Glasgow, Ellen (Anderson Gholson)

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GLASGOW, Ellen (Anderson Gholson)

Born 22 April 1873, Richmond, Virginia; died 21 November 1945, Richmond, Virginia

Daughter of Francis T. and Anne Gholson Glasgow

Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow was the eighth of her parents' 10 children. Her father was director of the Tredegar Iron Works, chief armaments factory during the Civil War. His dour Scotch-Irish Calvinist background instilled in her qualities of strength Glasgow was to sum up as a "vein of iron." This phrase and the staunch values it implied occur approvingly in over half her novels; yet she hated her father for his tyranny, his religious severity, and his philandering. He was, she wrote, "more patriarchal than paternal." She adored her generous, long-suffering mother, a "perfect flower of the Tidewater" aristocracy. In her autobiography, The Woman Within (1954), Glasgow described her own nature as deeply divided between this gentle mother and stern father.

Glasgow acquired her learning at home. She was excused early from a formal education because of shyness and headaches at school. Considered sickly, she always thought of herself this way. All her life she sought refuge in books—both in reading and in writing. As a girl she loved the novels of Scott, generally admired in the South. She read Fielding, Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Hardy, Balzac, and Maupassant. Her sister's husband, Walter McCormack, introduced her to 19th-century historians, biologists, and social philosophers. As a budding novelist, Glasgow immersed herself in these; she especially valued Darwin. At a later stage of personal crisis, she sought solace in mysticism: the Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, as well as philosophers from Plotinus to Schopenhauer.

Glasgow never married. Her observations of her parents' marriage, as well as a desire to remain independent to devote herself to her art, probably influenced her decision. Her writings reflect a distrust of marriage and tend toward satire, both bitter and lighthearted, on the subject. Of her many male friends, the most important was Henry W. Anderson, an attractive, successful Richmond lawyer, who also served as a Red Cross colonel in Rumania during World War I. Their affection, sometimes stormy, survived a broken engagement; their friendship continued for nearly 30 years until Glasgow's death.

Friends remember Glasgow as a diminutive woman with a radiant smile who could charm if she chose, a witty, well-read conversationalist with a sarcastic edge. Outstanding among her literary friends was the Richmond writer James Branch Cabell. There is disagreement as to how much critical assistance he gave Glasgow, whether in her plan for a social series on Virginia, in her prefaces (collected as A Certain Measure, 1943), or in her last novel, written in the shadow of her death. Cabell at any rate felt she did not acknowledge his aid sufficiently.

Glasgow held her work and literary reputation uppermost; these compensated for what she called "the long tragedy of my life." An especial burden was her deafness, which assailed her in adolescence and worsened. It isolated her, and plunged her into profound depressions. She consulted psychoanalysts and aurists. Eventually her hearing devices improved, but she never ceased to complain. Allusions in the novels to a "soundless tumult," a "rustling vacancy," apparently grow out of this affliction.

Glasgow's home life from 1911 until 1945 was spent chiefly with her companion, secretary, housekeeper, and nurse, Anne Virginia Bennett, sharing not so much a love of letters as a capacity for coexistence and an affection for Glasgow's dogs, who were treated with a human respect. Glasgow lived nearly all her life in the big grey Greek Revival house at One West Main Street. She traveled often to Europe, especially in her younger days; lived in New York for years at a time; and escaped the Southern heat in the summer. With all her mobility, Glasgow remained devoted to Richmond and Virginia. Virginia is the scene of nearly all her novels; those set in New York are about uprooted Southerners.

Glasgow's first two novels, The Descendant (1897) and Phases of an Inferior Planet (1898), together with The Wheel of Life (1906), wrestle with, among other things, the plight of the woman as artist. All are based in New York which, to Glasgow, meant intellectual Bohemia. The first two novels both show obvious signs of her deep reading of Darwin, Nietzsche, Henry George, Mill, Haeckel, Weismann, and other writers on heredity, milieu, class struggle, evolution, and survival. Gradually, the social concerns of these apprenticeship novels would be more skillfully integrated into her Virginia novels; and Glasgow's successes enabled her to drop the anxious woman artist theme. While Glasgow did not choose to incorporate these novels in her collected Old Dominion and Virginia editions, they are of biographical interest.

With her Virginia novels, Glasgow was breaking new ground. She wished to correct the sentimental picture of "Ole Virginia" perpetrated by romances of plantation life and the glorious defeat of the Civil War. The South suffered from what Glasgow termed "evasive idealism." The Battle-Ground (1902) gently satirizes the prewar fable: honey-voiced belles, picturesque Negroes, a crusty old major and an enlightened governor disputing the virtues of slavery by a comfortable library fire. The Deliverance (1904) deals with tobacco farming and the moral struggles of a destroyed planter family in the post-Reconstruction period of 1878 to 1890. Fortunes are reversed: the once-rich Blakes live in penury in an overseer's cottage, while the shady former overseer lords it in Blake Hall. Glasgow continues her concern with heredity: "Blood will out, even at the dregs." But the overseer's vital daughter, refined by education and an imperfect marriage, will through love and literacy redeem the vengeful, demon-ridden younger Blake. A new order of Southern society will result, Glasgow hopes, from the joining of the two white classes.

In writing about the New South, Glasgow liked to show an underdog hero fighting his way to personal acceptance and public service. This pattern of action is found in several of Glasgow's novels of Virginia political life. The Voice of the People (1900), Glasgow's first Virginia novel, is one of the earliest fictional treatments of the Southern poor white. Nick Burr, a farmer's son, strives against entrenched upper-class prejudice and snobbery. He becomes governor of the state, and is known as "the Man with the Conscience," only to be murdered when he intervenes in a lynching. Political assassination also cuts short the career of the hero of One Man in His Time (1922). A political novel on which Glasgow collaborated with her fiancé, Henry Anderson, was The Builders (1919). Anderson probably penned the speeches emanating from the misunderstood, patrician hero, David Blackburn, for whom he also posed as the model. A strain of pessimism permeates these novels.

Glasgow celebrates Virginia heroines in Virginia (1913), Life and Gabriella (1916), and Barren Ground (1925). One of her best works, Virginia traces the dawning self-knowledge—too late—and lifelong disillusionment of a Southern woman bred conventionally and decorously to a romantic ideal of marriage. Growing up in the 1880s, she is subjected to the educational principle that "the less a girl knew about life the better she would be prepared to contend with it." While social codes bar women from interesting lives and work, the adventuresome male surges ahead. Sunk in domesticity, Virginia watches her husband flourish, professionally and sexually, at her emotional cost. Glasgow's writing sustains a delicate tone of irony that does not withhold sympathy from the heroine. Life and Gabriella forms a companion portrait to Virginia. Here Glasgow gives us a less malleable heroine, although, misguidedly, Gabriella marries a rake. Left with two children and no money, she carves her way out of misfortune. Through somewhat self-righteous fortitude Gabriella emerges as a millinery businesswoman, while her former husband dies a vagrant alcoholic. There is even a daredevil chance of her dashing off into the future with a virile Irishman.

Of Barren Ground and the novels that followed it, Glasgow wrote this was the work upon which "I like to imagine that I shall stand or fall as a novelist." The novel is among her best, and probably her most renowned. Seduced, pregnant, and abandoned, Dorinda Oakley leaves her Virginia farm home. Fortuitously she miscarries; upon her return she adjusts her nature to the demands she establishes for her life: to remain aloof from love and all entanglements, to labor unremittingly to control the fertility of the worn and wasted land as it had controlled her parents' lives, and to prosper richly. At the last, as a strong, white-haired woman, Dorinda watches her erstwhile lover die. "For once in Southern fiction," wrote Glasgow, "the betrayed woman would become the victor instead of the victim."

The people of Barren Ground seem to grow out of the soil, the rhythms of their lives paralleling those of nature's blooming and decay. Desolate though it is to humans, the land readily produces a weed called broomsedge. Broomsedge flames across the earth, "a kind of fate," however farmers may try to root it out. It becomes also symbolic of the smothered fire of Dorinda's nature. In the first transports of despair her soul is "parched and blackened, like an abandoned field after the broomsedge is destroyed." Her tormented dreams of her lover ripple with broomsedge, a growth to be eradicated from soil and soul. As Dorinda learns to dominate the land, she also brings her woman's nature under control. "Oh if the women who wanted love could only know the infinite relief of having love over." As she gains in ascendancy, the specter of rampant broomsedge gives way to the serene image of the harp-shaped pine. It is a triumph of Dorinda's, as of other of Glasgow's heroines, to labor, to live "without happiness," to become themselves sexually barren ground while transferring energies to their work and forcing it to flower. It may be noted that in a quarter of the novels a woman nurses, survives, or slays the depleted man, who languishes or dies in her house, in her arms, or at her feet.

Leaving the Virginia countryside, Glasgow comes indoors with her Queenborough (i.e., Richmond) novels of manners: The Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped to Folly (1929), and the somber The Sheltered Life (1932). The Romantic Comedians centers on the fatuous, aged, would-be lover, Judge Gamaliel Honeywell, whose "withered heart urgently craves to be green again." He is surrounded by women, from the hovering shade of his dead wife Cordelia to the winsome girl of twenty-three whose youth leads him to overidealize her and whom he fancies he can please. Undaunted by sickness and the desertion of his girl-wife, the Judge at the last reacts to the charms of his nurse. As a mirror image reproach to his way of life there is his outrageous twin sister, the much-married and much-loved Edmonia, who lives to please herself. Glasgow's gallery of female caricatures is superb. The word "happiness" recurs with ironic frequency. Glasgow's satiric vision is both classic and fresh in this work, whose aphoristic dialogue is reminiscent of theater.

The comic possibilities of youth's encounters with age in a framework of sexual morality are also explored in They Stooped to Folly. Glasgow introduces diverse women characters, focusing on the seduced and fallen women of three generations. These women are observed from the perspective of the central couple, Virginius and Victoria Littlepage, who are conventionally, virtuously, tediously married. Unfree themselves, their perceptions of the others are imperfect; their plight is subject to Glasgow's overarching assessment. The novel counterpoints the themes of self-deceit, hypocrisy, and the standards of moral conduct. In her preface, Glasgow refers to the "woman myths…invented by man" to flatter his own self-esteem and diminish women. Women couldn't have bothered with a mythology for themselves since they have been so busy with "planning, contriving, scheming to outwit an adverse fortune, and tilling the fertile soil of man's vanity."

The Sheltered Life observes the interaction of three generations of Southerners before World War I. Courtly General Archibald reflects on the polite hypocrisies that warped lives in his youth. His own poetic temper was quashed by a barbarous upper-class training, his hope of true love thwarted by a forced, scandal-averting marriage. He is sedulously deferential to women, especially to his beautiful neighbor, Eva Birdsong. Once a belle, she now strains to uphold the cult of beauty, to which she has sacrificed autonomy and happiness. Imprisoned by old standards of feminine decorum, she affects to ignore her insouciant husband George's infidelities; she devotes her whole being to her gowns and her lovely smile, which droops only when she thinks herself unobserved. Eva's garden continues to die while she inwardly dies.

The General's granddaughter is the ecstatic Jenny Blair. Impelled by a narcissistic sensuality, which the life of privilege has sheltered in its heedless innocence, she entices George with furtive embraces; at the same time, she adores Eva. Tragedy peaks when Eva, hollow and "maimed" from an operation, levels her sporting husband's gun at him and brings him down amid his ducks. Family and friends close in and call it an accident. Pervading this crumbling world of deluded upper-class gentility is a chemical reek that corrodes the quality of living. It is the new Queenborough factory, giving off the industrial and moral nerve gas of the future.

Youth and age and the insufficiency of love are themes pervading all three Queenborough novels. In this last, the General and Eva have allowed themselves to be molded by an older morality. Jenny Blair and George are the new happiness seekers who trample on those they love, but don't "mean anything."

Vein of Iron (1935) documents the lives of the Scotch-Irish "good people" of Ironside, a village of the Upper Valley of the James River in Virginia. The surrounding mountains loom as personal presences. Glasgow takes her much-tried heroine Ada Fincastle from girlhood to middle age, from 1901 to 1933. The vision produced by the novel is one of nostalgia and of perpetual accommodation to necessity in the face of futility. In Vein of Iron, Glasgow is best when extolling ancestral values, for she saw the future as a dying age.

Despite its being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a belated consolation for the committee's having passed over The Sheltered Life, In This Our Life (1941) is a minor achievement. The portrayals of the elderly weary hero and his desperate daughters betray Glasgow's declining health and her difficulty in coming to grips with the modern world. Beyond Defeat (1966), its posthumously published sequel, is of academic interest only.

Glasgow's social perspectives and her thirst for realism made her a precursor of writers she failed to appreciate, notably a stylist like Faulkner. She was outspoken about newer writers, whom she characterized as amateurs and illiterates. As she grew older she found it difficult to cast aside the values she had once lightheartedly satirized. She saw the modern world as "distraught, chaotic, grotesque…an age of cruelty without moral indignation, of catastrophe without courage." Her efforts to embrace the young within her artistic vision, even to deal with contemporary argot, turn out shrill and awry. Despite awards and honors during her lifetime, Glasgow's literary reputation suffered after her death.

Glasgow's best writing is in the comic spirit. There are fine humorous characterizations, many buried in the subplots of her novels. As an innovator, she rejected the South's codes and genteel fables to write about politics and industry rising up out of the Virginia soil. Race and stock are for her determinants of character in the battle for survival. Work, whether of the grower, the tycoon, or the artist, brings salvation. Manners are both valued and criticized. Glasgow drew her chief inspirations from the land that bred the vein of iron and from the tremors of society. Past and present, the conflict of generations, the uneasy commerce between an older patriciate and the new working classes, mores and wars, ceremony and the fresh winds of change—these were the broad concerns of Glasgow's writing which she treated with the "blood and irony" she had prescribed for Southern fiction.

Other Works:

The Freeman, and Other Poems (1902). The Ancient Law (1908). The Romance of a Plain Man (1909). The Miller of Old Church (1911). The Shadowy Third, and Other Stories (1923). The Old Dominion Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow (8 volumes, 1929-1933). The Virginia Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow (12 vols., 1938). Letters of Ellen Glasgow (edited by B. Rouse, 1958). The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow (edited by R. K. Meeker, 1963). Beyond Defeat: An Epilogue to an Era (edited by L. Y. Gore, 1966).


Auchincloss, L., Pioneers and Caretakers (1965). Carpenter, L., Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women (1991). Ekman, B.,The End of a Legend: Ellen Glasgow's History of Southern Women (1979). Godbold, E. S., Jr., Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within (1972). Goloboy, J. L., "Marrying the Future: Kate Langley Bosher, Mary Johnston, Ellen Glasgow, and the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia" (thesis, 1995). Harrison, E. J., Female Pastoral: Women Writers Re-Visioning the American South (1991). Holman, C. H., Three Modes of Southern Fiction (1966). Inge, M. T., ed., Ellen Glasgow: Centennial Essays (1976). Jessup, J. L., The Faith of Our Feminists: A Study in the Novels of Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather (1950). Kelly, W. W., Ellen Glasgow: A Bibliography (1964). Kraft, S., No Castles on Main Street: American Authors and Their Homes (1979). McDowell, F. P. W., Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction (1960). Parent, M., Ellen Glasgow: Romancière (1962). Raper, J. R., Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow (1971). Raper, J. R., From the Sunken garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow (1980). Raper, J. R., ed., Ellen Glasgow's Reasonable Doubts (1988). Ribblett, D. L., From Cross Creek to Richmond: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Researches Ellen Glasgow (1986). Richards, M. K., Ellen Glasgow's Development As a Novelist (1971). Rouse, B., Ellen Glasgow (1962). Santas, J. F., Ellen Glasgow's American Dream (1965). Wanless, T. C., "Soil and Soul: The Experience of Southern Rural Womanhood in Selected Novels by Edith Summers Kelley, Ellen Glasgow and Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (thesis, 1984).

Reference works:

CB (Jan. 1946). DAB. LSL. NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

Ellen Glasgow Newsletter (Ashland, Virginia).