Ellen Glasgow has been largely overlooked by students of American literature. Her output was prodigious, and her penetrating analysis of the social history of Virginia from 1850 to 1930, her insight into the position of women, and her brilliant use of ironic characterization are qualities that set her apart from the mass of popular novelists of the first third of the twentieth century and necessitate a reevaluation of her work.
It was Glasgow’s colleague James Branch Cabell who first called her a social historian; reviewing her novel Barren Ground (1925), he said that her books, taken collectively, are a “portrayal of all social and economic Virginia since the War Between the States.” Other critics and Glasgow herself accepted the label, but despite its accuracy, the phrase “social historian” is too narrow to describe the wide range of Glasgow’s talents. Her work has also suffered from commentary by antagonistic male critics. Never one to accept a “woman’s role,” Glasgow often attacked those whose writing or person she did not admire. This penchant, as well as her creation of less-than-admirable male characters, has led to some highly questionable commentary about both her life and her work.
Properly, Glasgow should be seen as an early writer in the literary movement known as the Southern Renaissance. In 1931, she helped to organize a conference of southern writers at the University of Virginia that was attended by William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and Allen Tate, among others. She was always interested in her native Virginia and wrote perceptively about the South’s various epochs and social classes. If her view is often an ironic one, it nevertheless helps the reader to see the love-hate relationship that she had with the South. She judges, but with a sympathetic voice.
The Romantic Comedians was published soon after the more famous Barren Ground and is, like Glasgow’s succeeding work They Stooped to Folly (1929), a novel of manners. Like all such works, The Romantic Comedians depends for much of its impact on tone and point of view, for neither its plot nor its characters are unique. The novel relies on the reader’s knowledge of similar situations and characters in making its ironic commentary. From the outset, the narrator directs the reader’s attitudes. Character names satirically reveal inner traits: Bland Honeywell, Upchurch, Bredalbane, Lightfoot. Judge Honeywell is seen as a slightly ridiculous figure, interested in the outward demonstration of his...
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