Gilchrist, Ellen 1935–
Gilchrist, Ellen 1935–
(Ellen Louise Gilchrist)
PERSONAL: Born February 20, 1935, in Vicksburg, MS; daughter of William Garth (an engineer) and Aurora (Alford) Gilchrist; children: Marshall Peteet Walker, Jr., Garth Gilchrist Walker, Pierre Gautier Walker. Education: Millsaps College, B.A., 1967; University of Arkansas, postgraduate study, 1976. Hobbies and other interests: Love affairs (mine or anyone else's), all sports, children, inventions, music, rivers, forts and tents, trees.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—Fayetteville, AR. Agent—c/o Warner Books, Author Mail, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Author and journalist. Vieux Carre Courier, contributing editor, 1976–79. National Public Radio, Washington, DC, commentator on Morning Edition (news program), 1984–85.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Poetry award, Mississippi Arts Festival, 1968; poetry award, University of Arkansas, 1976; craft in poetry award, New York Quarterly, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts grant in fiction, 1979; Pushcart Prizes, Pushcart Press, 1979–80, for the story "Rich," and 1983, for the story "Summer, An Elegy"; fiction award, Prairie Schooner, 1981; Louisiana Library Association Honor book, 1981, for In the Land of Dreamy Dreams; fiction awards, Mississippi Academy of Arts and Science, 1982 and 1985; Saxifrage Award, 1983; National Book Award for fiction, Association of American Publishers, 1984, for Victory over Japan; J. William Fulbright Award for literature, University of Arkansas, 1985; literature award, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, 1985, 1990, 1991; national script-writing award, National Educational Television Network, for the play A Season of Dreams; D. Litt., Mill-saps College, 1987; L.H.D., University of Southern Illinois, 1991; O. Henry Short Story Award, 1995.
In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1981.
Victory over Japan: A Book of Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.
Drunk with Love, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1986.
Two Stories: "Some Blue Hills at Sundown" and "The Man Who Kicked Cancer's Ass," Albondocani Press, 1988.
Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle: A Book of Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
I Cannot Get You Close Enough, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
The Age of Miracles: Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Rhoda: A Life in Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
The Courts of Love: A Novella and Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.
Flights of Angels: Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1998.
The Cabal and Other Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
Collected Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy, and Other Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.
The Annunciation, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983.
The Anna Papers, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1988.
Net of Jewels, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
Starcarbon: A Meditation of Love, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior, University of Mississippi (University, MS), 1994.
Sarah Conley, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Land Surveyor's Daughter (poetry), Lost Roads (Fayetteville, AR), 1979.
Riding out the Tropical Depression (poetry), Faust, 1986.
Falling through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.
Also author of A Season of Dreams (play; based on short stories by Eudora Welty), produced by the Mississippi Educational Network. Work represented in anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart (Wainscott, NY), 1979–80, 1983. Contributor of poems, short stories, and articles to magazines and journals, including Atlantic Monthly, California Quarterly, Cincinnati Poetry Review, Cosmopolitan, Iowa Review, Ironwood, Kayak, Mademoiselle, New Laurel Review, New Orleans Review, New York Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Pontchartrain Review, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Living.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel; a play; a screenplay.
SIDELIGHTS: The author of poems, numerous short stories, and several novels, Ellen Gilchrist opens for her readers a side door through which to view the world of the gracious, upscale South. With prose steeped in the traditions of her native Mississippi, Gilchrist's fiction is unique: As Sabine Durrant commented in the London Times, Gilchrist's writing "swings between the familiar and the shocking, the everyday and the traumatic." Durrant continued, "She writes about ordinary happenings in out of the way places, of meetings between recognizable characters from her other fiction and strangers, above all of domestic routine disrupted by violence." Surprise endings are characteristic of her work. "It is disorienting stuff," noted Durrant, "but controlled always by Gilchrist's wry tone and gentle insight." A writer in Contemporary Novelists praised Gilchrist as "one of America's best contemporary fiction writers."
With the publication of her first short story collection in 1981, Gilchrist gained the attention of literary critics, publishers and, most importantly, the reading public. In its first few months in print, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams sold nearly ten thousand copies in the Southwest alone, a particularly impressive phenomenon, since the book was published by a small university press, unaccompanied by major promotional campaigns. The book's popular appeal continued to spread, generating reviews in major newspapers, until it reached the attention of a major publishing company, which offered Gilchrist a cash advance on both a novel and a second collection of short stories. In the meantime, the critical review of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams reflected that of the public. As Susan Wood remarked in a review for the Washington Post Book World, "Gilchrist may serve as prime evidence for the optimists among us who continue to believe that few truly gifted writers remain unknown forever. And Gilchrist is the real thing alright. In fact," added Wood, "it's difficult to review a first book as good as this without resorting to every known superlative cliché—there are, after all, just so many ways to say 'auspicious debut.'"
In the Land of Dreamy Dreams is a collection of fourteen short stories. Most are set in the city of New Orleans and many focus on the lives and concerns of young people. They are "traditional stories," according to Wood, "full of real people to whom things really happen—set, variously, over the last four decades among the rich of New Orleans, the surviving aristocracy of the Mississippi Delta, and Southerners transplanted … to southern Indiana." The main characters in the stories, many of them adolescents, exhibit flaws of character such as envy, lust, and avarice; however, Wood noted that more positive motivations lay underneath the surface: "It is more accurate to say that In the Land of Dreamy Dreams is about the stratagems, both admirable and not so, by which we survive our lives." Jim Crace, in a Times Literary Supplement review of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, indicated that Gilchrist's text "is obsessively signposted with street names and Louisiana landmarks … But In the Land of Dreamy Dreams cannot be dismissed as little more than an anecdotal street plan…. The self-conscious parading of exact Southern locations is a protective screen beyond which an entirely different territory is explored and mapped. Gilchrist's 'Land of Dreamy Dreams' is Adolescence."
The adolescent struggle to come to terms with the way one's dreams and aspirations are limited by reality figures largely in these fourteen stories. Gilchrist introduces her readers to a variety of charactefrs: an eight-year-old girl who delights in masquerading as an adult and commiserates with a newly widowed wartime bride; a girl who fantasizes about the disasters that could befall the brothers who have excluded her from their Olympic-training plans; a young woman who gains her father's help in obtaining an abortion; another girl who discovers the existence of her father's mistress; and an unruly teenager who disrupts the order of her adoptive father's world, challenges his self-esteem, and so aggravates him that he finally shoots her and then commits suicide. "Domestic life among the bored, purposeless, self-indulgent and self-absorbed rich" is the author's central focus, according to reviewer Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World. But domestic is not to be confused with tame. As Yardley observed, the "brutal realities that Gilchrist thrusts into these lives are chilling, and so too is the merciless candor with which she discloses the emptiness behind their glitter." And John Mellors similarly remarked in Listener: "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams has many shocks. The author writes in a low, matter-of-fact tone of voice and then changes key in her dramatic, often-bloody endings."
Gilchrist completed her second collection of short stories, Victory over Japan, three years later. Winner of the 1984 National Book Award for fiction, Victory over Japan was hailed by reviewers as a return to the genre, style, and several of the characters of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Beverly Lowry, reviewing Victory over Japan in the New York Times Book Review, commented: "Those who loved In the Land of Dreamy Dreams will not be disappointed. Many of the same characters reappear…. Often new characters show up with old names…. These crossovers are neither distracting nor accidental…. Ellen Gilchrist is only changing costumes, and she can 'do wonderful tricks with her voice.'" Drunk with Love, published in 1986, and Light Can be Both Wave and Particle, released three years later, expanded the author's exploration of her characters' many facets. While continuing to praise her voice, critics have found Gilchrist's later work to be of a more "uneven" quality than her early writing. Reviewing Light Can be Both Wave and Particle for the Chicago Tribune, Greg Johnson noted that Gilchrist "seems to get carried away with her breezy style and verbal facility. The stories read quickly and are often enjoyable, but they lack the thought and craft that make for memorable fiction." However, Roy Hoffman praised the book in the New York Times Book Review as full of "new energy" and noted of the title story that "it brings together lovers from different cultures more spiritedly than any past Gilchrist story."
The "voice" and characters that Gilchrist employs throughout her fiction are the hallmarks of her work. David Sexton remarked of her voice in a Times Literary Supplement review of Victory over Japan that it had its roots in the "talk of the Mississippi Delta," adding that "the drawly 'whyyyyy not' world of the modern South which she creates is a great pleasure to visit." Equally important in her prose are the characters who appear time and again throughout her writing. "Without much authorial manicuring or explanation, [Gilchrist] allows her characters to emerge whole, in full possession of their considerable stores of eccentricities and passion," commented reviewer Lowry. The central characters in her works are usually women; whether they are young, as in The Land of Dreamy Dreams, or more mature, they are usually spirited, spoiled, and fighting their way out of poverty or out of a bad relationship. "Ms. Gil-christ's women … are unconventional, nervy, outspoken," noted Hoffman. "As grown-ups they are passionate to the point of recklessness, romantic in the midst of despair. As youngsters they vex adults."
Eight of the sixteen short stories in The Age of Miracles, a collection published in 1995, feature Rhoda Manning, a familiar character who appeared as a child in Victory over Japan and as a wife and mother in Net of Jewels. In this collection Gilchrist portrays Rhoda as a divorced and matured writer in midlife, with her failed relationships and drinking problems behind her. Julia Glass observed in a Chicago Tribune review, "As always, [Rho-da's] adventures are brazen and self-indulgent, seedy yet oddly heroic." In one story, "A Statue of Aphrodite," Gilchrist describes a burgeoning romance between Rhoda and a wealthy doctor who attempts to per-suade Rhoda to accompany him to his daughter's wedding dressed in a prim Laura Ashley dress. Though noting that this collection is not Gilchrist's best, Bharat Tandon wrote in a Times Literary Supplement review, "there are in this new collection moments of more profound and graceful achievement than she has shown before." While critical of Rhoda's overbearing personae and tendency toward irrelevance, critics praised Gilchrist for several of the pieces that do not include that character. In "Madison at 69th, a Fable," Gilchrist describes how a woman's facelift is averted when her children kidnap her and talk her out of the procedure. Glass commented that the story is "a wholly original comedy that enfolds a dark tangle of fears and betrayed obligations," highlighted by the mother's wish to regain youth while her children revolt against novelty. Diane Cole concluded in the New York Times Book Review that "at her best [Gilchrist] blends a sense of poignancy with an often outrageously Gothic humor."
Both new and familiar characters appeared in the collection Flights of Angels, rated as "easily her best book in years" by a Publishers Weekly reviewer. While the weak-willed men, needy middle-aged women, and their various friends, servants, and relatives are all familiar types in Gilchrist's fiction, the power of her writing remains fresh. "Her dual senses of comedy and poignancy continue in close partnership, the typical laugh-and-cry reaction to a Gilchrist story is both anticipated and realized in every piece," stated Brad Hooper in a Booklist review. The Publishers Weekly writer found that the best of these stories "convey the old-fashioned idea that charity, compassion and good works can change the world. One reads this collection entertained [Gilchrist's] distinctive prose, beguiled by her vivid characters and buoyed by the insistent touches of humor and hope that she brings to her vision of chaotic lives."
In The Cabal and Other Stories, the title novella tells of a psychiatrist who goes mad and begins ranting publicly about his wealthy clients' innermost secrets. Subsequent stories go on to uncover more about the doctor's clientele and the details of their lives. The collection showcases Gilchrist's "fantastic imagination and skill in creating a short story that becomes a world in itself, full of irony and wisdom," according to Patricia Gulian in Library Journal. Jim Gladstone, reviewing The Cabal in the New York Times, commented that "Gilchrist's writing emanates love for the shaggy, uncontainable nature of life; she refuses to contain her characters in stories that offer any artificial sense of closure."
The author personally chose thirty-four of her favorite tales for inclusion in Collected Stories, described by Donna Seaman in Booklist as "a potent and pleasingly cohesive volume that showcases her deep sense of place and, the most salient feature of her work, her lusty, unpredictable, and unapologetic heroines." In Seaman's estimation, Gilchrist's "dulcet yet tensile voice has become an integral part of American literature."
In 1983, Gilchrist's first novel, The Annunciation, was published. It recounts the life of Amanda McCarney, from her childhood on a Mississippi Delta plantation where she falls in love with and, at the age of fourteen, has a child by her cousin Guy, to her marriage to a wealthy New Orleans man and a life of high society and heavy drinking. Eventually rejecting this lifestyle, Amanda returns to school, where she discovers a gift for languages that has lain dormant during the forty-some years of her life, and where she is offered the chance to translate the rediscovered poetry of an eighteenth-century Frenchwoman. She divorces her husband and moves to a university town in Arkansas to pursue her translating where, in addition to her work, Amanda finds love and friendship among a commune of hippie-type poets and philosophers in the Ozarks. The Annunciation received mixed reviews from critics. Yardley, critiquing the book in the Washington Post Book World, asserted that for most of its length "The Annunciation is a complex, interesting, occasionally startling novel; but as soon as Gilchrist moves Amanda away from the conflicts and discontents of New Orleans, the book falls to pieces." The critic noted that once Amanda moves to the Ozarks, The Annunciation "loses its toughness and irony. Amid the potters and the professors and the philosopher-poets of the Ozarks, Amanda McCarney turns into mush." However, Frances Taliaferro, reviewing The Annunciation in Harper's, deemed Gilchrist's novel "'women's fiction' par excellence," and described the book as "a cheerful hodgepodge of the social and psychological fashions of the past three decades." Taliaferro felt that "Amanda is in some ways a receptacle for current romantic clichés, but she is also a vivid character of dash and humor…. Even a skeptical reader pays her the compliment of wondering what she will do next in this surprisingly likable novel." Taliaferro concluded that, despite some tragedy, the "presiding spirit of this novel is self-realization, and Amanda [in the end] has at last made her way to autonomy."
Gilchrist has gone on to write several more books in the novel or novella genre. The Anna Papers begins with the short story "Anna, Part I," which concluded Drunk with Love. Published in 1988, the novel begins with the suicide of 43-year-old Anna Hand, who decides to conclude her life after being diagnosed with cancer. The work deals with the aftermath of her death, as family and friends are left to the influence of Anna's legacy; the recollection of her full and joyous, yet unconventional, life. Although the critical reception of the novel was mixed, The Anna Papers was praised for both the quality of its prose and the complexity of Gil-christ's fictional characters. Ann Vliet in the Washington Post Book World ascribed to Gilchrist "a stubborn dedication to the uncovering of human irony, a tendency, despite temptations toward glamour and comfort, to opt for the harder path." I Cannot Get You Close Enough is a continuation of The Anna Papers, in the form of three novellas, each focusing on one of the characters in the previous book. Ilene Raymond of the Washington Post Book World praised the work. "Not since J.D. Salinger's Glass family has a writer lavished so much loving attention on the eccentricities and activities of an extended clan," Raymond commented, adding that the novellas were not "easy tales, but stories rich with acrimony, wisdom, courage and, finally, joy."
In Starcarbon: A Meditation of Love, Gilchrist returns to the Hand family of North Carolina, whose various members appeared in The Anna Papers, I Cannot Get You Close Enough, and Net of Jewels. Prefaced by an extensive genealogical chart that includes some forty-five names, the novel recounts the summer excursions of several family members, including Olivia de Havil-land Hand, a half-Cherokee college freshman who visits her maternal grandparents in Oklahoma; Jessie, her half-sister who prepares for the birth of her first child in New Orleans; their Aunt Helen, who leaves her marriage and children to pursue an Irish poet in Boston; and Daniel, brother of Helen, who remains in North Carolina to wallow drunkenly in a midlife crisis. "Ellen Gilchrist's writing tumbles and spills off the page, seemingly without effort, like a voluble cousin breathlessly bringing you up to date on the liaisons and adventures of various members of a sprawling family," wrote Chicago Tribune reviewer Victoria Jenkins. Offering tempered praise, Trev Broughton commented in the Times Literary Supplement, "The novel's ageing roues and their gold-digging mistresses, the psychiatrists, even the horses are crisply drawn." A writer in Kirkus Reviews noted that "Starcarbon is soap at its most elegant." Sarah Ferguson concluded in the New York Times Book Review, "Ms. Gilchrist has blended these resolutely individual voices to create a richly textured family fugue."
In Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior, Gilchrist ventures away from the Deep South to create a novel set in ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.). Inspired by the storytelling of her mother, Gilchrist first conceived of this book as a child. The main character, an orphaned slave named Auria, receives an early education from renowned healer Philokrates, then escapes her cruel master, adopts his abandoned newborn daughter, and joins a band of runaway slaves who retreat into the mountains to plot rebellion. Among the rebels, Auria finds love and marries Meion, the grandnephew of Pericles, and plies her skills as healer and teacher. A Publishers Weekly review described the work as a "richly textured but overly idealized historical novel." Though similarly critical of the novel's improbable plot, Margaret A. Robinson in the New York Times Book Review noted, "Such fiction demands suspension of disbelief, and Auria, an appealing heroine, often makes that faith possible."
Gilchrist described to Wendy Smith in an interview for Publishers Weekly her evolution from short story writer to novelist: "The thing about the short story form is that in order to do a good job with it you've got to concentrate on no more than two characters; you've got to pretend that nobody has any children or parents." The novel provides her with a larger canvas on which to set forth her fictional world. "I think that in order to serve the vision I currently have of reality, I'm going to have to have at least five or six characters interplaying," she noted. However, Gilchrist has found that the novel format presents its own set of problems. As she told Walker, "You can't go back to the easy fix you learn as a short story writer, where you kill somebody off or get somebody laid to create a climax. What I'm trying to do now is make a study of existence—that's the high ground, but I perceive it as that. I want it to be as true to what I know about human beings as it can be." Commenting on Net of Jewels, Gilchrist explained that the more she writes about a character in a short story or a novel, the more she discovers about that character. She decided to "serve that knowledge" in Net of Jewels, an account of character Rhoda Manning's emotional growth in college and beyond, as her protagonist becomes involved with a succession of other characters. "This is the difference between writing novels and writing short stories," commented Gilchrist, "there aren't any tricks."
In 1987 Gilchrist published Falling through Space, a collection of brief journal excerpts. Originally broadcast as segments of her National Public Radio commentary, the journal reflects the life of a working writer. "I write to learn and to amuse myself and out of joy and because of mystery and in praise of everything that moves, breathes, gives, partakes, is," Gilchrist once told CA. "I like the feel of words in my mouth and the sound of them in my ears and the creation of them with my hands. If that sounds like a lot of talk, it is. What are we doing here anyway, all made out of stars and talking about everything and telling everything? The more one writes the clearer it all becomes and the simpler and more divine. A friend once wrote to me and ended the letter by saying: 'Dance in the fullness of time.' I write that in the books I sign. It may be all anyone needs to read."
Critics have repeatedly praised Gilchrist for her subtle perception, unique characters, and sure command of her writer's voice. Yardley remarked of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, "Certainly it is easy to see why reviewers and readers have responded so strongly to Gilchrist; she tells home truths in these stories, and she tells them with style." Crace concluded that her "stories are perceptive, her manner is both stylish and idiomatic—a rare and potent combination." Miranda Seymour, reviewing Gilchrist's first short story collection for the London Times, noted that her "stories are elegant little tragedies, memorable and cruel," and compared her writing to that of fellow southerners Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams, in that all three writers share "the curious gift for presenting characters as objects for pity and affection." And Wood observed: "Even the least attractive characters become known to us, and therefore human, because Gilchrist's voice is so sure, her tone so right, her details so apt."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 34, 1985, Volume 48, 1988.
Contemporary Novelists, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
McCay, Mary A., Ellen Gilchrist, Twayne, 1997.
Book, December, 1998, review of Flights of Angels, p. 63; January, 2001, Penelope Mesic, review of Collected Stories, p. 69.
Booklist, January 15, 1994; September 1, 1994; August, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of Flights of Angels, p. 1922; December 1, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of The Cabal and Other Stories, p. 661; September 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Collected Stories, p. 188.
Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1986; October 9, 1987; October 2, 1988; October 1, 1989; May 22, 1994; June 11, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, October 9, 1998, review of Flights of Angels, p. 78.
Harper's, June, 1985.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1994, p. 162; July 1, 1994, p. 867; August 15, 1998, review of Flights of Angels, p. 1137; October 1, 2000, review of Collected Stories, p. 1388.
Kliatt, May, 1998, review of audio version of The Courts of Love, p. 44.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 27, 2000, Nancy Pate, review of Collected Stories, p. K582; January 10, 2001, Polly Paddock Gossett, review of Collected Stories, p. K5769.
Library Journal, March 1, 1994; August, 1994, p. 128; January, 2000, Patricia Gulian, review of The Cabal and Other Stories, p. 165; October 15, 2000, Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, review of Collected Stories, p. 107.
Listener, January 6, 1983.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1986; November 27, 1988; November 8, 1998, review of Flights of Angels, p. 10.
Ms., June, 1985.
New Statesman, March 16, 1984.
Newsweek, January 14, 1985; February 18, 1985.
New Yorker, November 19, 1984.
New York Times, May 7, 2000, Jim Gladstone, review of The Cabal and Other Stories.
New York Times Book Review, September 23, 1984; October 5, 1986; January 3, 1988; January 15, 1989; October 22, 1989; November 4, 1990; October 13, 1991; April 12, 1992; June 19, 1994, p. 33; October 30, 1994, p. 48; May 21, 1995, p. 32; October 18, 1998, Erica Sanders, review of Flights of Angels, p. 29; December 17, 2000, Katherine Dieckmann, review of Collected Stories, p. 8.
Observer, November 24, 1991.
Publishers Weekly, March 2, 1992; January 31, 1994; August 8, 1994, p. 382; September 14, 1998, review of Flights of Angels, p. 47; February 14, 2000, review of The Cabal and Other Stories, p. 172.
Times (London), November 25, 1982; June 7, 1990; November 21, 1991.
Times Literary Supplement, October 15, 1982; April 6, 1984; May 24, 1985; March 6, 1987; October 27, 1989; November 29, 1991; September 7, 1990; July 1, 1994, p. 21; October 20, 1995, p. 23.
Vogue, May, 1994, p. 184.
Washington Post, September 12, 1984; September 28, 1986; December 31, 1987; October 20, 1988; De-cember 15, 1989; July 9, 2000, Jane Kollias, review of The Cabal and Other Stories, p. X6.
Washington Post Book World, January 24, 1982; March 21, 1982; May 29, 1983; December 31, 1987; December 16, 1990; September 3, 1995, p. 6.