Vein of Iron was written when Ellen Glasgow was in her early sixties. She was plagued by deafness and lifelong frailties, and despite many friends, she remained unmarried, introspective, and alone. Over forty years of writing, she had produced twenty novels touching upon an immense range of Virginia’s and the New South’s characters, behavior, and culture. In this, her nineteenth novel, which she considered one of her best, she shifted away from the ironic comedies of manners that had gained her popularity and the highest critical praise to address more solemn themes.
In Vein of Iron, Glasgow juxtaposes the mores and values of one Ironside family with what she perceived as the inchoate, distasteful, and confused mores and values of Queensborough—of urbanized America amid the materialism of the 1920’s and its failures of the early 1930’s. The Fincastles and the rest of Ironside’s inhabitants reflected what remained of rural Virginia’s pioneer character and conventions, particularly the puritanism of its heavily Scots-Irish Presbyterian population who lived in the mountains framing the Shenandoah Valley. Having focused many of her novels on the outworn elements of Southern culture, she sought in Vein of Iron to concentrate on the culture’s durable aspects. She did so in the context of the Great Depression, which profoundly challenged the nation’s faith in business, prosperity, and progress.
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