitive and independent female characters. Many of the themes addressed and techniques explored in her short fiction were developed most fully in the critically acclaimed novels written during her "high period," the best of which are considered Barren Ground (1925), about the emotional and economic survival strategies of a young woman working a depleted farm; The Sheltered Life (1932), an exposition of the evasive idealism of the agrarian South; and Vein of Iron (1935), which is often cited as one of the best fictional treatments of life during the Depression. The experiments she undertook in the short stories, including exploring the psychological depths of her characters and presenting strong women protagonists, were polished in the subtle portrayals of women in the later novels.
Glasgow enjoyed a popular following throughout her thirty-year writing career, but never found the serious critical consideration she sought. Five of her twenty novels were bestsellers, and in 1942, essentially in recognition of her considerable literary output, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel In This Our Life (1941). Although her short stories were almost always favorably received during her lifetime, for many decades after her death even her most sympathetic critics considered them mediocre and unworthy of attention. The first essay to offer an in-depth analysis of her work in this genre was Richard K. Meeker's introduction to The Collected Stories (1963). No sustained criticism of the stories appeared again until Julius Rowan Raper's discussion in The Sunken Garden in 1980. Since then, appreciation of Glasgow's facility as a writer of short fiction has grown, and, even while she is still considered foremost as a novelist, her stories have been praised for their psychological insight, early feminist sensibility, and bold experimentation as they grapple with themes and ideas that subsequently appear in her novels.