Ellen Glasgow Glasgow, Ellen - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Shadowy Third and Other Stories 1923

The Collected Stories 1963

Other Major Works

The Descendant (novel) 1897

Phases of an Inferior Planet (novel) 1898

The Voice of the People (novel) 1900

The Battle-Ground (novel) 1902

The Freeman and Other Poems (poetry) 1902

The Deliverance (novel) 1904

The Wheel of Life (novel) 1906

The Ancient Law (novel) 1908

The Romance of a Plain Man (novel) 1909

The Miller of Old Church (novel) 1911

Virginia (novel) 1913

Life and Gabriella (novel) 1916

The Builders (novel) 1919

One Man in His Time (novel) 1922

Barren Ground (novel) 1925

The Romantic Comedians (novel) 1926

They Stooped to Folly (novel) 1929

The Sheltered Life (novel) 1932

Vein of Iron (novel) 1935

In This Our Life (novel) 1941

A Certain Measure (essays) 1943

The Woman Within (autobiography) 1954

Letters of Ellen Glasgow (letters) 1958

Beyond Defeat (novel) 1966

The New York Times Book Review (review date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Shadowy Third, in The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1923, p. 16.

[In the following early review of The Shadowy Third, the critic finds Glasgow's ghost stories uncommonly believable because of their blend of naturalism and supernaturalism.]

In these days when perturbed spirits refuse to rest, when they obey that impulse to self-expression even to the point of saying it with flowers, it is pleasant to come upon such well-behaved and considerate spooks as those who people the principal stories of Ellen Glasgow's The Shadowy Third. But be it understood that Miss Glasgow refrains from adventuring deliberately...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Joseph Collins (review date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gentleman, the Ladies!" in The New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1923, p. 23.

[In the following excerpt from a review of the works of four women writers, Collins praises The Shadowy Third, comparing Glasgow's style and technique to that of Guy de Maupassant.]

[Ellen Glasgow] has told the truth about life as she has observed it and . . . she has done it in pure, chaste, limpid, grammatical English cast in form that constitutes art. She has made herself master of a style that has no superior and few peers among the fiction writers of the day in this country. This distinction of style has been characteristic of all her work since The...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Louise Collier Willcox (review date 1924)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ghosts and Others," in The Bookman, Vol. 58, No. 5, January, 1924, pp. 573-74.

[In this excerpt from a review of four collections of stories about ghosts and the occult, Willcox admires Glasgow's ability to convey convincingly "place and speech " in her writing.]

Miss Glasgow has four forthright ghost stories and three psychological tales. Her writing retains its customary distinction and freedom from all affectation and use of clichés; such English is a refreshment to mind and spirit, coming as it does from the fine tradition of Addison and Matthew Arnold, unvulgarized by current slang, unvilified by current bad grammar. An environment of long established...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Frederick P. W. McDowell (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fiction of the War Years and After," in Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction, University of Wisconsin Press, 1960, pp. 127-45.

[In this excerpt from the first book-length study of Glasgow's oeuvre, McDowell dismisses all but two of her short stories as insignificant.]

Miss Glasgow seems to have needed the leisured form of the novel to develop her characters and situations, so that, as a short story writer, she is not particularly adept.12 With two exceptions her stories, collected in The Shadowy Third and Other Stories (1923), are negligible because in this form she turned primarily to an investigation of the supernatural, an...

(The entire section is 880 words.)

Richard K. Meeker (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow, edited by Richard K. Meeker, Louisiana State University Press, 1963, pp. 3-23.

[In the following essay, which is the earliest substantial consideration of Glasgow's short fiction, Meeker argues that the stories mark an important transition in Glasgow's development as a writer.]

On November 22, 1897, after publishing her first novel, The Descendant, Ellen Glasgow wrote to Walter Hines Page, then an editor on the Atlantic Monthly, "As regards my work I shall follow your advice in full. I shall write no more short stories and I shall not divide my power or risk my future reputation. I will...

(The entire section is 9462 words.)

Julius Rowan Raper (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Words for Invisible Things: The Short Stories (1916-1924)," in From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945, Louisiana State University Press, 1980, pp. 53-78.

[In the first sustained piece of criticism on Glasgow's short stories since Richard K. Meeker's 1963 essay, Raper argues that Glasgow's stories were written during a time of aesthetic and emotional crisis and reflect her search for a new language to express the workings of the deepest reaches of human consciousness.]

The short stories of Ellen Glasgow have attracted little critical attention, aside from the introduction Richard K. Meeker wrote for The Collected Stories of...

(The entire section is 9144 words.)

Marcelle Thiébaux (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poems and Short Stories," in Ellen Glasgow, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1982, pp. 175-88.

[In the following excerpt, Thiébaux considers the chief interest in Glasgow's stories to be their treatment of themes developed more fully in her novels.]

Early in Glasgow's career, her editor, Walter Hines Page, urged her to put her best efforts in her novels, and for the most part she followed his advice:

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. For which determination you are in part responsible.2


(The entire section is 3515 words.)

Linda W. Wagner (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Years of the Locust," in Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention, University of Texas Press, 1982, pp. 50-70.

[In the following excerpt, Wagner maintains that Glasgow's short stories emphasize characterization—particularly strong women charactersrather than plot development and experiment with ideas subsequently integrated in her novels.]

For all Glasgow's earlier reticence about focusing on women protagonists, she draws a variety of effective female characters in her stories. As Richard K. Meeker points out in his introduction to the collected stories, many of these women prefigure characters from the later novels.25 Perhaps more...

(The entire section is 1569 words.)

Lynette Carpenter (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Daring Gift in Ellen Glasgow's 'Dare's Gift'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 95-102.

[In the following analysis of "Dare's Gift, " Carpenter sees the story as not merely a tale of the supernatural but as an exploration of one woman 's struggle to express her independence and individuality.]

In addition to her novels, Ellen Glasgow wrote short fiction, including several tales of the supernatural which appear in The Shadowy Third and Other Stories. These stories have won little critical scrutiny and less praise; their dismissal by many Glasgow critics suggests consensus with Frederick P. W. McDowell's argument...

(The entire section is 3190 words.)

Lynette Carpenter (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Visions of Female Community in Ellen Glasgow's Ghost Stones," in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Wendy Kolmar and Lynette Carpenter, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 117-41.

[In the following excerpt, Carpenter argues that Glasgow's ghost stories, which are particularly critical of men and sympathetic toward women, showcase her feminist concerns.]

In 1916, with her father and closest sister recently dead, Ellen Glasgow returned to the family home in Richmond, Virginia, and entered into one of the most difficult periods of her life. She felt keenly the loss of her family, and the war...

(The entire section is 6622 words.)

Catherine Rainwater (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ellen Glasgow's Outline of History in The Shadowy Third and Other Stories," in The Critical Response to H. G. Wells, edited by William J. Scheick, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 125-38.

[In the following essay, Rainwater asserts that Glasgow's Gothic stories were influenced by the works of H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe.]

In several letters in her autobiography, The Woman Within (1954), Ellen Glasgow mentions reading the works of Poe and Wells.1 In contemplating these two authors' works, she joined what has now become a wide network of writers whose art bears complex intertextual connections centering around a mutual literary debt to Poe...

(The entire section is 7234 words.)

Edgar MacDonald (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Jordan's End to Frenchman's Bend: Ellen Glasgow's Short Stories," in Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture. Special Issue: Ellen Glasgow, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 319-32.

[In the following essay, MacDonald suggests that Glasgow's uneasy friendship with her one-time fiancé Henry Anderson unconsciously informs the themes of many of her short stories.]

1 One of the best things to happen to Ellen Glasgow was Henry Anderson. In her earlier fiction she had juxtaposed the virile self-made man and the effete aristocrat, her heroines usually giving their hearts to the former but marrying the latter. Now here under her minute...

(The entire section is 6000 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


MacDonald, Edgar and Inge, and Tonette Bond. Ellen Glasgow: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986, 269 p.

Bibliography of writings by and about Glasgow from 1897-1981.


Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972, 322 p.

Comprehensive biography.


Auchincloss, Louis. Ellen Glasgow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964, 48 p.


(The entire section is 343 words.)