Josephine Ayres Haxton Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ellen Douglas is one of the most important Southern novelists of the post-World War II era. Although she graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1942, her writing career did not begin until two decades later. In the years following the publication of her first novel, A Family’s Affairs, she produced a number of highly acclaimed novels and one collection of short fiction. Born Josephine Ayres in Natchez, Mississippi, she spent her childhood in Arkansas and Louisiana, visiting her parents’ families in Natchez during summer vacations. For many years she resided in Greenville, Mississippi, and her work reflects her residence in the literary center of the Mississippi Delta.{$S[A]Haxton, Josephine Ayres;Douglas, Ellen}

Douglas was always interested in writing, but she postponed pursuing a career until her three sons were old enough to be enrolled in school. After that she began to work on the short stories that eventually became parts of her first novel. Douglas has said that she wrote one of these pieces because of a bet. Whatever the origin, the pieces, including at least one written before her marriage to Kenneth Haxton in 1945, became a strong work of fiction that won a Houghton Mifflin-Esquire Fellowship Award and the praise of The New York Times critic Orville Prescott, who called it one of the five best novels of 1962. Succeeding works likewise earned high praise from reviewers and critics, and her third novel, Apostles of Light, was nominated for a National Book Award. In addition, Douglas has been the recipient of various fellowships, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her success as a writer led to a part-time career as a teacher of creative writing at both Northeast Louisiana University and the University of Mississippi.

The titles of Douglas’s first two works of fiction provide a good indication of her subject matter and themes. A Family’s Affairs deals with the life and death of the matriarch of a Mississippi family. In addition to providing details about several generations of the Anderson family and their interactions with one another, the novel tells much about life in the small town of Homochitto,...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Josephine Ayres was born in Natchez, Mississippi, on July 12, 1921. She attended school in Hope, Arkansas, and Alexandria, Louisiana, but spent summers with her many relatives in Natchez. After a year at Randolph Macon Women’s College, she transferred to the University of Mississippi, receiving her B.A. in 1942. In 1945, she married Kenneth Haxton and went to live in his hometown, Greenville, Mississippi. They had three children, Richard, Ayres, and Brooks. After their divorce in 1983, Josephine moved to Jackson, Mississippi.

Although she has always worked on her writing, Josephine Ayres Haxton did not decide on a literary career until she was thirty-four, and it was several years after that before her fiction appeared in print. Her first efforts were short stories, like “On the Lake,” which The New Yorker published in 1961; later she transformed several of her stories into a novel, A Family’s Affairs (1962). Because some of her characters were modeled on family members, she chose to use the pseudonym Ellen Douglas.

During the next three and a half decades, Douglas produced a book approximately every five years, lectured frequently, and taught at Northeast Louisiana University, Hollins College, the University of Mississippi, the University of Virginia, and Millsaps College. In her seventies she gave up teaching, although she continued to write, publishing a second collection of short fiction in 1998.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ellen Douglas was born Josephine Ayres in Natchez, Mississippi, on July 12, 1921, the second child of Laura Davis and Richardson Ayres. Because her father was a civil engineer, the family moved much, living in both Arkansas and Louisiana. Douglas’s mother, not a writer herself, nevertheless inspired in her children a love of books. Douglas’s paternal grandmother wrote children’s books and also—along with the stories, conversations, and unusual behavior of her extended family—contributed to Douglas’s love of words. Douglas’s family has deep roots in the state’s history.

From 1938 to 1939, Douglas attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, but she finished her degree in 1942 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She married Kenneth Haxton, a composer, on January 12, 1945, and they soon settled in Greenville, Mississippi, in the region known as the Mississippi Delta. Greenville is a place rich in history and culture. The couple had three sons, Richard, Ayres, and Brooks, before they were divorced in 1980.

Douglas became friends with historian and writer Shelby Foote, writer Walker Percy, and Hodding Carter III, the newspaper editor renowned for his liberal voice during the civil rights struggles in Mississippi. In such an environment, Douglas began to write seriously, though she had written stories beginning in sixth grade.

The birth of A Family’s Affairs was a bet she made with her husband and another friend about who could finish a novel in the least amount of time. When Houghton Mifflin wanted to publish it, she was reluctant because of the potential effect of its autobiographical content on her family. With the permission of her two aunts, she published the novel, using the pseudonym Ellen Douglas. A Family’s Affairs met with much critical praise and was reissued by Louisiana State University in 1990 as part of its Voices of the South series.

Beginning in 1976, Douglas taught creative writing at Northeastern State University of Louisiana (now Louisiana State University, Monroe), and she served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi (1979-1983) and visiting professor at the University of Virginia (1984). She was named Welty Professor of Southern Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1988.