Roberts, Elizabeth Madox 1881-1941
Elizabeth Madox Roberts
American children's author, novelist, short story writer, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Roberts's career through 2002.
Though most renowned for her novels such as The Time of Man (1926), Roberts was also an accomplished poet. In 1922 she published her first major work, Under the Tree, a book of verse for children. Under the Tree met with critical acclaim, establishing Roberts as a Southern regionalist and a forerunner in the Southern Renaissance movement. The volume's most popular poems were widely anthologized in juvenile poetry collections and included in numerous children's literature textbooks. However, Roberts's literary reputation waned in the late 1930s due to the less favorable reception of her later works and a decline in productivity. During the 1980s, Roberts was rediscovered by critics and readers alike. In 1984, three years after the centenary of her birth, the Southern Review devoted an entire issue to her life and literary career, and new editions of her books were released in the 1990s.
Roberts was born on October 30, 1881, in Perryville, Kentucky, one of eight children. Her father, Simpson Roberts, and her mother, Mary Elizabeth Roberts, were both descendents of eighteenth-century pioneers. Simpson was a schoolmaster, farmer, and civil engineer who served in the Confederate army; Mary was the granddaughter of a Union officer who defected to the South. When Roberts was very young, the family moved to Springfield, Kentucky, where she lived most of her life. She often used this locale as a setting for her poetry and prose. In 1900 Roberts briefly attended the University of Kentucky but was forced to withdraw due to illness. She suffered from frail health for most of her life, battling tuberculosis and other respiratory problems. Returning to Springfield, Roberts taught public school and gave private lessons out of her home. During this time, Roberts met many of the local, rural individuals that she later vividly portrayed in her poems, stories, and novels. After moving to Colorado in 1910, Roberts published a local tourist book of poems, accompanying photographs of wildflowers, titled In the Great Steep's Garden (1915). In 1917, at the age of thirty-six, Roberts enrolled at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1921 with a B.A. in English with honors. While in Chicago, Roberts flourished in the Modernist intellectual environment, befriending other burgeoning authors, including Glenway Wescott, Yvor Winters, and Janet Lewis. Through her membership in and presidency of the University Poetry Club, Roberts came into contact with the editor of Poetry, the literary magazine in which some of the poems from Under the Tree were first published. After receiving her degree, Roberts returned to Springfield and devoted herself to a writing career, inspired by the success of Under the Tree and her fellowship in the University of Chicago literary group. She began work on her early novels, The Time of Man and My Heart and My Flesh (1927). After the success of her novel The Great Meadow (1930), Roberts's popularity began to decline. Her ability to write was affected by debilitating bouts of serious illness, eventually diagnosed as Hodgkin's disease. She never married and spent her later life in Florida, returning home to Kentucky whenever her health allowed. Roberts died in Orlando on March 13, 1941, at the age of fifty-nine.
Under the Tree consists of fifty-two poems intended for a young audience and written from a child's point of view. Characterized by its simple poetic rhymes and traditional meters, Under the Tree is composed with the inflection, attitude, and vocabulary of children. A major thematic device in the poetry is the contemplation of complex ideas through simple language and images. In many of the poems, Roberts focuses on the minutiae of small town life, reflecting the ways in which a child perceives the world. Poems such as "Autumn Fields," "The Worm," "The Butterbean Tent," and "August Night" depict unconventional observations of child narrators that often expand into a philosophical stance or transcendent moment. Much of Under the Tree recounts the sounds, smells, and tactile experiences of Roberts's Kentucky childhood. For example, in the poem "Mr. Wells," the narrator smells camphor balls on clothing, and the child in "Father's Story" touches the skin of her father's face while listening to the story of the Trojan War. In "The Butterbean Tent," the child finds that "hidden away there were flocks and flocks / Of bugs that can go like little clocks," utilizing sound imagery to convey a young girl's discovery of crickets. Reprinted in 1930 and again in 1985, Under the Tree appeared for many years on recommended reading lists as substantive poetry for children.
The Time of Man was Roberts's first and most critically successful novel. The book's heroine, Ellen Chesser, embarks on a journey of self-knowledge often compared to the quest of Odysseus. Song in the Meadow (1940) is Roberts's other major poetic work. The volume consists of ballads, sonnets, and free verse, much of which was inspired by the writings of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. This influence is felt in the volume's experimental rhyming schemes and language. Moving away from the child's point of view, Roberts considered broader subject matter, such as social issues, legends, and fairy tales. The work is comprised of three sections. The first section, "Maidens and Lovers," follows the themes, imagery, and rhythm of Under the Tree. "The World and the Earth," the next section, deals with social themes of war and alienation. The final part, "Legends," draws on well-known folklore such as "Cinderella." Roberts's other works include the novels The Great Meadow, He Sent Forth a Raven (1935), and Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938), and the short-story collections Not by Strange Gods (1941), and The Haunted Mirror (1932). These works all reflect Roberts's preoccupations with the pioneer spirit, Kentucky, and the Southern experience.
Critics have placed Roberts among the foremost writers of the 1920s and 1930s, an era dominated by such male writers as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Roberts has been admired for rendering the lives of rural American women with passion, respect, and an appreciation for nature. In the Southwest Review, Harry Modean Campbell has linked Roberts with luminary authors of her time, arguing that, "Roberts' poetic imagination … makes her best work worthy of comparison in this respect with the best of [D. H.] Lawrence and [William] Faulkner." In his review of Under the Tree, Louis Untermeyer praised Roberts's craftsmanship, noting that, "Roberts' vision is clear as it is candid, and her communication is equally direct. She reproduces not only the quality of childhood but its very colors." Kathleen D. Whalin, commenting on the 1985 reprinting of Under the Tree has praised the volume's authenticity—"The language, regardless of subject, is never forced, and the poems are in harmony with what children would observe." However, not all critics have lauded Roberts's poetry. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature has called Under the Tree overrated, characterizing its language as "simple almost to the point of banality." Furthermore, not all commentators have concurred regarding Roberts's ability to universalize the experience of childhood through her poetry. Scholar Frederick P. W. McDowell has claimed that only four poems in Under the Tree convey a shared, archetypal message. Nevertheless, Roberts has secured a place for herself among American children's writers through her lyrical poetry.
Roberts was awarded the McClaughlin Prize for essay writing and the Fiske Prize for Poetry, both from the University of Chicago. Her other awards include the John Reed Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine in 1928, the Caroline Sinkler Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of South Carolina in 1931, and an O. Henry award.
In the Great Steep's Garden: Poems (poetry) 1915
Under the Tree (children's poetry) 1922
The Time of Man (novel) 1926
My Heart and My Flesh (novel) 1927
Jingling in the Wind (novel) 1928
The Great Meadow (novel) 1930
A Buried Treasure (novel) 1931
The Haunted Mirror: Stories (short stories) 1932
He Sent Forth a Raven (novel) 1935
Black Is My Truelove's Hair (novel) 1938
Song in the Meadow: Poems (children's poetry) 1940
Not by Strange Gods: Stories (short stories) 1941
Grant Overton (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: Overton, Grant. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." In The Women Who Make Our Novels: Revised Edition, pp. 286-90. New York, N.Y.: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1928.
[In the following essay, Overton provides a synopsis of Roberts's oeuvre, noting how critics have responded to several of Roberts's publications.]
It was inevitable that the art of Sherwood Anderson should find its correspondence in the art of some woman novelist. She has appeared in the person of Elizabeth Madox Roberts. There are differences, of course, and they are not in the woman's favor. But that may be because Miss Roberts is a poet, and Mr. Anderson isn't. It is more likely the difference of sex, the inability of any woman to be as resilient in spirit as any man, the tendency of woman to fix on a few aspects of spiritual experience and emphasize them almost to monotony.
For women are still cloistered. Free of the world, the majority of them cloister themselves, in some innermost recess of being. And this something, which is possibly the soul or possibly only a nervous fixation, continually reaches out to touch life, retreating again instantly, reaching out and retreating endlessly. When it is deeply lacerated, poetry sometimes results.
Miss Roberts, a native of Kentucky, published her first book, a volume of poems, in 1922. The Time of Man, her first novel, appearing in 1926, was acclaimed by Rebecca West, Carl van Doren, Arnold Bennett, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Seidel Canby, Hugh Walpole, Zona Gale, and the English critic, Edward Garnett—to name the more conspicuous voices in the chorus of praise. It was selected for distribution by one of those book juries on whom some thousands of readers have come to lean. Duly distributed, it was received with the stupefaction to which these audiences were then somewhat less accustomed than they are today.
In this slightly arbitrary but wholesome manner, The Time of Man was put in the hands of every man, woman and child who perhaps ought to read it, but was unable to. Such experiments do a certain harm to the spread of a taste for reading, but they are unavoidable. They occur every year with some book which arouses to intensity its proper audience, so that the fuss created by that audience stirs outside indifference to active curiosity. Most of the books of distinction which have become outstanding best-sellers have had their sale above 50,000 copies merely as the result of their having become fashionable.
What is Miss Roberts's novel? It is the story of a migrant family of the tenant farmer, "poor white" class, and particularly of a young girl, Ellen Chesser. It is not told in scenes, for the most part, but in a flowing narrative, a poetic and persuasive prose, in which the homely words and bits of dialogue are dipped as pieces of home-spun in butternut juice. It is not an eventful story. Ellen grows up, with her girl's dreams; falls in love and marries, bears children. Her husband escapes a threat of jail; he goes with another woman; accuses her of unfaithfulness; and she is left to bear this child alone. It is a sickly child of whom Jasper becomes very fond; its death brings husband and wife closely together. A long novel, of over 100,000 words. Read any three pages; the rest is all like that.
Very lovely work. The great advantage of Miss Roberts's method was that her narrative flow, with its constant poetic feeling, could carry along smoothly the occasional glimpses into the misery and degradation of this primitive existence. The sensitive reader was aroused to such a condition of awareness that a hint would often suffice; anything like the full horror was never necessary. Yet there was no impression that the author softened anything; it was only that nothing sincere or natural, native or honest, appeared alien in her eyes. And with unfailing constancy she searched out and showed every aspect of beauty.
It is over the question of beauty that the doubt forms. No one, of course, knows what beauty is, except that it is a form of response. Therefore, when there is talk of readers "responding to the beauty" of a book of this character, the phrase is really one that turns in upon itself, becoming as meaningless as a serpent swallowing his tail. Miss Roberts is a person of great responsiveness and it is probable that everything human has its value in her eyes. These values can sometimes be communicated in the few words of a poem; they are seldom communicable, to many persons, in 100,000 words. Those readers who took The Time of Man in little sips, so that it lasted them for months, were wisest.
And now she has published a second novel. My Heart and My Flesh (1927) takes title from a line of Scripture running: "My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God." This is the story of Theodosia Bell, who allows the plenitude of life to slip from her faltering fingers.
Theodosia Bell comes of a good Southern family, the daughter of a man who lives loosely, living with her mother and sister in a white-pillared house. She has a joyous childhood. The first blow is her sister's death. Then young men come to court her. Her mother dies and she is left in the house with her father, of whom she sees almost nothing, and her grandfather, of whom she sees far too much—for now the personal care of this helpless old man devolves upon her. Then she makes a staggering discovery: Her father is also the father of three negroes, a slobbering stable boy and two girls whom she knows as laundresses. One by one she loses the young men who might have provided her husband. Her grandfather dies and she forms a habit of visiting her half-sisters in the negro cabins. Her father goes away and does not come back at all. Theodosia's health breaks; she half loses her mind; and the story of her slow destruction is written with great power. She verges on suicide when the turn comes. Courage is vouchsafed her; she flees the house, taken on her way by a peddler, who drives her to Spring Valley, where there is need of a school-teacher. There she finds peace and the book's anguish slowly dissolves itself into serenity.
The reader must understand that such a summary as we have given does the novel, and especially a novel of this character, bleak injustice.
Here, evidently, is much more of a story than The Time of Man achieved. Whether it will mean more to many readers is doubtful. Few spirits are as lacking in robustness as Theodosia Bell's, and the stronger are little prone to sympathize with the weak. Ellen Chesser and everything about her was subject to a degree of acceptance—none who read the book were of Ellen's sort, nor did many know any one in the least like her. But Theodosia is the sort of girl and woman most readers will feel they know more or less about; she might be an acquaintance or a neighbor; and their judgments will take on a practical tone.
Nor is Miss Roberts's method so well adapted to this material. To take only one example: The care of the infirm old grandfather is highly distasteful to the girl. No doubt youth's abhorrence for the maladies of old age is not over-emphasized. But Miss Roberts writes:
When a man is a baby some one uncovers his nakedness and bathes it. Then he has a long season of being obscure, withdrawn within himself, alive, secret with life. Finally he is old and again some one must uncover his nakedness and bathe him, handle him as if he were newborn. She herself had done this for him. Where, she questioned, is his soul?
This is very poetically expressed, but what does it mean? Can it mean that babies have no souls? It seems in some difficult way to associate the soul with decency in male attire; but the idea of any such interpretation is preposterous and will probably be construed as insulting to the author. The truth is, it means nothing. A thought (not new) and a gift for poetic expression have led Miss Roberts astray. Theodosia is questing for the soul of her grandfather and everything she has to do must somehow bear on the quest.
"Life Bared to the Quick in New Novel." "A Moment of Creative Listening." Acutely appreciative reviews of My Heart and My Flesh inspire such captions. That is the worst of it. What, in spite of mental slips, can be conceived and carried out in poetic passion by a writer like Miss Roberts, is a dangerous stimulus to some minds. They babble. Perhaps in such fiction as she has given us in these two books there is too much digitalis, of which one drop suffices in a poem, making the heart beat. But in a novel? For all the way through there is one constant sound. It is a heart, beating, beating.…
Glenway Wescott (essay date December 1929)
SOURCE: Wescott, Glenway. "A Personal Note about Miss Roberts." In Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Personal Note, pp. 5-10. New York, N.Y.: The Viking Press, 1930.
[In the following essay, originally published in the December 1929 edition of The Bookman, Wescott lauds Roberts's literary achievement and offers a biographical sketch of the author.]
My pleasure in her work has never gone stale, and I am still taken by surprise by passages that I remember, almost word for word. None of the slight edges of enthusiasm have worn away. Indeed rereading is more mysteriously exciting than the original spell when it was cast. It may be that the reasons for admiration are never very clear until it has grown systematic, until it begins to cool; it may be merely that I do not know how to urge others to love what I love, not having been altruistic enough to learn. In any case, more than once, wishing to praise Miss Roberts, I have just disappointed myself badly. She has done me the honor to be my friend; and fumbling tiresomely with the pompous or the abstract or the precious words which are all one has to describe writing itself, I imagine that the mystery lies no less in the writer and might thus be touched upon, indirectly.
It is hard with modern reasonableness to characterize a poet, as such! Needless to say I use the word "poet" in the sense which may include a writer of prose and excludes most versifiers. It is hard to find an image which will sufficiently stand for the more glorious extremes of that vocation, as during centuries without much sense of humor it was conceived, as indeed—amid the mere fiction-manufacturers, masters of pastimes and pastiches, worldly observers, hacks, academicians, engendering books out of books alone—it still sparsely goes on being practised. I often think of the oracle, mystery's mouthpiece or human megaphone in Greece, the gaunt stark person on a tripod, drunken: its intellect not quite self-possessed, being possessed of and by something superior to itself; its message varying with thunder-clouds overhead and vapors from far below; with a prima-donna voice, full and serene, over the strident orchestration of confusing facts, expressing itself only because it mistook itself for the whole world, telling the unnoticed truth, solving the old riddle with a fresh one, more moving. Indeed Miss Roberts cannot be said to be gaunt, nor is she intoxicated on anything; she is not inclined to the occult or even Irish. But considering her, an ideal example of what I mean by a poet, certainly does not oblige me to give up my image.
I saw her first years ago. Against the background of a western university, its outlay of large imitated architecture, republican cloisters and Gothic laboratories, with a costly Christmassy jangle of chimes and dogs howling in rich kennels ready for vivisection; the chapels and gymnasiums smelling of juvenile health, the vaults of incunabula of steam heat, the outdoor air of locomotives and the neighboring slaughterhouses and in season of shining plantations of Dutch flowers; in the least humane of climates, flogged by the wind and cauterized by lightning; in a city famous for crimes, between two of its vainglorious parks, near the oceanic lake the color of doves, having the motion of maddened or wounded wings of doves, always hinting at suicide to the usual students, hungry for orgy but with monkish pretences and ridden by conceited ambitions (the handsome neurasthenic heirs, the sweating hopefuls of foreign, even heathen, origin, the farmers' sons in flight)—there was the young southern woman, alone absolutely original, unimpressed by the setting of evils and plagiaries, meek and insinuatingly affirmative, untouched by but kindly toward all our half-grown basenesses.
And I saw her a few years later, during the helpless interval between the coming of age and the maturing of the first important work, down one of those wild New York streets, scarcely occidental in mood, where the workers go half naked and Negro boys throw balls to pallid boys and girls and baggy women dispute and prophesy, in a darkened, hot but never warming room, seated with her yellow-crowned head bowed almost between her knees as are figures in certain Blake drawings; now signalling from the window with a towel when she had need of human attendance, now like royalty in a convent drawing apart in an arrogant and pious self-communion; abstractions forming out of the tedium, the shadows of past persons becoming the flesh of future characters—thinking, thinking, remembering, biding her time, uttering extensive dreamy theories and troubling witticisms, with an occasional incorrectness of folk-songs in her speech.
Or later still, when her timidities and her fatigues and her pride had become mere technicalities of living conveniently and extra charms, her thought clear to countless people but her person a riddle still, in a decorous sky-scraper suite where society, music, the arts, all were represented as they should be in some slight precious form, she ignored the hour and the date for long periods while she wrote, often more than half of the twenty-four hours at a sitting; then, in a blue-feathered hat, a floating kerchief, ventured forth with a brother or devotee into the common city, finding it as delicately bizarre as if she had invented it also; and about twice a year met critics and practitioners of her art, but in a corner or alcove one at a time, preferring (and with reason) to tire her mind by speaking rather than her heart by listening, with something blue-blooded, almost Russian, in her bearing. For the South is another of those lands of antique gentry brought low.
Again and again of course she returned (and still returns) to Kentucky; I never saw her there. But wherever she was, it evidently underlay the outbranching experience, folded shadowily into the typical scenes of an author's life—an immense territorial ghost. Its past, still animated in her imagination, accompanied the present. One who knew her but had never travelled to Louisville and beyond was always aware of it, as vivid in her talk, her shepherdess's far-sighted gaze, the archaic foldings of her hands, as on the most evocatory pages; in her company one never seemed to be altogether where one was in reality, with that spiritual landscape in the air! And with herself, though always keeping in character, it also underwent impressive changes.
First it was the country of the verses, Under the Tree, the plain wonderland of a more normal and realistic Alice. Then suddenly, in The Time of Man, the life of Ellen Chesser, it became a grimly and beautifully painted territory, seen with an eye uncivilizedly sharp, over-annotated as in epics, crept over by stubborn vagrant farmers childbearing to excess, in foul white-trash rags, with the voices of sibyls, of bards—the exalted outcry of a people whom the world welcomes and nourishes indeed very much as it does vermin; starvation's pastoral, squalor's Euripidean play. For My Heart and My Flesh, her second novel, the whole place hearkened back to its eighteenth-century dignity; the foliage wove into garlands, fell in folds, over intelligent gardens, and Jeffersonian dwellings sprang up, and hunting hounds and horses to ride appeared, and there was string music; all was elegance, but dilapidated, doomed—the grandfather (who reminds me of Stendhal's) when he dies leaves an empty testament, the heiress and her violin sink to the level of the mulatress love-children, she has reasons to reproach herself for having taken part in the emotions of a murder, finally there is not even enough dog-bread for the hounds and in hunger she steals a mouthful of it; but hope steps lightly into the final pages, with classic cattle and a cow-herd whose steps come and go over the vaporous lawn around the heroine's bed. It is hard for me to stop writing about this book; it is my favorite; Theodosia Bell is lovelier than Ellen Chesser. In Jingling in the Wind, a fantasy, Kentucky stretches out and pretends to be all the states of the Union; the hero, a weatherman, industrializes the sky, and an advertising campaign and a metropolis are made of its dialect, and one of its spiders lectures like a very Spengler; but the last page is an antiphony of a poem by Miss Roberts and an old English ballad, carrying the mind back to the greater beauty of the less brilliant books.
What a place—a locality which is expressive, apt at metamorphosis, as a language is! I feel that no other author will ever have the right to call his place Kentucky. In reality, what after all is it like? In childhood by means of a jigsaw puzzle I memorized its shape on the map, and a banker once offered to have a western friend of mine officially made a colonel. I know how modernization goes in my state, and presume that there too everything now comes down to questions of credit, of the growth of the new manufacturers' feudalism, of what to do with the young between the time their emancipated minds recognize themselves as ripe and the time they can afford to marry, etc. But thanks to Miss Roberts, I persist in confusing Kentucky's genius with hers, in personifying it as a sort of vicarious woman, Greekish with inherited grace and under-nourishment, mediumistic: a sibyl, expressing as if it were quite new what has been the truth all the time, a sibyl or perhaps a mime with an infinitude of masks, so human, willing and able to enact any one of the classic dramas of man, to perform any chapter of the squalid, just a little less than angelic, unfinishable tale.
It occurs to me that I have been representing Miss Roberts's novels as more tragical than they are. In fact they are full of humorous brilliance, to characterize which I should need more wit of my own. You are often at liberty to laugh, but it is not comic relief; the tragedy and the comedy do not alternate but cooperate. At certain moments in most sad narratives the author merely seems to be moping, by temperament, and none too definitely even on his own account; he has grown complacent in his sense of vague predestined prevalent distress. In Miss Roberts's world there is never any doubt about what is wanted, which makes the melancholy wholesome. And cheerful authors, though now that realism is in fashion they rarely altogether suppress what is poor or painful, often smile at it; and to be cynical and so happy indicates another kind of vulgarity of soul. This strange southern woman never complains, but mourns for the generality; she does not make fun even of herself, but rejoices or is always ready to rejoice with due soberness. She dresses her characters in bodily charms, in oddities, in verbal elegance; she clothes the landscape with flowers and warm weather; and then—freezes to the very twig, strips to the skin, cuts to the bone, and without weakening or any loss of dignity, weeps, weeps, real tears, short clauses that are like tears. Read page 278 of My Heart and My Flesh.
I personally look forward to her next book as I do to tomorrow's writing of my own: those always possible sentences which might irrigate with streaming suggestions all the dry anxious intelligence I have in common with so many others, which might be a definite answer to the unavailing love and frustrated expectations and disorientated curiosity in and around me, and be also as it were a shedding of certain tears the lack of which burns all eyes as well as my own, and relieve my mistaken crowded heart and perhaps others' by proxy; that unlikely will-o'-the-wisp page or even paragraph which would justify those who, embracing me with their kindness years ago, as it were accidentally lifted me up from the level of mediocre intentions (to be ill at ease and to feel pretentious ever after and to be obliged to work always harder than I wish) the page to last—! But I anticipate with more confidence her book than my page.
Saturday Review (essay date 22 March 1941)
SOURCE: "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Saturday Review 23 (22 March 1941): 10.
[In the following essay, the critic examines the cultural significance of The Time of Man on the occasion of Roberts's death.]
It was the peculiar grace of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, whose death the other day deprived American literature of a writer skillful both in verse and prose, that she could deal with the tragically meager life of the underprivileged without making it wholly sordid. Her first, and best, novel, The Time of Man, in its depiction of the Southern mountaineers, reflected a manner of living that was pinched and ugly and pitifully precarious but which, in the person of her heroine at least, was redeemed from unadulterated misery by a certain valor of emotion. The novel won dignity from an almost Biblical cadence and turn of expression, but more than that it had a lovely lyrical quality in its rapture of delight in nature and in its deep-seated sense of an iridescent and pervasive beauty in the world. Miss Roberts never achieved in any of her later novels the same pregnant philosophy of life that her first book showed; indeed, as she went on her work became more and more tenuous. But at her best in The Time of Man, she struck a richer note than most of her contemporaries who like herself were attempting to depict life in unvarnished colors. In that book she added to our regional literature a volume of distinction.
Poetry (essay date May 1941)
SOURCE: "News Notes." Poetry 58, no. 2 (May 1941): 112-3.
[In the following excerpt, the critic credits Roberts with creating "a new genre of child poems" with such publications as Under the Tree.]
Neither Elizabeth Madox Roberts nor Sherwood Anderson was known primarily as a writer of poetry, but they were both obviously poets, and the verse they wrote was in each case a clue to the central impulses in their work. Anderson's Mid-American Chants, first published here in 1917, were rugged free-verse poems expressing the new aspirations of the time: "Don't you see we are all a part of something here in the West? We're trying to break through. I'm a song myself, the broken end of a song myself.…" These were written during his most vigorous period of story-writing; in those days his work was still generally ridiculed and accused of indecency, though he had had some critical appreciation. A few years later Miss Roberts was introduced with some of the poems afterwards collected in Under the Tree. This book created a new genre of child poems. At that time she was living in conditions of acute hardship, no doubt permanently undermining her health, in order to finish her great novel, The Time of Man. The obituary articles have not wished to remember these painful facts. Poetry knew both writers, as it knows most others, in their early difficult years, when they were both struggling courageously with the problem faced by every artist who must make a living from his work and who yet refuses to employ the accepted commercial patterns.
Louis Greenfield (essay date 3 May 1941)
SOURCE: Greenfield, Louis. "Trade Winds." Saturday Review 24 (3 May 1941): 20-1.
[In the following excerpt, Greenfield offers a brief commentary on the deaths of several notable American authors of his era, recounting Sylvia Townsend Warner's comments on Roberts's passing.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner, the English novelist, upon learning of the recent death of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, wrote the following touching tribute in a letter to an American friend:
I am very sorry indeed that Elizabeth Madox Roberts is dead. Ever since you sent me The Time of Man I have been one of her admirers, and two summers ago when we were in Carolina I was often finding that her writing had made many of the things I saw already familiar and known by heart: the way a girl got off the main-road school bus and began to walk up a stony track to a wooden house half-way up a mountain, the demeanor of audience and witnesses in a courthouse in Marion, the red dust rising off the stony pasture through the cool clouds of asters, the groups of children and poultry sitting together on a back porch, the echo of a gunshot ricochetting through the woods, the dirt-track roads winding between the stands of a bleached spectral Indian corn.
Within the past few months the loss to American letters through untimely death has been considerable. The early deaths of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts have taken away writers whose literature was as genuinely American as pumpkin pie. We are reminded by all this of the conversation between Prince Henry and Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, we believe, in which Prince Henry says:
Why, thou owest God a death.
And Sir John Falstaff answers:
'Tis not due yet; I would be loth to pay him before his day.
Grant C. Knight (essay date 6 January 1945)
SOURCE: Knight, Grant C. "Bluegrass and Laurel: The Varieties of Kentucky Fiction." Saturday Review 28 (6 January 1945): 12-3.
[In the following essay, Knight surveys the unique stylistic attributes of literature written by Kentucky authors, particularly highlighting Roberts's importance as an author from the Kentucky region.]
Your true Kentuckian is a conservative. Not a reactionary; he makes no clamor for a return to the thinking and living of the age of the fringed surrey. But he is not committed to the doctrine of progress, even though he adopts the word as a slogan. His agrarian occupations, his landscapes, his schooling and reading have given his mind the classical bent, so that he is of the opinion that things are pretty good as they are, that life is an occasion for pleasant living rather than exalted achievement. It is no accident that Kentucky's foremost statesman was called the Great Pacificator and is remembered for having said that he would rather be right than be President.
Because Kentucky writers share this conservatism they have contributed nothing new to the history of fiction. Two of them, John Fox, Jr., and Alice Hegan Rice, stand in Edward Weeks's list of most popular American authors since 1876; several of them will fill distinguished places in the roll of American novelists; and a flattering number win fellowships, prizes, and Book-of-the-Month awards. But none has emerged as a major figure in the sense of having founded a school or initiated a technique or deflected the current of narrative art. Even those who have an apparent originality can be seen to have responded to impulses from beyond the state. Thus, James Lane Allen epitomized the development of American fiction throughout his long life, moving from the romantic Hawthorne-allegory (Flute and Violin) to the local color story (A Kentucky Cardinal), then to Hardy-like realism (The Reign of Law), thence to symbolism (The Bride of the Mistletoe), and at last approaching the new universalism in The Landmark. Irvin S. Cobb, fated like Samuel Johnson to be remembered as person rather than artist, delineated a likable character in Judge Priest, but the judge, painted from a real individual, was nevertheless cousin to David Harum and Eben Holden and Ephraim Tutt. Ben Lucien Burman's compassionate tales of shanty-boat folk are mortgaged to Mark Twain, and a copious library of stories, including the exotic Basque tales of Eleanor Mercein Kelly, belong to the pervasive literature of regionalism. Finally, Elizabeth Madox Roberts's Jingling in the Wind and He Sent Forth a Raven, seemingly as original as anything a Kentucky writer has issued, were suckled on the tradition of English satire down to Aldous Huxley and on the tender contempt of Anatole France.
This statement of the lack of ultimate originality will not be counted too heavily against Kentucky writers nor should it be stretched to give it more elasticity than it has, for to beat with the pulse of a style or tendency is not to be wilfully imitative. James Still and Jesse Stuart, absorbing manner and material from the mountaineers among whom they have lived, could have written as they did without having been aware of Hamsun or Rolvaag or even of Miss Murfree and John Fox, Jr. In truth, the important consequence of Kentucky literary conservatism lies rather in the fact that a conservative is also a sentimentalist and a provincial and in the still more salient fact, to the socially minded, that Bluegrass storytellers have so far been reluctant to come to grips with the two most pressing problems of the state, those of labor and of the Negro.
Kentucky sentimentality takes its coloration from the prevalent family solidarity, the leisurely pursuit of happiness, the scenery, and from a passion for the locality which provokes awe from observers. No one demonstrated this fondness more sincerely than did James Lane Allen, who made the Bluegrass almost as well known to readers as Hardy's Wessex. Over-praised by contemporaries, Allen has come to be judged by a generation that knew not Pharaoh, by critics who repeat the erroneous impression that he lost his popularity because of excessive sweetness, whereas the opposite is true; after 1900 he alienated his followers by a realism too grim for their prejudices. One frequent result of this affection for the Great Meadow has been the adoption by writers of the point of view of a child, a nostalgic device permitting the softening of contours; Allen used it several times, and so have Mrs. Rice, Fox, Miss Roberts, Still, and Stuart, while the Emmy Lou of George Madden Martin and the Little Colonel of Annie Fellows Johnston are juvenile indispensables. Most sensitively written of these novels is Barbara Anderson's The Days Grow Cold.
So firm is this attachment to the hills and fields, to the central plateau and the western river of the commonwealth, that of Kentucky's chief writers only Allen and Miss Roberts could turn at times from the concrete to the abstract and examine the posy of personality apart from the soil at its roots. Most Kentucky writers have been engrossed with the past or present of people who could have been only Kentuckians, which is to say that the majority have been historical romancers or scops of the soil. The historical novel is sometimes that of costume and derring-do (as in Altsheler, Emanie Sachs, Clark McMeekin, Edith Mapother), sometimes the family chronicle (Allen Tate's The Fathers, set in Virginia; Wallace Kelly's Days Are as Grass), and sometimes the nearly factual tale of the frontier or its succeeding settlement (Robert Penn Warren's Night Rider). Caroline Gordon, whose progress from the clotted style and story of Penhally to the fluency of The Women on the Porch has been worth watching, wrote the best of the loghouse sagas in Green Centuries (the setting is northern Tennessee), which has more persuasive data, more robustness than Elizabeth Roberts's The Great Meadow. Because Kentuckians love their particular section of Pennyrile or Bluegrass, Mountains or Purchase even more ardently than they do the whole they have so far failed to give the state the epical treatment it deserves, lacked the creative vision shown in Hergesheimer's attempt, The Limestone Tree.
Regional literature faces peculiar threats to esteem and longevity. It is bound to exhaust its material and thereafter its readers. Its primitivism is likely to suggest that we are being led backward instead of forward or that we are sitting in at a peepshow which caters to our snobbishness. And it is pretty sure to lapse into a preoccupation with the trivial. Kentucky regionalists, foreseeing these dangers, have sought to escape them: Allen by a timely infusion of Tennysonian idealism, Fox by clash between mountaineer and denizen of the Bluegrass, Lucy Furman by sunny quaintness; Miss Roberts is lulled by the coil of her rhythmic prose, Harlan Hatcher preaches fortitude, Still indites an idyl, Stuart enacts a humor which too often turns to pointless terbacker-spittin' farce.
Although Kentucky writers have looked with open eyes at the battle for food (see Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds) only one native-born has tried to analyze the causes of poverty or propose a cure. Indeed, Mrs. Rice through Mrs. Wiggs recommended acquiescence to the poor, and Edwin Carlile Litsey went no further in Stones for Bread than to give the gravest study of the subnormal mind in American letters. Leane Zugsmith, as brilliant a writer as the state has produced, did use an episode in the history of Kentucky labor for part of The Summer Soldier, but all Kentuckians should regret that Olive Dargan, whose Call Home the Heart is the noblest of our proletarian novels, left her home years ago to live in and write of a neighboring state. And with the exception of Miss Roberts's My Heart and My Flesh no Kentucky novel has ventured boldly upon the tragedy of miscegenation or pictured the Negro as other than half melancholy, half jolly, altogether faithful Black Joe.
The music of Kentucky humanity is often still and sad, but it is also often inscribed in a major key, and herein Jesse Stuart composes more faithfully than Miss Roberts, in that he does feel the gusto, the dignity of his forlorn characters as well as their loneliness and defeat. Miss Roberts, with higher excitability and far deeper reaches of insight, recognized too the dignity of her poor folk but she led them through the Valley of the Shadow before they reached the light, and it is one of her heroines who sums up modern despair by crying out "Oh, God, I believe, and there's nothing to believe." To associate her novels with symphonies is to make a fair analogy; the tonality of her prose, the development of her themes, the transition from adagio to finale, make the comparison irresistible. Indeed, she played records of Beethoven's Sixth while writing A Buried Treasure (which she intended to be an exercise in shifting points of view) and the Ninth while penning My Heart and My Flesh. She did not realize that the antiphonies of her dialogue became to some readers a tiring mannerism.
Several of her novels will wither on the vine. A Buried Treasure and Black Is My Truelove's Hair are slight; Jingling in the Wind has neither the rage nor scope of great satire. Into The Time of Man and My Heart and My Flesh she poured liberally from the cornucopia of her gifts and experience; of the famous first of these one need only repeat Ford Madox Ford's pronouncement that it is the most beautiful novel to come out of America. However, He Sent Forth a Raven reveals more of Elizabeth Roberts than does any other of her novels, more of her exquisite sense of reality, her bewilderment with things as they are, her lyric anger, her slight vein of madness, her faith in man's redemption. It was never popular. When Clifton Fadiman confessed that in all candor he did not know what this book was about he was speaking for a public puzzled by its obscurities.
Miss Roberts wavered between love and scorn for mankind, and in this novel wrote out her feelings, despising and pitying with earnestness and with a prescience finally and endlessly religious. She inspected man who kills, who aspires to perfection, who prides himself upon what is ignorance, who moves in mob hysteria and mob sloth, who longs to live painlessly but will not cease to torment his fellows—what can be said for him and his future? "What's mankind," rails Dickon, "but one atomic stench in this multiplied system?" Miss Roberts did not close in this Twain-like despondency. Instead out of the flood (World War I), Noah (Stoner Drake) sent forth a raven (Jocelle) to go to and fro over the void (post-war society). Later, as in our Scriptures, will come, Miss Roberts prophesied, "somewhere or somehow" the Redeemer.
Because its structure is partially concealed in a metaphysical fog, because its façade is without the firm edge of propaganda, because its heroine is shopworn, He Sent Forth a Raven falls short of the best art. But it represents the Elizabeth Roberts who was uncertain and bemused, who knew what it means to be hungry but was more familiar with Berkeley than with Marx, who had the classic craving for the triumph of reason but could offer nothing better than a promise that somehow, sometime, unseeing humanity would stumble into radiance. Within her was a conflict between inbred conservatism and acquired radicalism, a conflict ending in allusion and rapture. The pen with which she wrote was a true Kentucky pen. And it was the best one that has so far traced characters in this state.
Earl H. Rovit (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: Rovit, Earl H. "Introduction." In Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, pp. 1-8. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960.
[In the following essay, Rovit investigates Roberts's literary merit and her importance to American cultural history.]
There are at least two justifications, I believe, for a detailed study of the novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts. For reasons which are generally unrelated to her intrinsic literary merit, she has failed to receive the critical attention which the scope and texture of her fictions deserve.1 Her reputation as a novelist—an imposing one in the late 1920's and early 1930's—has steadily declined until today her name is relatively unknown, save as a Kentucky "regionalist" with peculiar stylistic eccentricities. This study is, in the first place, an attempt to make some partial restitution for what seems to me unwarranted critical neglect.
Secondly, I think that a close study of her novels possesses an additional, although less obvious, interest as a means of increasing our understanding of contemporary cultural history. It seems to me that Elizabeth Madox Roberts was keenly sensitive to the major stresses and ambiguities of twentieth-century American life and thought. She was profoundly aware of the difficulties of maintaining stable values in a time when things are in the saddle and space-time is in explosion; she recognized early the irreconcilable conflict between the democratic ideal of individualism and the encroaching forces of collectivism. As a novelist, Miss Roberts dealt imaginatively and successfully with the manifold problems of creating fiction in a world where all our facts have turned into fictions. She accepted the full challenge of modern uncertainty, and, within the flux of our contemporary shadowland of values, established a strong and positive structure of artistic and human faith. I shall further suggest that among her novels which incarnate this faith we may find some of the major fictional achievements of our century.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts was born on October 30, 1881, in Perryville, Kentucky; she was the second of eight children born to Mary Elizabeth Brent and Simpson Roberts, surveyor, farmer, schoolmaster.2 Most of her childhood was spent in Springfield, Kentucky, a small town on the banks of the Salt River to which her family moved in 1887. Except for four years in Covington, Kentucky (1896-1900) while she attended high school, and her years at the University of Chicago (1917-1921), Springfield was her nominal headquarters and home throughout her life. She seems to have begun attendance at the State College of Kentucky (later, the University of Kentucky) in September, 1900, but she was forced, probably by poor health, to return to Springfield before the end of the first semester. Ill health was to plague her incessantly for the next sixteen years and for the last ten years of her life, effectively thwarting her personal plans and ambitions, causing her a good deal of pain and discomfort, and so emphasizing her native sensitivity that the channel of artistic expression ultimately became her predominant mode of communication with the outside world.3 The immediate consequence of this early "frailty" was her surrender of a college education. After this, she remained in or near Springfield until 1910, employed sporadically as a schoolteacher.
Between 1910 and 1916 she lived intermittently with her sister Luellen in Colorado, and as her health gradually improved, began to work seriously with poetry; she published some short pieces in magazines and had her first volume, In the Great Steep's Garden, privately printed in 1915.4 By January, 1917, she was able to enter the freshman class at the University of Chicago. Whether this was the resolution of a long-brooded-upon desire or a sudden impulse is not certain; at any rate, at the age of thirty-six she was suddenly exposed to what may have been the most stimulating literary atmosphere in America at that time. She took courses under Robert Morss Lovett and the famous medievalist Edith Rickerts; she joined the University Poetry Club, becoming its president in her senior year and entering wholeheartedly into its inner circle of student-writers—a group which included Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Janet Lewis, and Yvor Winters. As a college student she published seventeen poems, one in Poetry, two in Atlantic Monthly, the others scattered in various little magazines. She had a limited access to Harriet Monroe's salon, where the great and popular in the literary world touched as they passed through Chicago. Although it is impossible to assess the influence of these Chicago years on her basic thinking, there seems little doubt that they were of tremendous importance in giving her a sense of intellectual self-confidence and in introducing her into a community of thought where questions of artistic technique and ideals were treated as central rather than peripheral interests.
After receiving her degree, she returned to Springfield to settle into a routine of writing which was uninterrupted save by physical disability until her death. Her first major collection of poetry, Under the Tree, was published in 1922.5 In the same year she began work on The Time of Man, which was completed and published in 1926. This novel met with immediate publishing success, rapidly running through several printings, and being chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. The book reviewers voiced an enthusiastic welcome to the new novelist and Miss Roberts was thrust into firstline critical recognition. Almost as soon as the writing of this novel was finished, she was at work on My Heart and My Flesh, which was published a year later. The next five years saw five more volumes: Jingling in the Wind (1928); The Great Meadow (1930); Under the Tree (rev. ed., 1930); A Buried Treasure (1931); and The Haunted Mirror (short stories, 1932). She was awarded the John Reed Memorial Prize by Poetry in 1928 and the Caroline Sinkler Memorial Prize by the Poetry Society of South Carolina in 1931. In 1932 her story, "The Sacrifice of the Maidens," was given the O. Henry Second Prize Award, and in 1933 she was offered an honorary degree (Litt.D.) by Russell Sage College for her achievements in American letters. With the publication of He Sent Forth a Raven in 1935, however, her popularity—both critical and commercial—began to plummet.
The royalties which she had earned with her earlier volumes—two Literary Guild selections and the movie rights to The Great Meadow —swiftly diminished. Her health also deteriorated, forcing her to leave Springfield during the raw Kentucky winters, which put an additional drain on her financial resources. It was probably at this time that she began to suffer severely from what was later diagnosed as Hodgkin's disease. She continued to write, however, expanding a sketch written in 1933 to Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938). Her third volume of poetry, Song in the Meadow, was published in 1940, and she lived long enough to correct the proofs for Not by Strange Gods (1941), her second collection of short stories.6 She died in Orlando, Florida, on March 13, 1941.
Although her first novel was not published until she was forty-five years old, Elizabeth Madox Roberts was by no means a "primitive" artist. Indeed, she was almost completely the reverse—a highly self-conscious aesthetician and craftsman. Scattered throughout her journals and letters are persistent efforts to discover what her own personal limitations as an artist were, and how best to bend these limitations to the production of fine art. In her journal she notes: "Two ways seemed always open to me as one having such environmental influences as mine, and such physical and mental equipment. One the way of satire, the other the way of symbolism working through poetic realism."7 The way of satire is illustrated only in her fantasy, Jingling in the Wind ; in all her other novels, as well as in the most successful sections of Jingling in the Wind, the sustained note of composition is "symbolism working through poetic realism." What she meant by this is clarified in the following:
I will tell you why we continually go back to realism in art. Somewhere there is a connection between the world of the mind and the outer order—It is the secret of the contact that we are after, the point, the moment of union. We faintly sense the one and we know as faintly the other, but there is a point at which they come together, and we can never know the whole of reality until we know these two completely. And so we pursue first the one and then the other. We probe deeper and deeper into the world of sense and experience and we say" Now I have it, it is thus"…and presently it is seen that we haven't it yet and we make another try with a newer realism or some of us try for it the other way around.
Elsewhere she succinctly summarizes her characteristic mode of approach, saying: "I have tried for great precision in rendering sensuous contacts—the points where poetry touches life."
Miss Roberts was early nurtured on the idealistic philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, her father's favorite philosopher, and this influence is a pervasive tincture in her thinking. The sovereignty of mind, or spirit, over unformed matter is basic to her understanding of life and distinctively colors her concept of the artistic process. "Life is from within, and thus the noise outside is a wind blowing in a mirror."8 Until the life "outside" becomes comprehended within—until sensation is transformed into idea, or poetry—the outside life is as meaningless as "a wind blowing in a mirror." Such a philosophic idealism could easily lead to abortive ends. It could constrict itself into an imprisoning solipsism which denies validity to anything outside one's own fantasy projections. It can distort the meaning of life into anything the egotistical assigner of meanings wants it to mean, and by denying a reality principle, end in insanity or fatal frustration. By cutting the deep roots between experience and values, it can cause moral paralysis, perversion, and intellectual suicide. If there is no connection between the world of the mind and the outer order, the mind has only itself to feed upon and growth is impossible. But Miss Roberts was aware of the dangers of unqualified idealism to the artist and to the human being, and she sought assiduously to avoid those dangers.
Her aim, both personal and artistic, was to focus on those points "where poetry touches life"—where mind and matter, idea and sensation, vision and fact, intermingle, shape and are shaped, and produce conjointly a flood of identity within the perceiving spirit, wherein the outer order is creatively absorbed and the world of the mind comprises a new universe. This, she believed, was the area where her art could operate most effectively—where the artistic symbol, itself a fusion of idea and thing, could communicate that which could not be communicated by any other means.
She was dedicated to her art because she saw it as a handmaiden to a greater energy—for her, the elemental energy in life—love. For though she writes that "life is from within" and the noise outside negligible, she qualifies this world-denying isolation by adding: "But love is a royal visitor which that proud ghost, the human spirit, settles in elegant chambers and serves with the best." And, as will become clear in the examination of her specific novels, "love" for Miss Roberts is not only the outgoing desire which moves man to accept from, and share with, other men the unique selfness which one has; but, even more basically, the force itself which brings man to the points where poetry touches life, where one's very selfness is created. The moments of union—the vital experiences of truth, of virtue, of beauty—which mark the successive spirals of growth for the individual spirit, are themselves love-created. The absence of love is for Miss Roberts, in a many-layered sense, always synonymous with death.
Her novels, then, served a twofold purpose. For her, personally, they were metaphors of experience—love creations through which her own inner spirit could expand, absorb the materials of itself, and integrate itself into a new and more vital level of growth. But because she also possessed a deep sense of responsibility to the body of mankind of which she was a part, they are also love offerings to mankind—symbols of her experience which she contributed in the hope that other men might use them for their own growth. Both purposes are eloquently pointed to in her statement: "It is the function of art to enlarge one's experience, to add to man more tolerance, more forgiveness, to increase one's hold on all the outlying spaces which are little realized in the come and go of every day."
- It is possible that Miss Roberts' critical reputation is moving into a gradually ascending phase. Note the following recent publications: Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the American Novel (New York, 1952), 389-96; Harry Modean Campbell and Ruel E. Foster, Elizabeth Madox Roberts (Norman, 1956).
- Miss Roberts' biography is something of a special problem. The source to which I am most heavily indebted is the unpublished dissertation (University of Kentucky, 1953) by Woodbridge Spears, "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Biographical and Critical Study." The Campbell and Foster book offers some additional material, but in general this is too subjective and romanticized to be very useful. I have also benefited greatly by extended conversations with Dwight and Barbara Anderson of Louisville; the Andersons were intimate friends of Miss Roberts from 1926 until her death in 1941. Besides the primary sources elsewhere cited, I have had access to the Elizabeth Madox Roberts letters in the archives of the Filson Club in Louisville.
- The precise nature of her illness is difficult to ascertain. The Andersons conjecture that the disease of her youth was tuberculosis, and there is much supporting evidence for this view. She seems never to have attained vigorous health at any time in her life, suffering constantly from an acute hypersensitivity to cold and to noise. As a consequence of this, she seems to have developed an almost morbid fear of any change in routine—a routine, incidentally, in which social contacts played little part.
- Colorado Springs, Goudy-Simmons Printing Co.; the text was illustrated by Kenneth Hartley.
- New York, B. W. Huebsch, Inc.; shortly afterward, Huebsch, Inc., became The Viking Press in a merger, and all Miss Roberts' subsequent publications were issued under the Viking imprint.
- At her death she was well into two major writing projects: a long cycle of poems dealing with the Daniel Boone legend, and a novel based on the Louisville flood of 1937.
- The Elizabeth Madox Roberts Papers (Bureau of Manuscripts, Library of Congress). These papers include stray letters, newspaper clippings, manuscripts in all stages, and working notes. They extend over a twenty-five-year period in an undated, unarranged jumble. The bequest was made in two gifts, 1943 and 1955, by the executor of Miss Roberts' estate, Ivor Roberts, her youngest brother. Since it is impossible to cite the specific location of material taken from this source, the reader may assume that all quotations of Miss Roberts not otherwise identified appear in this collection of papers.
- Jingling in the Wind.
Louis Auchincloss (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: Auchincloss, Louis. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." In Pioneers & Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists, pp. 123-35. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961.
[In the following essay, Auchincloss chronicles Roberts's literary and personal accomplishments, arguing that Robertswill remain "permanently in the front rank of American novelists."]
If Emily Brontë had survived the publication of Wuthering Heights to write a series of obscure and ponderous allegorical novels, would her reputation be as splendid as it is today? One may doubt it. There is something about the image of a life seemingly offered up on the altar of literature as the price of one perfect book that becomes part of the atmosphere in which the book is read. If Elizabeth Madox Roberts had disappeared from the literary scene after the publication of her first novel, The Time of Man, in 1926, she might stand today in the company of Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow. For as a lyrical evocation of the farmer's relation to the soil it is quite the equal of My Ántonia and Barren Ground.
Her life was dogged by poverty and ill health, and she was born amid bitter memories. Her father, Simpson Roberts, at fourteen saw his own father shot in cold blood for refusing to join the National Guard and at sixteen joined the Confederate Army. He and his wife, both of pioneer stock, struggled through a Kentucky reconstruction and survived with a small grocery on the first floor of their house in Springfield and with Mr. Roberts' ultimate appointment as engineer and surveyor of the county. The county was in the fertile and hilly farm region that his daughter was to describe so vividly.
She was born in 1881, the first of eight children, and had to start early to help with the household work. She did well at school and yearned to go to college; she did enroll at the State College of Kentucky but her uncertain health and the family's lack of means kept her from completing the course. A shy, frail, introverted, rather lovely girl, she lived with her family and opened a small private school for children at a tuition of three dollars per month. She taught from a rocking chair and sometimes fainted in the classroom. Later, when her health improved, she taught in the public schools and published some poetry. In 1917, when she was thirty-six, there was at last enough money to enable her to realize her dream and enroll as a freshman in the University of Chicago. Harry M. Campbell and Ruel E. Foster, authors of the deeply perceptive if perhaps overlaudatory Elizabeth Madox Roberts, American Novelist, describe her at this period: "She had an original, quiet intelligence with an inward poetic cast. Her sensibility was a complex one. There was in the world of her mind a long wind blowing out of the past, out of Virginia and Maryland and Harrodsburg, Kentucky, from the days of Daniel Boone and James Harrod: a wind bringing old phrases, old talk, and the personalities of long-dead ancestry to life."
She made many good friends, despite her age difference, in what turned out to be an exceedingly talented class; she specialized in English literature and the philosophic idealism of Bishop Berkeley, and she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Her classmate Glenway Wescott recalls her as "the young southern woman, alone absolutely original, unimpressed by the setting of evils and plagiaries, meek and insinuatingly affirmative, untouched by but kindly toward all our half-grown baseness." She was drawn to Catholicism, an attraction that was to endure for life, but she never became a convert.
After college Miss Roberts returned to her family in Springfield. At the age of forty-one, in the fall of 1922, her education was at last completed, and she devoted her mornings to the composition of The Time of Man. Three years later, with considerable interludes for writing poetry, it was completed, accepted by the Viking Press, and chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club. It had an immediate critical and popular success, and Miss Roberts found herself at once relieved of obscurity and financial need. She could never induce her parents to abandon their old home, so she added a large brick wing containing a study and library. There, amid high shelves of books, she was to spend the bulk of her days, although in the later years her health drove her to Florida in the winter.
Miss Roberts' notes for The Time of Man show that she conceived it as an Odyssey, with her heroine as the eternal wanderer. The six parts into which she divided the book do not correspond to any chapter division in the text, but rather to the symphonic movements of her idea of the story:
I. A Genesis. She comes into the land. But the land rejects her. She remembers Eden (Tessie).
II. She grows into the land, takes soil or root. Life tries her, lapses into lovelessness …
III. Expands with all the land.
IV. The first blooming.
V. Withdrawal—and sinking back into the earth.
VI. Flowering out of stone.
Ellen Chesser, the sole surviving child of itinerant farmers, Henry and Nellie, is constantly on the move with her parents through the rural areas of Kentucky. She yearns for permanent things, for houses that are more than shacks, with drawers to put things in, and friends who are more than passing acquaintances. This yearning centers in Tessie, a loquacious semigypsy given to flights of imagination, from whom Ellen is separated and whom she vainly seeks, running away from the farm on which her father settles for a time. After this single rebellion, her one practical attempt to recapture Eden, she settles down, "growing into the land," and Jonas Prather seems to offer marriage and "blooming." But after he has confided in her the secret of his affair with a prostitute and of the child that he believes to be his own, he identifies her with the guilt of which he has made her the repository and deserts her for another. Ellen rejects the temptation of suicide, the example of which is offered by Mrs. MacMurtrie, of the local gentry, who hangs herself when her husband goes off with her cousin, and finds the blooming that Jonas Prather had seemed to offer with Jasper Kent, a strong, violent man and an itinerant farmer like her father.
She and Jasper have several children, and she seems at last in tune with the natural things that surround her. But the withdrawal, the "sinking back into earth," occurs suddenly and horribly when Jasper, an adulterer himself, wildly and irrationally accuses her of infidelity and repudiates the child she is carrying. Only when the child is born, a shrunken, sickly bit of a thing, does he repent, but it is too late. The child, suffering from its mother's shock, lives three miserable years and dies. And then Jasper is beaten up by night riders who mistakenly believe him to be a barn burner, and he insists on packing up and moving on. The "flowering out of stone" occurs when Ellen, realizing that her destiny is irretrievably linked with his, refuses to be left behind, and the Kents move away together in their old wagon with all their few poor goods, asking no directions on the road, taking their own turnings.
To tell this story Miss Roberts limits her points of view to Ellen Chesser's and her own, but she does not pretend to limit herself to Ellen Chesser's simple vocabulary. Ellen, after all, is uneducated. Miss Roberts uses her lyrical prose to convey to the reader the state of being Ellen, which is a far more complicated thing than Ellen could possibly articulate. Ellen loves the countryside and all its creatures, even the pigs that must be slaughtered; she is vitally aware of sound and color, of sun and seasons, of affection and distrust. Her extreme sensitivity is conveyed in a prose-poetry that is at times full of sharp, precise imagery and at times dreamlike in its flowing smoothness.
Ellen Glasgow doubted that rural people talked like the characters in The Time of Man. Perhaps they do not. Miss Roberts was searching in her dialogue for a rhythm that would convey the inner as well as the outer man and that would give a sense of the people as a unit and a fraction of the geography. It was part of what she called the "poetic realism" that she tried to achieve in all her prose. "Somewhere there is a connection between the world of the mind and the outer order. It is the secret of the contact that we are after, the point, the moment of the union. We faintly sense the one and we know as faintly the other, but there is a point at which they come together and we can never know the whole of reality until we know these two completely."
Ellen Chesser has such an experience when she sees the mountains of the new region to which her family are moving. It is a complex experience, and she could not possibly have described it to another person. Yet its happening depends not on intellect but on awareness, not on knowledge but on sensitivity. Here is how Miss Roberts describes it: "The mountains grew more definite as she looked back to them, their shapes coming upon her mind as shapes dimly remembered and recognized, as contours burnt forever or carved forever into memory, into all memory. With the first recognition of their fixity came a faint recognition of those structures which seemed everlasting and undiminished within herself, recurring memories, feelings, responses, wonder, worship, all gathered into one final inner motion which might have been called spirit; this gathered with another, an acquired structure, fashioned out of her experience of the past years, out of her passions and the marks put upon her by the passions of others, this structure built up now to its high maturity."
What makes The Time of Man a great novel is the extraordinary sense conveyed of Ellen as an almost unseparated part of the tissue of living things, with horses, cows and pigs, and people, beneficent people and hateful people, as if the whole landscape, stretching to the mountains and made up of organisms growing or dying, of corn and grass and animals and humanity and even rocks ("Rocks grow," Ellen's father tells her), were part of a single carpet on the earth. Ultimately this continuity is sensed in time as well as material. Jasper Kent seems to move into Ellen's life just where Jonas Prather has left off, so that both men, without in the least losing their individuality, seem at times simply to express the male aspect of nature. Similarly Ellen, in the end, feels that her life is so innately an extension of her mother's that she can share her mother's memories: "Going about the rough barnlot of the farm above Rock Creek, calling in the hens, breaking them corn, Ellen would merge with Nellie in the long memory she had of her from the time when she had called from the fence with so much prettiness, through the numberless places she had lived or stayed and the pain she had known, until her mother's life merged into her own and she could scarcely divide the one from the other, both flowing continuously and mounting."
There is none of the solemn hymning to the land in The Time of Man that we find in Ellen Glasgow and Willa Cather. That was to appear in her fiction soon enough, but in the beginning she was free of it. Campbell and Foster point out the interesting twist that Miss Roberts gave to the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley which she had adopted for her own: "For Miss Roberts indeed there is no contrast between knowledge of the earthy and that of the spiritual; epistemologically, the two were the same for her, as they were for Berkeley, but the emphasis of the artist and her philosophical master, as might be expected, is different: whereas Berkeley as a philosopher is engaged in transforming what is called the physical into that on which it is dependent for its existence, the spiritual, Miss Roberts as an artist seems at one level to be transforming the spiritual into the physical, the sensuous."
But the sensuous has far greater significance in her work than it does in that of an ordinary realist. As Miss Roberts put it herself: "We go into the unseen by way of the visible, into the unknown by way of the known, into nous by way of the flesh and the dust."
The first symptoms of the attenuation of power which Emily Brontë escaped are observable in her very next book, My Heart and My Flesh (1927), which introduced the theme that she was to work over and over in the next years: the baffled, humiliated, at times actually violated heroine, after a volume of sleepwalking and groping, punctuated with nightmares, finds a spiritual rebirth in the arms of a strong man who has remained close enough to the soil to be uncorrupted. It is the ancient legend of death, burial, and rebirth, but that is no excuse for solemnity that is always verging on the tedious. Theodosia Bell, the heroine of My Heart and My Flesh, suffers two shocks amounting to traumatic experiences: she is brutally deserted by her lover who, overnight, and without even a decent shadow of subterfuge, turns his ardor to another girl, and she discovers that her dissolute father is also the parent of three Negroes, two girls by one woman and a half-witted boy by a second. In an effort to discover her own identity, which has become confused in her mind as a result of these new relationships, she befriends the Negro girls. When the older one murders her lover and the younger sleeps with the idiot brother, Theodosia becomes unbalanced and goes off to live in the country with a crazy aunt who half-starves her. Rescued by the local doctor, she recovers and regains her mental and physical health in a simple rustic atmosphere and with the admiration of a fundamental man. In Caleb Burns, the farmer, "there was a sense of the whole country, of the rolling farms as owned up and down the watercourses and farther, including the town, Anneville and beyond, other towns, Lester, Quincy, all the reach of the entire region."
Miss Roberts' solution of a reconciliation with natural things is expressed in the final paragraph, where Caleb wanders about the farm at night: "The leaves of the poplar tree lifted and turned, swayed outward and all quivered together, holding the night coolness. The steps returned to the pasture, going unevenly and stopping, going again, restless. They went across the hollow place and came back again toward the rise where the cows lay. They walked among the sleeping cows, but these did not stir for it was a tread they knew."
Glenway Wescott wrote a description of Miss Roberts at this period (1927-28) which may give a clue to what was happening to her writing. She had a patrician aloofness, "something blue-blooded, almost Russian, in her bearing," like one of "antique gentry brought low." "I saw her … down one of those wild New York streets scarcely occidental in mood, where the workers go half-naked and negro boys throw balls … in a darkened, hot but never warming room, seated with her yellow-crowned head bowed almost between her knees as are figures in certain Blake drawings; now signalling from the window with a towel when she had need of human attendance, now like royalty in a convent drawing apart in an arrogant and pious self-communion; abstractions forming out of the tedium, the shadows of past persons becoming the flesh of future characters—thinking, thinking, remembering, biding her time, uttering extensive, dreamy theories and troubling witticisms, with an occasional incorrectness of folk-songs in her speech."
She laughed so hard in reading the manuscript of Jingling in the Wind aloud to a friend that she had to stop reading. Such remoteness from others and enchantment with self can have disastrous results on art that must, in the last analysis, be communicated. At the same time Miss Roberts was becoming the most extreme of valetudinarians. She went in now for every kind of fad, believing that the sun was a cure-all, carrying her own drinking water, checking on the temperature of her dentist's office before she would make an appointment. A neurotic can perfectly well be a literary genius, but his greatest danger is always that he will not recognize when he is dull.
Jingling in the Wind (1928) is one of the dullest novels ever written by a first-rank American novelist. Its allegorical character may remove the need for flesh and blood in its people, but allegories should be very sharp and very funny, and it is neither. Jeremy and Tulip, as rainmakers, represent the synthetic, half-baked modern world that cannot wait for the clouds to supply water but must set up machinery to precipitate the precipitations. The novel is shrill and silly, like the later fiction of Edith Wharton, in its denunciation of the cheapness of contemporary American life. The only way that Miss Roberts could demonstrate what America had lost was to show, not what America was, but what America had been, and this, with much happier results, she accomplished in The Great Meadow (1930).
After The Time of Man, it is the best of her novels. It is inferior only in that it shows the hymnal quality of which The Time of Man is so happily free. Miss Roberts makes it only too clear that she is celebrating the courage and the endurance of the first settlers of Kentucky; Daniel Boone himself is one of the characters. Diony Hall and Berk Jarvis, with their silent understanding and deep love of each other, with their unflinching heroism and dedication to the development of a new land, might be figures in a mural of pioneers in a post office. But having said this, let one try to rob the statement of some of its denigration by insisting that it is a good mural. The pace of the story is slow until Diony and Berk arrive at Fort Harrod, but thereafter it is tensely exciting. The murder of Berk's mother by Indians, his leaving his wife and child in a dogged, solitary pursuit of revenge, his long absence and ultimate return, a sullen, possessive Enoch Arden, to take back his wife from another, is as gripping a tale as exists in the fiction of the American frontier.
As in The Time of Man the characters are a part of the land which they love and for which they have abandoned the relative ease of Virginia. Diony is a magnificent study of a frontier woman. She loves Berk passionately and tries to persuade herself that he is living long after the rest of the stockade community take for granted that he is dead, but there is no place in that primitive world for a young woman without a man, and her economic need for a second husband is soon enough followed by the pricking of her physical desire for one. Such infidelity would be scarcely imaginable among the embittered heroines of Ellen Glasgow. Diony's abandonment of her interim husband to return to Berk when he reappears at Fort Harrod makes a remarkably effective ending. Few indeed are the writers who could carry it off without impairing the epic quality of the saga. But Miss Roberts, it should be emphasized, was a good poet as well as a good novelist, and the only writer considered in this volume who was.
"The Time of Man was my Hamlet," Miss Roberts wrote; "Jingling in the Wind was my Midsummer-Night's Dream and The Great Meadow was my Romeo and Juliet." But A Buried Treasure (1931) seems to belong more to the dramaturgy of our own time. It is a dreary little tale, once more allegorical, full of fantastic characters who foreshadow the world of Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. Andy and Philly Blair, the old couple who dig up a pail of gold coins and bury it again in fear of robbers, Ben Shepherd who comes to town to transcribe the dates of his ancestors from the tombs in the cemetery and finds a bone of one which he carries about in his pocket, a hen that eats her own eggs, a father who claims that his daughter is illegally married in order to get her home to be his cook—we begin to recognize the whimsical southern cast that has fascinated later audiences. But they fail to come alive.
The Haunted Mirror (1932) is a collection of short stories, one of which, "The Sacrifice of the Maidens," about a young boy watching the ceremony in which his sister becomes a nun, plays up a fascinating conflict of pagan and Christian values, but it was written before The Time of Man. He Sent Forth a Raven (1935), written in this later period, is another allegorical novel, this time a dark one, with a World War I setting. Stoner Drake vows that he will never set foot on the soil if his second wife dies, and she does, and he executes his oath by staying indoors for the rest of his days. He gathers about him a group of loquacious characters who represent the folly of a mechanical world at war, who have lost their connections with simplicity, with nature, with God. The plot seems to offer diversions and possibilities: the crazy old Lear whose granddaughter, Jocelle, brutally raped by a cousin, at last finds peace and hope in marriage to the good, simple man who takes over the operation of Lear's farm; but it is very tediously worked out.
In the three years preceding publication of He Sent Forth a Raven Miss Roberts' health had been deteriorating, and in 1936 a specialist finally diagnosed her ailment as Hodgkin's disease. The remaining five years of her life were spent in a struggle with an enemy that she knew must win. It was in this shadow that she wrote Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938), and her genius, no longer distracted by the irritants of modern society, went back again to work for her almost as effectively as in the beginning. Her last novel is a rich, ordered, beautiful symphonic piece of writing which gives a fine satisfaction to the careful reader, though at moments some of the vividness of the characterizations may seem sacrificed to the symbolism.
Dena Janes, before the novel opens, has run off from her native village, Henrytown, with a truck driver, Langtry, a dark, dangerous, tattooed man who symbolizes the empty world of nervous motion that exists beyond the rural areas. As soon as she has discovered what a terrible man her seducer is, she has told him that she will return home, but he has warned her that if he ever hears of her going with another man he will hunt her down and shoot her. In the first chapter we see Dena, distraught with terror at the threat, hurrying back to Henrytown where she is only too grateful to be put up by her sister Fronia, older, twice-widowed, domineering, and to do the chores. The local girls are friendly, even chatty, but it is entirely understood that she is disgraced and "different," and the men either avoid her altogether or ogle and leer at her as a loose woman. Dena, however, does not mind this; there may even be safety in her semi-ostracism. She does her work and diverts herself by taking long sunbaths, naked, behind the house. It is a passive half-life with a certain sluggish peace, better, at any rate, than the hell that Langtry offered.
Life, however, will not allow Dena to escape. Fronia loses a gold thimble given her by a former lover, an obvious sex symbol, and frantically hunts it high and low, even threatening to kill her favorite goose and search for the lost object in its gizzard. Dena, younger and sexually ready, finds the thimble, but before she can give it to Fronia it is stolen by a little boy who sells it to Cam Elliot, the beautiful but shy farm lad, the perfect mate. It is the instrument of fate that draws them together, and Dena and Cam become engaged, but when the banns are published Langtry returns. Dena has now acquired courage and confidence; after a first brief panic, when she tries to hide from him, and he shoots at her and misses, she confronts her former lover boldly and challenges him to do what he must. He repents, and a brave future is left for Dena and Cam. As one can see from this outline, despite the subtlety of the novel's symbolism—its squawking geese, its haunting night cries, its old horses and its new cars—it veers close in the end to the hammy. Yet it never quite reaches that point; that is precisely its artistry. It leaves one with a sense of unity and concord, of nature disturbed and put in order again.
The reviewers felt that Black Is My Truelove's Hair was good, but not as good as The Time of Man. Poor Miss Roberts learned what so many authors have learned: that a masterpiece is not always a friend. "Would I want to write The Time of Man over and over, or even once again?" she protested. But her energy was now running out. The planned epic play for stage and radio on Daniel Boone had to be abandoned. She died in Florida early in 1941.
In the last year of her life she put together the little volume of short stories, Not by Strange Gods, that appeared almost simultaneously with her death. Two of these shine with all of her early brilliance.
"The Haunted Palace" is an eerie sketch of poor farmers who move their sheep into the great rooms of a deserted mansion. The wife routs what she believes to be the ghost of the old aristocrat, "the creature or the thing," moving among the sheep with a club and a light, by striking at it, and so shatters the great mirror. It is, of course, her own reflection that she has seen, but she does not know this and is now at ease, and she and her husband count the new lambs born that night and are "pleased with the number they had counted."
"The Betrothed" is a wonderful psychological study, seen from inside the mind of Rhody, of her doubts and panics at the prospect of impending marriage to the man she loves. Her old grandmother gives her a desperate shock by reading her fortune in the entrails of a hog: "She prodded into the wet and bloody mass, muttering. It would be thus and thus, she said. The beast, turned wrong side out, danced still his life dance, blood having run into pans on the ground. Life sat, as a dismembered bird, in the vat of the entrails, still throbbing within itself. You are thus and thus, the grandmother said.…She would begin a story of mortality, of bloody bearings, the origin of life acting thus alone in a tub of entrails. She leaned over the mass muttering, the mole on her chin beating lightly with the working of her mouth, it uttering jaunty prophecies of blood. For a moment Rhody wanted to push the old one into the tub of quivering intestines, to thrust her forward and downward into the medium of blood and fat."
Overcome with revulsion, Rhody leaves home to visit her married sister, determined to break off the match. She finds herself an upsetting element in an already tense marriage. Joe, her brother-in-law, is attracted to her, and there are ugly scenes. Rhody flees home and discovers at last that she truly loves her betrothed, Kirk Brown, when her younger sisters burn a letter from him which she has not opened. "'Me and you, Rhody,' that's what it says in the letter," they jeer. And then everything is all right again. "Life seemed very simple to her when Kirk was near, as if only those things of which he took account had reason or being. Now value was thus focused at the point where his hand closed upon her own, and as he walked he looked at her continually."
Nature can be a nightmare, as when an old witch of a woman grubs in a pig's entrails, or a sister sleeps with her idiot half-brother, or a man commits rape, but peace can follow nightmare if a proper adjustment is made between man and his natural physical environment. What is hard to understand is why the form of the short story did not strike Miss Roberts as a better tool for her purpose than the allegorical novel. "The Betrothed" expresses all that My Heart and My Flesh attempts to say.
Still, Elizabeth Madox Roberts accomplished in the best of her fiction, long and short, the object that she set for herself, which should keep her name permanently in the front rank of American novelists: "If I can, in art, bring the physical world before the mind with a greater closeness, richer immediacy than before, so that mind rushes out to the very edge of sense—then mind turns about and sees itself mirrored within itself."
Robert Penn Warren (essay date 2 March 1963)
SOURCE: Warren, Robert Penn. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: Life Is from Within." Saturday Review 46, no. 9 (2 March 1963): 20-1, 38.
[In the following essay, Warren suggests that Roberts's work focuses on the inner victory of its characters, citing examples from The Time of Man and My Heart and My Flesh.]
The Time of Man, the first novel by a spinster of forty-five, was published in 1926. It was received with almost universal acclaim. Edward Garnett, reviewing the English edition, flatly described the author as a genius. And such varied admirers as Joseph Wood Krutch, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Morss Lovett, T. S. Stribling, and Glenway Wescott were not much less guarded in their praise. Furthermore, the novel was a best-seller and an adoption of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The next year My Heart and My Flesh was, again, a success, book club and all. By 1930, with the appearance of The Great Meadow, the fourth novel, it was impossible to discuss American fiction without reference to Elizabeth Madox Roberts.
By the time of her death in 1941 Elizabeth Madox Roberts had lived past her reputation and her popularity. Now she is remembered only by those who read her in their youth when she was new, and news. The youth of today do not even know her name.
Elizabeth Eleanor Madox Roberts was born on October 30, 1881, in the village of Perryville, Kentucky, where one of the crucial and most bloody battles of the Civil War had been fought and where her own father, a raw volunteer, age sixteen, had received his baptism of Federal fire. Both the father and mother were of old Kentucky families, now living, in the backwash of war, in what euphemistically would be called reduced circumstances. Both the father and mother had been teachers, and were lovers of books and carriers of legend; and the imagination of the daughter Elizabeth was nourished on the long sweep of time from which the individual rises for his moment of effort and testing.
But to the sense of time was added a sense of place. Perryville, and the little town of Springfield, to which the family removed when Elizabeth was three, lie in a fertile, well-watered country on the edge of the rich Blue Grass. It was then a quiet farm country in sight of the Knobs, with the old ways of action, thought, and speech to be found up any lane off the Louisville pike, and sometimes on the pike. In childhood, in young ladyhood, and later as a lonely teacher in back-country schools, Elizabeth Madox Roberts learned those old ways. She knew the poetry of this pastoral quietness, but she knew, too, the violence and suffering beneath the quietness. Her stories grew out of the life of the place, and are told in a language firmly rooted in that place.
Stories grow out of place and time, but they also grow, if they are any good, out of the inner struggle of the writer; as Elizabeth Madox Roberts puts it: "Life Is from Within." So we think of the girl growing up isolated by poverty, dreams, and persistent bad health, trying to find a way for herself, but gradually learning, in what travail of spirit we cannot know except by inference, that hers would not be the ordinary, full-blooded way of the world. And how often in the novels do we find some vital, strong person, usually a man, described as "rich with blood"—and how much ambivalence may we detect behind the phrase?
Over and over again, the heroine of a novel is a young woman who must find a way. There is Ellen Chesser of The Time of Man, who struggles in the dire poverty of the poor white, in ignorance, in rejection by the world and by her first lover, toward her spiritual fulfilment. There is Theodosia Bell of My Heart and My Flesh, who suffers in the ruin of her genteel family, in the discovery of the father's licentiousness and of her mulatto sisters and brother, in rejection in love, in frustrated ambition as a musician in a physical and nervous collapse that draws her to the verge of suicide, but who finds a way back. There is Jocelle, of He Sent Forth a Raven, who is trapped in a house of death (as Theodosia was trapped in the house of her aunt), is deprived of her lover, is shocked and fouled by a random rape, but who finds a way.
To return to the life of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, she was thirty-six years old when, after the apparently aimless years of schoolteaching in Springfield and the country around, she took the decisive step that put her on the way, and registered at the University of Chicago. Here, a freshman old enough to be the mother of her classmates, she moved into the literary life of the university, associating before long with such young writers of talent as Glenway Wescott, Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, and Monroe Wheeler. She had escaped from Springfield. But she had brought Springfield with her. And after her graduation she went back to Springfield.
She was forty years old. On the surface she had little enough to show for what Springfield must have regarded as her eccentric adventure, only a Phi Beta Kappa key and a handful of little poems; but in 1922, the year when the handful of poems was published as a volume called Under the Tree, she began work on The Time of Man. In it are the sweep of time, the depth and richness of place, and the echo of her own struggle to find a way. These things were the gifts her experience had given.
As she put it in her journal, Elizabeth Madox Roberts had originally thought of "the wandering tenant farmer of our region as offering a symbol for an Odyssy [sic] of man as a wanderer, buffetted about by the fates and weathers." But by the time she began to write, the main character was Ellen Chesser, the daughter of such a man, and we see her, in the opening sentence of the novel, age fourteen, sitting in the broken-down wagon of their wanderings, writing her name in the empty air with her finger. This "Odyssy" is, essentially, a spiritual journey, the journey of the self toward the deep awareness of identity, which means peace. As for the stages of the journey, again we may turn to the journal:
I. A Genesis. She comes into the land. But the land rejects her. She remembers Eden (Tessie).
II. She grows into the land, takes soil or root. Life tries her, lapses into loveliness—in the not-lover Trent.
III. Expands with all the land.
IV. The first blooming.
V. Withdrawal—and sinking back into the earth.
VI. Flowering out of stone.1
The numbering here does not refer to chapters, but to the basic movements of the story, which the author took to be, to adapt the phrasing of one of the reviewers, an emblem of the common lot, a symbol of the time of man.
The abstract pattern given in the journal is, in the novel itself, fleshed out in the story of Ellen Chesser. In this life of shiftless wandering she yearns for a red wagon that won't break down. Later, as she passes by the solid farmhouses set amid maples and sees the farmers on sleek horses or encounters their wives with suspicion in their glance, and learns that she is outcast and alienated, she yearns for things by which to identify herself. "If I only had things to put in drawers and drawers to put things in," she says, remembering herself begging old clothes at the door of a rich house. And later still, when she has found her man, she dreams of "Good land lying out smooth, a little clump of woodland, just enough to shade the cows at noon, a house fixed, the roof mended, a porch to sit on when the labor was done"—all this a dream never to come quite true.
What does come true in the end—after the betrayal by her first love, after the struggle against the impulse to violence and suicide, after love and child-bearing, after unremitting work and the sight of reward tantalizingly just out of reach, after betrayal by the husband and reconciliation over the body of a dead child, after the whipping of her husband, by night riders, as a suspected barnburner—is the discovery of the strength to deal with life. "I'll go somewhere far out of hearen of this place," her husband says, nursing his stripes. "I've done little that's amiss here, but still I'd have to go." And she says: "I'd go where you go and live where you live, all my enduren life." So they take to the road again: "They went a long way while the moon was still high above the trees, stopping only at some creek to water the beasts."
Thus the abstract pattern is fleshed out with the story of Ellen, but the story itself is fleshed out by her consciousness. What lies at the center of the consciousness is a sense of wonder. It is, in the beginning, the wonder of youth and unlettered ignorance, simple wonder at the objects of the world, at the strange thing to be seen at the next turn of the road or over the next hill, at the wideness of the world, sometimes an "awe of all places," and a "fear of trees and stones," sometimes a wonder at the secret processes of the world, as when her father tells her that rocks "grow," that some have "shells printed on the side and some have little snails worked on their edges," and that once he "found a spider with a dragon beast in a picture on its back." But all the wonder at the wideness and age and ways of the world passes over into wonder at the fact of self set in the midst of the world, as when in a lonely field Ellen cries out against the wind, "I'm Ellen Chesser! I'm here!"
Beyond naïve wonder and the deeper wonder at the growth of self-hood, there is a sense of life as ritual even in the common duties, as an enactment that numenously embodies the relation of the self to its setting in nature, in the human community, and in time. Take, for example, the scene where Ellen is engaged in the daily task of feeding the flock of turkeys—turkeys, by the way, not her own:
She would take the turkey bread in her hand and go, bonnetless, up the gentle hill across the pasture in the light of sundown, calling the hens as she went. She was keenly aware of the ceremony and aware of her figure rising out of the fluttering birds, of all moving together about her. She would hear the mules crunching their fodder as she went past the first barn, and she would hear the swish of the falling hay, the thud of a mule hoof on a board, a man's voice ordering or whistling a tune.…She would crumble down the bread for each brood near its coop and she would make the count and see to the drinking pans. Then she would go back through the gate, only a wire fence dividing her from the milking group, and walk down the pasture in the dusk. That was all; the office would be done.
This sense of ritual, here explicit for the only time but suffusing the book, is related to the notion of "telling." Ritual makes for the understanding of experience in relation to the community of the living and the dead; so does "telling." Ellen, when the family first drops aside from the life of the road, yearns to see her friend Tessie, one of the wanderers, for in "telling" Tessie of the new life she would truly grasp it. Or the father sits by the fire and tells his life: "That's the story of my life, and you wanted to know it." Or Jonas, the lover who is later to jilt Ellen, makes his courtship by a "telling" of his sin. And later on, Jasper "would come that night and tell her the story of his life and then, if she was of a mind to have him, they would get married."
The novel is not Ellen's own "telling," but it is a shadow of her telling. The language, that is, is an index of her consciousness, and as such is the primary exposition of her character and sensibility. But it is also the language of her people, of her place and class, with all the weight of history and experience in it. We can isolate turns and phrases that belong to this world: "… if he comes again and takes off the property he'll maybe have trouble and a lavish of it too." Or: "I got no call to be a-carryen water for big healthy trollops. Have you had bad luck with your sweethearten?" But it is not the color of the isolated turn that counts most. It is, rather, the rhythm and tone of the whole; and not merely in dialogue, but in the subtle way the language of the outer world is absorbed into the shadowy paraphrase of Ellen's awareness, and discreetly informs the general style. For instance, as she sits late by the fire with her first love, Jonas, with her father snoring away in the bed across the room:
The mouse came back and ate crumbs near the chairs. Ellen's eyes fell on the little oblong gray ball as it rolled nearer and nearer. Jonas was sitting with her, tarrying. It was a token. She looked at his hand where it lay over her hand in her lap, the same gaze holding the quiet of the mouse and the quiet of his hand that moved, when it stirred, with the sudden soft motions of the little beast. The roosters crowed from farm to farm in token of midnight and Henry turned in his sleep once again.
It is, all in all, a dangerous game to play. In a hundred novels for a hundred years we have seen it go sour, either by condescension or by the strain to exhibit quaint and colorful locutions—which is, in fact, a symptom of condescension. But in The Time of Man it is different. For one thing, the writer's ear is true, as true as, for example, that of Eudora Welty, Caroline Gordon, Andrew Lytle, Erskine Caldwell (at times), William Faulkner, or George W. Harris, the creator of Sut Lovingood. Like all these writers, who differ so much among themselves, Elizabeth Madox Roberts is able to relate, selectively, the special language to her own special vision. For another thing, the language is not a façade over nothingness, like the false front of a nonexistent second story of the general store on the main street of a country town. It is, rather, the language of a person, and a society, which is realized in the novel with a sober actuality.
If The Time of Man —or My Heart and My Flesh for that matter—is as good as I think it is, how did it happen to disappear so soon, almost without a bubble to mark the spot? We may remember, however, that this is not the first good book, or writer, to go underground. There is, for one thing, what we may call the natural history of literary reputation. When a writer dies we start, immediately after the respectful obsequies, the ritual of "reassessment"—which is another word for "cutting-down-to-size." In the case of Elizabeth Madox Roberts the ordinary situation was aggravated by the fact that her later work had declined in critical and popular esteem. The firm grip on social and individual actualities which undergirded the poetry of sensibility in the first two novels had, in the later work, been progressively relaxed. More and more we find a dependence on allegory and arbitrary symbolism; and with the natural base cut away the poetry moves over into prettification and preciosity.
Furthermore, this situation—which, we may hazard, had some relation to her gradual withdrawal into illness—was in a setting which would, in any case, have made for the rejection of even her earlier work. It was the period when a critic as informed as David Daiches could reject Conrad because, at least as Daiches believed, he "does not concern himself at all with the economic and social background underlying human relationships." Or when Herbert Muller could reject Flaubert as irrelevant to the age. Or when Maxwell Geismar could reject Faulkner as a "dissipated talent" and the victim of a "cultural psychosis," explaining that in him "the heritage of American negation reaches its final emphasis." So we can see why The Time of Man fell out of fashion: the novel presents Ellen Chesser, not in active protest against the deprivation and alienation of the life of the sharecropper, but in the process of coming to terms, in a personal sense, with the tragic aspect of life.
The agenda of the 1930s carried many items bearing on the urgent need to change the social and economic environment but none bearing on the need to explore the soul's relation to fate. Any literary work that was concerned with an inward victory was, in certain influential quarters, taken as subtle propaganda against any effort directed toward outward victory. It was as though one had to choose between the "inner" and the "outer."
What was true in the world of literature was even more vindictively true in the world of actuality. There, even when the awareness of the desperate need for changing the economic and social arrangements was coupled with an awareness of the worth of the individual who was a victim of the existing order, the tendency was to accept the graph, the statistic, the report of a commission, the mystique of "collectivism," as the final reality. The result was that, in that then fashionable form of either-or thinking, the inner world of individual experience was as brutally ignored as by an overseer on a Delta cotton farm.
It is now possible that we are growing out of this vicious either-or thinking. We may now see that we do not need to choose, and that if we do choose, in anything more than a provisional, limited sense, we are denying reality and are quite literally verging toward lunacy. And verging, in fact, toward a repetition of the bloodiest crimes of this century.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts says that "Life is from within," and her typical story is, to repeat, the story of an inner victory. In dealing with the dispossessed of the South she has, like Eudora Welty or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or James Agee (to refer to a document of the 1930s, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"), recognized the dignity of the lowliest creature. But she knew that to recognize fully the dignity of any creature demands that we recognize the anguish of the collision with actuality. So in the story of Ellen Chesser we find no scanting of the grimness of fact, of the pinch of hunger, of the contempt in the eyes met on the road, of the pain of the lash laid on the bare back.
She was aiming, she wrote in her journal, at a fusion of the inner and the outer, at what she called "poetic realism":
Somewhere there is a connection between the world of the mind and the outer order—it is the secret of the contact that we are after, the point, the moment of union. We faintly sense the one and we know as faintly the other, but there is a point where they come together, and we can never know the whole of reality until we have these two completely.
This is as good a description as any of what The Time of Man was trying to make of Ellen Chesser's relation to herself and to the world. The novel is, in a sense, a pastoral, but only a false reading would attribute to it the condescension, the ambiguous humility on the part of writer and reader, and the sentimentally melancholy acceptance of the status quo which often characterize the pastoral. No, it is the inner reality of Ellen and of her people that, in the end, makes social protest significant, makes social justice "just."
Perhaps now, after the distortions of the 1930s and the sicknesses of the 1940 and 1950s, we can recover The Time of Man. Perhaps we can even find in it some small medicine against the special sickness and dehumanizing distortions of the 1960s. Perhaps we can profit from the fact that Elizabeth Madox Roberts came, to adapt the lines by Yeats on John Synge,
Towards nightfall upon a race
Passionate and simple like her heart.
1. The references are drawn from Herald to Chaos, by Earl H. Rovit.
Frederick P. W. McDonald (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: McDonald, Frederick P. W. "A Journey up the Peak." In Elizabeth Madox Roberts, pp. 28-33. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1963.
[In the following excerpt, McDonald discusses Roberts's poetic works, asserting that her verse "lacks the incisiveness and originality of the best modern poetry and of the style of her best novels."]
The Poetofthe "Clear First Impression"
Miss Roberts began as a poet, and intermittently composed poetry throughout her career. Her first principal volume was the result of her literary activity at the University of Chicago. Many of the poems collected in Under the Tree (1922) were first written for Professor Lovett's English classes; a few were written as daily themes in her English composition classes. In these poems she assimilated, without discord or hint of the patronizing, the child's perspective. Under the Tree consists of some sixty poems which vary from four to forty lines. Most of the poems are noteworthy for Miss Roberts' apprehension of vivid and significant, if often overlooked, detail. Her sensitivity to this range of emotional and sensuous experience meant that she was able to capture the child's concentrated and unconventional reactions to his world. Miss Roberts' delicacy of observation, when she put herself in the child's place, characterizes, for example, "Autumn Fields," as the girl scrutinizes the clothes of the tramp she is talking to: "And there were sticktights on his clothes / And little dusts of seeds and stems" (1930 ed., p. 68).
The child's seizing of experience is often translated into fantasy when imagination becomes impatient with facts and invests them with a significance of its own devising. In "The Richest Woman in the World" the girl equates the abstract idea of wealth with what she can alone appreciate: the concrete, conceived in terms of ornate and valuable material objects. "On the Hill" is more delicate and allusive, as she ponders her home from the hillside and tries to imagine how it must look from there at various times. Playfulness of fancy underlies a poem like "Shells in Rock" : the girl finds fossil shells everywhere in the rocks and in the stones used for constructing houses and bridges, and she then wonders what would happen if the sea were to come back and gather up its shells.
Miss Roberts in certain other poems conveyed the child's more intense reactions to experience. "August Night" is partly philosophical; as the girl gazes at the infinite number of stars, she realizes with dismay the impossibility of ever getting to know them all. A sinister tone dominates lyrics like "Cold Fear" (the child fears the winter weather after having been exposed alone to it) and "In the Night" (the youngster with her disordered imagination sees a panther slink under her bed, preliminary to beholding a still more horrible monster in her chair). One of the best poems, "The Dark," 1 gathers suggestiveness and foreboding as the child at night watches six lights go out one by one, only to be aware of her total isolation as the last fades out:
A night fly comes with powdery wings
That beat on my face—it's a moth that brings
A feel of dust, and then a bright
Quick moment comes to the one little light.
But it flickers out and then it is still,
And nothing is left on the hill.
(1930 ed., p. 57)
Only in the poems discussed in the preceding paragraph did Miss Roberts achieve her aim of universalizing the child's experience. Although all the poems have a charm comparable to that found in Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, only seldom do they expand, like the childhood poems of Walter de la Mare, to convey truths about life in general.
The poems collected in Song in the Meadow (1940) were written at various times during Miss Roberts' career and show that poetry for her was a natural form of literary expression. Although she did not write many poems, she was nevertheless steadily called to the composing of them. Her first-rate productions are few, but these do achieve an absolute excellence.
Almost one half of the titles in Song in the Meadow have origins in the life of the Kentucky rural folk, in their legends and traditions, and in their interpretations of experience—the same range of subjects upon which Miss Roberts drew for novels like The Time of Man, A Buried Treasure, and Black Is My True-love's Hair. "Song for a Girl Sent to Drive Cows," "How Your Truelove to Know," and "The Lean Year" (which dramatizes, like The Time of Man, the hard lot of the inarticulate farmers) directly reflect the life of Kentucky rural people. Miss Roberts also gave form to regional lore in "Woodcock of the Ivory Beak," "Sailing for America" (based upon the experience of her stowaway ancestor, David Garvin) and the various commemorations of Daniel Boone (evidently part of the never-completed Boone saga). These Boone poems are sometimes arresting; for example, the concluding lines of "When Daniel Was a Blacksmith" :
And the wild beasts in a thousand hills,
And in a thousand valley-prongs,
They lifted up their quivering ears
To hear his anvil songs.
In "Corbin, the Cobbler" Miss Roberts recorded the reactions of a shrewd man of uncultivated sensibility to the cataclysm of world war. She also redacted well-known tales into the Kentucky idiom with the writing of "Cinderella's Song" and "Jack the Giant Killer." Similarly, she adapted Greek legend and Scriptural story to the Kentucky scene in "Orpheus" and "I, Adam." With an energy reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, Adam in the second poem names all the creatures of God: "A bubble of dark / Re-winded water, wing beat up and over, / And I flung, 'Hark, hark, the lark …'" (88).
Though Miss Roberts made constant use of folk materials and of ballad and folk-song metres in her work, her explicitly regional poems are mostly somewhat too relaxed in inspiration and too diffuse in form. They also reveal a vision too often deficient in force.
If in subject these "folk" poems seem close to Miss Roberts' novels, they are in reality less akin to the fiction than are the handful of lyrics in which she achieved her greatest distinction as a poet; for Miss Roberts' genius was lyrical both in her poetry and in the heightened sections of her novels. The primary influences upon Miss Roberts were Hardy and Hopkins, whose work she assimilated as departures for her own. "Disconsolate Morning" features a gaunt winter season, presented in the terse manner and in the black and white tones typical of Hardy in his poetry. Similarly, "Love Went Riding" contrasts the coldness and darkness of nature with the warmth of human love. In this poem, moreover, Miss Roberts revealed her continued fascination with geology, with "old seas locked into rock."
Even stronger as an influence was Hopkins2 who inspired excellent poems like "Love in the Harvest," "Summer Is Ended: Love's Fullness" (the "love" in these two lyrics is the love of God), "Moonlight in Summer" (the mockingbird is symbolic of God's spiritual knowledge, and becomes "a spear / For God, the lover, the infinite builder, the master" ), and "Love Begun" (the complex origins of the human creature as he awakens to sexual love are traced). Most imposing of all her lyrics is one that shows direct indebtedness to Hopkins, "Sonnet of Jack," which Miss Roberts used as a dedicatory poem for Song in the Meadow. "Jack," as in Hopkins, is any man; he and his friends, male and female, make manifest their origin in God by their instinctive adoration of Him. The poet feels she must enter "Jack's" time on earth at a point where opposite impulsions meet, where man simultaneously reveals his sinful heritage and his high aspirations, "where his damned-to-perdition sin and his sheltering / Spirit join his throat-throbbing, bird-singing / Joy …" (5).
The influence of Hopkins is more tenuously present in Miss Roberts' prose. At all points in her fiction, however, she shares Hopkins' desire to re-create, through the written word, sensuous and emotional experience in all its immediacy—even to the extent of wrenching and distorting language to achieve startling effects. As with Hopkins, contortion of language is an idiosyncrasy with Miss Roberts, but one justified in most cases by the results.
Among notable philosophical poems are "Man Intolerant" and "Conversations beside a Stream." In the first, man, because of his spiritual and moral limitations which end in war, is shown drifting "Toward the last holocaust, the infinite merciless first-last unknowing abyss" (69). Herein Miss Roberts enunciates explicitly her psychological horror at the spectacle of world-wide war, a state of mind she also dramatized through the characters and events in He Sent Forth a Raven. "Conversations beside a Stream," written for oral presentation, is her most ambitious poem though not her best. She consciously used the rhythms and vocabulary of the spoken language and the long line and catalogues of Whitman. In the first section we have principally compendiums of American geography, legend, and history. The poem then opens out to consider the destiny of the individual in America, where men must continually mediate between the light and darkness to be found in the human spirit. America's divided heritage is embodied, Miss Roberts asserted, in the work of two of her greatest men. Melville wrote of the sea, "where … Moby Dick, shape and substance of man's woe, roams unhindered though not unchallenged"; and Jefferson voiced in the Declaration mankind's aspirations in America, gathering "into one fiat the wills, the desires of a people, of thousands of thinking and feeling men" (79).
The poems I have discussed in detail are good enough to indicate that Miss Roberts was by nature and instinct a poet; the paucity of such poems suggests what is indeed the case: Miss Roberts best fulfilled her poetic impulses through the dense, close-woven, somewhat stylized language of the novels. Her verse, for the most part, lacks the incisiveness and originality of the best modern poetry and of the style of her best novels. In these, through the use of a germinal symbolism sometimes verging upon the private in My Heart and My Flesh and He Sent Forth a Raven, Miss Roberts attained brilliant effects. In her novels she actualized best her view of poetry as an art that "must appeal to the emotions each time it appears, with the freshness and vigor and the charm of a clear first impression. It flashes into media where the intelligence goes crawling and gasping."
- "The Richest Woman in the World," "Cold Fear," and "The Dark" were among the poems added in the 1930 edition.
- See this fragment of a letter, probably never sent, to Fanny Butcher in the Roberts papers: "But, my own books set aside out of danger, imagination called upon to function tremendously, I discover that I should like to have written the book entitled, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins."
Frederick P. W. McDonald (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: McDonald, Frederick P. W. "Where Poetry Touches Life." In Elizabeth Madox Roberts, pp. 151-63. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1963.
[In the following essay, McDonald characterizes Roberts as a sensitive, intelligent, and visionary author, whose literary status is only hindered by her limited output.]
"Life is from within, and thus the noise outside is a wind blowing in a mirror." So Miss Roberts wrote in the concluding lines to Jingling in the Wind (256), her satirical fantasy. The first reality for her is the psyche which molds all that the senses and the conscious mind proffer to it. The psyche is no static entity acting within fixed dimensions, according to fixed principles. Rather, it is fluid, contracting or expanding to accord for the moment with the activity of the senses or the conscious mind. When stimuli or ideas impinge upon it, the consciousness opens inwardly to hint at infinite vistas and a reality at once inescapable, elusive, and intangible. In moments of sharpened perception which verge on ecstasy, Ellen Chesser and Diony Jarvis know these dissolving internal expanses; and Jeremy, the poet in Jingling in the Wind, is fascinated as his tingling senses send currents of feeling into ever-receding depths of his spirit:
The outer tentacles of his being had touched the rain and the coolness of the morning, had touched the day, and they spread now as a nebula, as a fog of stellar matter around an inner nucleus. Here, in the core, an aggregate, as guardian, this waited in attendance upon the inner nucleole, upon the fine interior and most continually present integer from which, opening again and more inwardly, another nebula funneled wide.
If the spirit reaches within to always lengthening depths of being, the infinitudes of time and space in turn converge upon it from without, to be absorbed then in its recesses: "Acute moment of consciousness in which the entire universe, time, space—all gathered into self—(myself)."*
The sovereign self: this is the final reality in Miss Roberts' philosophy as in Berkeley's. When Diony Jarvis soothes her hungry child in the concluding sequence of The Great Meadow, she gazes at the last candle as it gutters but also glows more brightly before it is extinguished. So does the individual soul, though fated to extinction, persist in spreading its light until the end. The inmost consciousness is great even if it is at last mortal—another paradox in Miss Roberts' philosophy, memorably set forth in Jingling in the Wind : "In the midst of confusion there is always a flow of harmony, a quiet water that is not troubled by the weathers which are those winds of the world that blow about the earth" (248). The passion, universal in human nature, for order and stability becomes in its most intense form a quest for spiritual certitude. At the point of greatest harmony between the self and the world, an individual may experience a sudden illumination of his whole nature. In essence, the efforts of the human being to order his destiny reflect the tendency of the cosmos to give pattern to chaos. At such moments of revelation and spiritual fruition, one's awareness of a transcendent power increases: "Flowing out of him forever is the imperative need, the 'desire' for some good way, some harmonious plan by which to live. And thus the argument leads back to God."*
The illuminated soul responds to, or expresses itself as, design. In religion we recognize design as the ordering presence of God Who spreads His light around Him; in art it is the ordering element of form. For Miss Roberts, who followed Berkeley in a belief that only the perceived exists, the artifact of the artist would be meaningless without "some cerebro-sensual interpretation or interpreter"* to respond to the design imbuing its very organism. The artist himself begins by sensing the relationships among the elements of his experience. His distinctive function is this "comprehension of pure form, the mind demanding that things, lines, masses of matter be placed in certain relations to give satisfaction or pleasure."* It is just this clarity, present at its most perspicuous in sacred writings, which gives them their continuing religious—and aesthetic—force: "The value of sacred writings is not in their moral teaching, although some ancient writings are of social or historical interest, morality being a matter of fashion, but in their aesthetic and comforting design, their approach to pure form. Here is the challenge to god-hood, the revelation from God."* This "apprehension of form by the mind," then, assumes metaphysical dimensions, gives intimations of a supernal order, and provides "an evidence of an unseen power at work, a Hand moving among the things of science but untouched by Science."*
Though form in art has its transcendental implications and though literature is ultimately great in so far as it can embody them, form has more immediate relevance for the artist. Given his sense of the relationship of part to whole, he can complete his design for a given work, he can organize his knowledge to communicate best his vision of the world, and he can experience to the full the "secret but entirely private mental passion which gratifies itself in creation."* The artist must express his instinctive feeling for the "shape" in things—"the flow of words, experiences, music, objects placed"*—if he is to fulfill his basic role as "cerebro-sensual interpreter" of his experience, although it may be as prophet and seer that we most value him.
Miss Roberts, in describing the creation of one of her most formally perfect books, The Great Meadow, confessed that she was under just such compulsion to express her knowledge in terms of an emerging, all-encompassing design:
There is finally and at first, last and first, the aesthetic requirement, the design to be completed. Beyond theses and plot, beyond history and the daily real, is a thematic design—this final satisfaction to be met. The mind requires its fulfillment. One cannot avoid the demand. Some ulterior and fit design beyond all the uses of the mind, some necessity inherent in human works, calls for the consummation. Shall we say the "categorical aesthetic"? It is the message from beyond life. The hand of God writing on the walls of the Cosmos.*
Miss Roberts combined formal tautness with the free expansion of the organizing consciousness for a given novel. The intricacies of the inner life register decisively since the perceptions of the protagonist are subtly organized through style and sense of structure to serve the requirements of form—not merely presented in their chaotic abundance, as, for example, we often find in the novels of Dorothy Richardson. Miss Roberts' novels are essentially, then, luminous transcriptions of the mental life as it operates within lucidly conceived patterns. The novels have both solidity of substance and strength of structure; only He Sent Forth a Raven produces an occasional impression of diffuseness.
Since Miss Roberts found "the other-worldly in the very dust of the ground,"* we can assume that an "imitation" of life as she knew it in Kentucky would form the basis of her art. She saw that she could reach deepest into the inner realm and its expanding horizons from without. If through the farthest reaches of form Miss Roberts reached the transcendent, she also knew that the artist must begin with the realities he knows best in order to achieve his luminous insights. He must try, as Miss Roberts did, "for great precision in rendering sensuous contacts—the points where poetry touches life."* The creative imagination, in fact, operates most flexibly at the juncture of the mind and the outward order: "It is the secret of the contact that we are after, the point, the moment of the union."* The artist, in fact, has much to write about if he can penetrate all that life has given him. There is thus no subject alien to his sympathies, "no beauty too pure or too exalted to be approached by literature and no suffering or ugliness through which men must pass which is too gross or too repulsive."*
Much as Miss Roberts stressed the inner lives of her heroines, she felt that their subjectively rendered existences must be related, with entire fidelity, to the facts of their lives as people. Her characters would, she felt, lose immediacy if they were to express anguish and ecstasy at several removes from their milieu: "Healthy plants in a horticultural paradise, these would be, suffering their exquisite epicurean distresses, ticklish of pruning shears or delicately queasy for the messiness of sprays."*
Miss Roberts was aware, then, of the abundant resources for fictional art in her native Kentucky and decided to make use of them in writing fiction: "Here, in our region, there are many large themes and large motives lying all about us. Sincerity and talent are required, and a clear sense of the exalted function of literature."* Such sincerity, such talent, and such a view of literature Miss Roberts of course possessed. She had, furthermore, an honesty that compelled her to tell the truth as she saw it and to present her experience "without neorealism and without stress on 'red-blooded' brutality, and without sentiment either."* She also knew that she might elicit universal meaning from the humblest materials, that the sensitive individual from ordinary life like Ellen Chesser, Diony Hall, and Philly Blair might truly represent humanity's aspirations and defeats. She was not always successful in giving minor characters these universal dimensions, but in her fiction at its best, she demonstrated, as the realistic artist generally does, that an unpretentious person, fully analyzed, may speak for all humanity. She was conscious of such an aim in writing Black Is My Truelove's Hair, and her description of the characters in this book would also apply to those in her other books: "They are people of the average walks of life. The great common medium, the common man, the only man about whom great books can be written, though mine lay no claim upon greatness. They are the Man common to all men."*
Not only must her characters be representative, she thought, but her subjects must have breadth and scope or attain such proportions in her writing of them. Hence the "epic" quality of many of her books, their suggestion that we have humanity reduced to essentials, facing elemental yet everlasting problems: "The only subjects worthy of permanent consideration are the fundamental passions, or instincts. Homeric themes of blood and waste and death … Of life."* The spectacle of man heroically at odds with great forces but never completely successful in his struggles with them dominates her books and induces the tragic cast of her world, which, despite the power of resurrection revealed in her central characters, persists as the major note in her fiction. As she revealed in a journal entry, Miss Roberts knew that man attained grandeur in his unequal struggle with the universal powers: "Man is greatest in tragic art because here he is seen to be worthy of conflicts with the vaster powers and destinies of the universe."*
The artist, in bridging the inner and outer realms, must be a temperament upon whom nothing is lost. In the mode of Henry James as Miss Roberts described his work, the modern novelist will strive for "those delvings into meanings and half meanings which we like to make in our effort to enlarge the capacity for experience and to revalue the human race."* Such psychological sensitivity will manifest itself both in the artist's treatment of his subject and in the involutions of his characters' responses. When the artist is a woman and the central figures of her fiction are also women, Miss Roberts felt that the utmost nuances of feeling would be caught and the most elusive shades of the truth defined. As one who was greatly sensitive herself, Miss Roberts valued the emotional predispositions of the feminine temperament:
There is much more to a woman than there is to a man. More complication. A woman is more closely identified with the earth, more real because deeper gifted with pain, danger, and a briefer life. More intense, richer in memory and feeling.
A man's machinery is all outside himself. A woman's deeply and dangerously inside. Amen.*
It was only natural, then, that an artist who regarded herself as endowed with "an over-acute realization of relations and things,"* would create heroines marked by an almost neurotic sensibility as they react to the world outside and to the promptings of the spirit. Attenuation sometimes results, sometimes rich patterns of meaning, as Miss Roberts works with and through her protagonists to illustrate both "the way of the mind as an analyst and that of it as a seer."1
If the spirit is to be a free agent in both the artist and his characters, the rigid ideas which might interfere with the spontaneous expression of the consciousness in its depths must be resisted. The unconscious must be free to influence conscious thought and behavior. Whereas Miss Roberts never directly mentioned Freud and Jung, the new psychology by the 1920's was so definitely in the atmosphere that in theory and practice she assimilated more of it than she might have been prepared to grant. The sexual symbolism in her novels, the identification of the life-energies with sexual expression, and the distortions of the mind under duress—all reveal assimilation of psychoanalysis comparable to Sherwood Anderson's and D. H. Lawrence's. This journal entry, for example, shows an appreciation of the unconscious as the repository of much that is most true and vital in human existence:
A convenient pseudo order which does not take into account the whole of life. This, we say is life, this organized routine, and all else is shut out in an outer dark of the mind. Thus is shut out the true structure of the mind in its deeply fundamental fiber, the caverns where certain concepts and emotions lie, ready to leap to meet their word and take momentary possession.*
The artist, moreover, identifies himself with his characters. He will withdraw from them, however, when such fusion with them would impede their free existence, especially as they would express their deepest natures. Thus he will impose no artificial restraints upon his creations: "I oscillate between an identity of myself with the actors and a condition of aesthetic detachment, the latter way prevailing more often—producing form and aesthetic sense of the tragedy or beauty of the scene."* As external discipline or creative spontaneity for the moment operates within the psyche, the rhythms of withdrawal from experience and return to it also underlie the reactions of Miss Roberts' most sensitive characters.
Analogous to Miss Roberts' search for design among her experiences was her search for the exact word to express with precision and suggestive power an exact shade of meaning. A loving regard for words as the tools of her craft informs Miss Roberts' novels. If, as she expressed it in one of her journal notes, her feeling toward language was somewhat ambiguous ("words are poor dumb things … but poor as they are, they are … our most ready delight"), she did possess, upon occasion, a poet's intoxication with language, or as she expressed it, describing Wayne in He Sent Forth a Raven in a passage that she might have applied to herself, "He had a tender sense of language as being some essence from the roots of human life" (76). Her feeling for language was intensely personal, intuitive, and irrational in origin; and she could give no logical explanation for her own use of it: "My sense of words is much too raw and immediate, too emotional, for me ever to get them out by rule."2 Considering the poetically allusive yet sharply edged prose which Miss Roberts wrote at her best, we may wonder if her gift for language might not have been her greatest.
Mark Van Doren, in his comments on Miss Roberts, has pointed out not only the precision of her language but the indefiniteness of the effect registered.3 On the one hand we have the strength of the sinewy verbal particle; on the other, the infinite meanings which register beneath and through and above the words. Pattern and image reduce ultimately to their component words and will be as definite and evocative as the novelist's language permits. Part of the artist's satisfaction, in Miss Roberts' view, was just this "joy of shaping words and ideas to line out an image or a pattern."*
The powerfully evocative word gathers in some instances the metaphysical implications for Miss Roberts that image or design upon occasion also generated for her. The strain to reach the exact expression, to capture the last delicate shade of feeling or thought, represents another form of aspiration for the artist and sometimes for the Roberts' heroine as she may epitomize the latent strivings common to all men. The never-ending quest for just expression is at once the greatest challenge and the greatest source of satisfaction for a person of deep sensibility. Miss Roberts conveyed the importance of this search for the right word, in defining the symbol of Mome in My Heart and My Flesh :
It is the will to say, the power never being sufficient, the reach toward the last word—less than word, half-word, quarter-word, minimum of a word—that shrinks more inwardly and farthest toward its center when it is supplicated, that cries back, "Come," or "Here, here I am," when it is unsought.
Miss Roberts apparently had little influence upon Southern literature, but she was a forerunner of much that was to come. If subsequent novelists were only incidentally indebted to her, they carried further some of the themes, techniques, and values that she had elaborated. The qualities of her world and her attitudes as a writer are those which we have come to associate with the literature of the South. Many of these aspects of her work had been revealed in nineteenth-century Southern literature in the works of Poe, Simms, Lanier, Cable and others; but they have been more extensively present in twentieth-century Southern writers. Like James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, Miss Roberts is a link between the South of the nineteenth century and the writers who came into prominence in the 1930's and later and with whom we usually associate the Southern Renaissance in letters. In many ways Miss Roberts represented more clearly the directions which these later writers were to take than did Cabell and Miss Glasgow. But all three of these writers reveal a common heritage from Henry James: all wrote the novel of sensibility but in greatly different ways. Miss Roberts' fiction, as we have seen, is psychological in inception and focus; and she probed more deeply into the inner life than did any Southern novelist before the generation of Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Caroline Gordon.
Miss Roberts in her fiction presents journeys of exploration into the psyche in an effort to define the realities of human nature. Her heroines possess both sensitivity and depth, exquisite sensibility and strength of response to the forces which react upon them from without and within. They are romantics in the force of their aspiration, in their drive toward fulfillment at any cost; and they are notable for the tenacity with which they hold their values. This romantic tendency toward self-aggrandizement anticipates the self-centered, sometimes misguided yet always imposing, central figures in the Faulkner and the Robert Penn Warren novels. In common with later Southern writers, notably Warren, Miss Roberts charted voyages of spiritual discovery for her protagonists. The result of the journey for the central character in both Robert Penn Warren and Elizabeth Madox Roberts is an increase in awareness, often resulting in a conversion or a rebirth. The change in a Roberts' protagonist, therefore, is mostly from being a merely sensitive individual into being a deeply feeling one. Conversely, the only real sins for Miss Roberts, as for Robert Penn Warren, are irresponsibility and deadened feeling.
Enlargement takes place from within through suffering and endurance. Disharmonies exist; they must be removed. Violence and evil are indisputable facts of our existence; they must be met and overcome. Miss Roberts' world is a tragic one wherein fulfillment must be earned by overcoming anguish and by sheer persistence. In Miss Roberts there is also the pervasive alienation found in much modern literature and notably in the literature of the South. Under such conditions the individual's sensibility is often tortured, and he suffers the torments of the damned. Realism passes over into nightmare horror in novels like My Heart and My Flesh and He Sent Forth a Raven. In the murky depths of these books we find implicit the bizarre worlds of neurotic suffering and tragic defeat developed in writers like Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, William Styron, and Tennessee Williams—writers who owe much, of course, to Faulkner. But what is important is that Miss Roberts was writing the Faulknerian novel before Faulkner became an influence.
Another Southern tendency in literature also illustrated in Miss Roberts' work is the drift toward allegory. Most Southern writers make conscious use of symbolism in depicting people and incidents, and their characters exist both as types and as individuals. Some of these writers go beyond symbolism toward allegory as, for example, William Faulkner does in A Fable, Robert Penn Warren in World Enough and Time and Brother to Dragons, and Eudora Welty in the stories in A Curtain of Green. In these works characters and events often possess specific and separable intellectual values apart from whatever reality they otherwise exhibit. Miss Roberts worked in that direction in My Heart and My Flesh, He Sent Forth a Raven, and Black Is My Truelove's Hair.
A feeling for the complexities of life marks the Southern literary imagination. This characteristic is natural in a region which has known extremes in its social and political history and which has been subjected to radically conflicting pressures throughout its existence. The Southern writer—Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren and William Faulkner are examples—charts the tensions which control the individual, the polarities to which he is subject. The Southern writer describes the relationships existing between freedom and restraint, convention and innovation, order and disorder, love and hate, liberty and authority, decay and rebirth, illusion and vital belief, matter and spirit, God and man. Like other authors from her region, Miss Roberts established in her fiction the coordinates within which such opposing forces operate, within which the interactions between permanence as opposed to flux and the illusion as opposed to reality form so much of our knowledge.
Other characteristically Southern ranges of experience, Miss Roberts also treated with depth and insight. She was, for example, greatly sensitive to nature's moods and reflected in her fiction her own passion for earth. Miss Roberts expressed her identification with the natural world in The Time of Man and in The Great Meadow, but her spiritual view of outer reality informs, in part, all her novels. The absence of genuine rapport with the earth contributes to Theodosia Bell's initial maladjustment in My Heart and My Flesh, and it results in Stoner Drake's twisted sensibility in He Sent Forth a Raven. Nature, as we have seen, is subject to the polarities of growth and decay. It can be a coarsening and an ennobling influence, a cruel and an uplifting force. In its presence, however, pretensions wither and spiritual realities lie more clear; its effects are steadying and illuminating, more positive than negative. Miss Roberts' sensitivity extends, moreover, to a sympathetic rendering of peasant types from Ellen Chesser in The Time of Man through Caleb Burns of My Heart and My Flesh and Philly Blair of A Buried Treasure to John Logan Treer of He Sent Forth a Raven and Journeyman in Black Is My Truelove's Hair.
Miss Roberts refers less often to the antebellum past than do most other Southern writers, but she does evoke the free life of the pioneers. References to this remote past in Kentucky occur in most of her novels, and her people are often judged by how closely they illustrate the values upheld by their ancestors. The past acts, therefore, as an influence upon the present. In The Time of Man Ellen and Jasper Kent, through their wanderings, sufferings, and achievements, reveal the same stamina and fortitude which motivated Berk and Diony Jarvis in The Great Meadow. In My Heart and My Flesh Theodosia Bell perceives that Caleb Burns, her lover who makes her whole, derives from those who came originally from Virginia ("The voices about the door flowed backward toward ultimate beginnings and settled slowly around their sad maxims and histories").4 In He Sent Forth a Raven Stoner Drake celebrates a long disused iron lantern, a relic from his ancestors and a reminder of "common men … who did an uncommon thing."5 In The Great Meadow we are in direct contact with the heroic age itself; and in A Buried Treasure the imagination of the sensitive observer, Ben Shepherd, is continually enlarged by dwelling upon the memorials of his pioneer ancestors.
Miss Roberts is, however, much less obsessed with time than many of the writers who were contemporary with her or who followed her. She was less directly involved with isolating a fragment of time, at its most significant, either present or past, than Ellen Glasgow in "The Deep Past" section of The Sheltered Life or Faulkner in Quentin's section of The Sound and the Fury. Miss Roberts' heroines do not need to hold in lasting form the significant moment since others as significant may follow. They are, however, much concerned with the relationship between the temporal and the eternal, and at times they search with anxiety, sometimes with frustration, for a transcendent reality.
But Miss Roberts was sensitive to the effects of time's passage; and, like distinguished craftsmen in fiction since Henry James, she recorded time's ebb and flow with imaginative power and with psychological penetration. She depicts, with sureness and command, the passage of Ellen Chesser from girlhood to middle age, the effects of the years in the life of Diony Jarvis, and the development of Theodosia Bell from girlhood innocence to sympathetic maturity. Although Jocelle Drake grows from girlhood to young womanhood, the focus of He Sent Forth a Raven is on Jocelle as she is seen against the distant World War. We have the illusion, therefore, that only a few crucial years pass in Jocelle's life. More closely observant still of the unity of time are the minor novels, A Buried Treasure and Black Is My Truelove's Hair —a few weeks provides the span of the first and about a year passes in the second.
Although Miss Roberts embodied many themes that were the concern of novelists who were to follow her, there are several aspects of modern experience which are absent from her work. She was much less interested in manners and the surfaces of social life than writers like Eudora Welty and Caroline Gordon. We find at times a quiet humor and an ironical presentation of the disparity between one's expectations for a full life and one's meager realizations. Nevertheless, comic incongruities and distancing between author and character figure less in Miss Roberts' world than we might expect in an author so preoccupied with the contrarieties of experience.
She is also only incidentally concerned with twentieth-century social and economic life; when she comments upon the modern age in He Sent Forth a Raven and Black Is My Truelove's Hair, she rejects it in favor of an Arcadian world in rural Kentucky. The passions often yield to excessive mentalizing of them, yet violent scenes occur often enough to give force and pressure to Miss Roberts' renditions of life. She is little attracted to the masculine world of enterprise or even to the effects of people's actions on one another unless their actions affect her heroine's sensibility. The inner drama, not the outer, is presented in her work.
Given the confines of Miss Roberts' world, however, there is much variety in her novels—from Ellen's primitive life in nature to Diony's cultivated consciousness as she builds a new mental world for herself, to Theodosia's tortured sensitivity, and to Jocelle's dialectical endeavors to reach truth. The novels go from the realistic to the allegorical, and all are, to greater or lesser degree, symbolic parables illustrating the themes of psychic death and psychic restoration.
Miss Roberts had many gifts. If she does not indisputably achieve major status, it is because her novels are few (though she wrote much during the few years spanned by her writing career) and their scope is somewhat restricted. Among the first-class novelists of twentieth-century America, Miss Roberts is original, evocative, and accomplished. Her universe is one we explore with continuing satisfaction. Intelligence, sensitivity, depth of perception, poetic vision, stylistic immediacy and strength, luminous sensibility, insight into the complex relationships between the individual and his traditions—these are Miss Roberts' distinctive qualities as a craftsman in fiction. She impressively practiced the art of the novel, and she explored with strength and fastidiousness a domain new at that time to American literature.
Throughout this [excerpt], an asterisk [*] following a quotation signifies that the source is the Elizabeth Madox Roberts papers in the Library of Congress.
- Letter to George S. Oppenheimer (formerly of Viking Press), undated.
- Letter to Marshall A. Best, Aug. 18, 1927.
- "Elizabeth Madox Roberts," English Journal, XXI (September, 1932), 521-28.
- P. 292.
- P. 203.
Herman E. Spivey (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: Spivey, Herman E. "The Mind and Creative Habits of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." In … All These to Teach: Essays in Honor of C. A. Robertson, edited by Robert A. Bryan, Alton C. Morris, A. A. Murphree, and Aubrey L. Williams, pp. 237-48. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965.
[In the following essay, Spivey assesses Roberts's "handicaps as a literary artist" and argues that, despite their faults, Roberts's novels deserve a critical reevaluation.]
Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941) deserved and deserves more readers than she had or has for her twelve books: seven novels, two volumes of short stories, and three volumes of poetry.1 Only two of these twelve were well received, and a third fairly well: The Time of Man, The Great Meadow, and Under the Tree. Readers now are better able to understand and appreciate her nine volumes of fiction, not only because of the illuminating books of Campbell and Foster, Rovit, and McDowell,2 but also because the vogue of the novel of violence and of the staccato style, so noticeable in the 1920's through the 1950's, is passing. Although her achievements were greater than was realized by her contemporary readers, her handicaps as a literary artist were probably greater than she understood or was able to overcome.
It is the purpose of this essay to suggest a few of the strengths and weaknesses which justify this judgment. The briefest way to do this, perhaps, is to take a close look at her second novel, My Heart and My Flesh ["crieth out for the living God," Psalms lxxxiv:2], on which Miss Roberts worked for sixteen months and about which she wrote her publisher (Viking) thirty-seven letters, only a few of which have been published. For the most part, the novel was composed on two water fronts: three-fourths of it by the Pacific in Santa Monica in the winter of 1926-1927 and the rest in Chicago in the spring and early summer of 1927. The last major parts to be rewritten before sending the manuscript away were the long symbolic prologue (which, to the uninitiated reader, is an unfortunately bewildering and mysterious introduction to the novel) and the passages dealing with music, one of the major motifs of the novel.3
Although My Heart and My Flesh is not extraordinarily subtle, to the first readers the profoundly significant theme and philosophic implications were not fully clear or impressive. One reason is the vagueness of the long symbolic prologue, better omitted or read last even by the later reader;4 and another reason is the relatively small amount of external conflict and action in the narrative. Yet the close reader of 1927, particularly if he remembered The Time of Man, perceived that this second novel continued the theme of spiritual death and rebirth, but with the material circumstances of the leading character and the sequence of happenings reversed. In this respect My Heart and My Flesh is complementary to The Time of Man, with contrasting social class, tempo, and direction of movements, as Miss Roberts points out in a note left among her manuscripts.
The Time of Man is organized around the age-old journey motif, or, more noticeably, employs the American motif of extreme mobility, especially the Southern rural tradition of the wandering individual with a hungry heart, "down one road and up another and down again," "aways a-looken at everything in the world and expecting to see something more," "on and on, without end, going, day and night and day and rain and windy weather, and sun and then rain again, wanting things and then having things and then wanting," the eye never satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing. This first novel, featuring the peasant class, but only as poetic symbol, is a story of irregular additions, Ellen Chesser beginning with scarcely anything more than the breath of life and slowly adding, to quote a manuscript note of the author, "minute particle by minute particle … sounds, sights, friends, lovers, material possessions, memories, intuitions, defeat followed by renewal."
In contrast, her second novel, My Heart and My Flesh, though set in the same rural area, was designed as an experiment in reverse. It is as if she were now writing a novel, not about poor whites but about the patrician landowners mentioned in the first novel, the Wakefields and the MacMurtries, as she notes in a fragmentary letter written while she was just getting under way with the novel.5 But these landowners are now conceived of as in gentle decay, again symbolic of a great Southern social change of the nineteenth century. The accent is not on social change, however, but on individual character as affected by the way she reacts to drastic reverses. My Heart and My Flesh is a story of subtraction, the central character (Theodosia Bell) beginning with family prestige and property but already headed toward relentless loss until she is left with scarcely more than the breath of life, and she tries to destroy even that before she is resurrected. Among her notes Miss Roberts left an undated, revealing comment to herself about her method and intent in this second novel:
The method here was a steady taking away until there was nothing left but the bare breath of the throat and the simplified spirit. The work begins with a being who has been reared in plenty and security. She has the pride of family, of wealth (as such goes in the South of our country), a pride in being the honored and petted child of parents, a pride in personal charm and in popularity with friends and associates, and finally a pride in musical skill and in a boundless ambition to play the fiddle well. All these gentle conceits are gathered into the person of Theodosia.
One by one these things are taken from her to the upbuilding of her understanding and the growth of tolerance and wisdom through suffering. Each of these is lost and more. Lover, pride in ambition and the fiddle hand, pride in family, and at length the house in which her family had dwelt—all of these go from her. Friends are lost. Stability is lost and she gives herself in loveless passion. Food is taken from her and health goes. Finally half crazed or more by her condition she lives a brief hell of confusion and despair, warmed and fed by only the stupid lover and his passions. Sunk to the degradation of the nether hell, she lived thus for a winter.
It is the story of a woman who went to hell and returned to walk among you.
Out of the icy waters of the frozen pond where she had gone in spirit and determination, being ready to make the last dash from the door that would sweep her into the water to drown, she experienced a resurrection. Spirit asserted itself over the necessities of death. She prepared an orderly departure from her hell, informed by judgment or the knowing and thinking, the associative entity of her being. She went from the aunt's farm and let chance find a way for her again among living men. In the end is the rare lover, the maker of fine cows, the adoring voice among the distant barns singing, or the hand that led her about over the pasture to show her the cattle and the mind to offer her companionship and a shared living among these excellent things.6
These contrasting terms, "addition" as applied to The Time of Man and "subtraction" as applied to My Heart and My Flesh, like all opposites, are relative and reciprocal terms. Neither one has meaning except as it is related to the other. Both Ellen in the first novel and Theodosia in the second lost; both gained. Both reacted to their experiences in such a manner as to gain strength and wisdom. This is the main point the novelist keeps making: the significance is not the precise thing which happened to the characters but how they reacted to what happened to them. Throughout her writing career Miss Roberts kept suggesting the polarities of experience (as did one of her favorite writers, Jules Laforgue), the cooperation of opposites, life's contradictions, the dualism between election and damnation which is a part of the American Puritan tradition.7
My Heart and My Flesh introduces several related themes. It may be considered a study in the decay of gentility, the fall of the House of Bell, miscegenation and incest, the transformation of adolescence into maturity, the mysteriousness of memories, the presentness of the past, the capacity to prevail through endurance as if man's first duty were to live, the effects upon character of various reactions to suffering where there is not the will to suffer (as there is in some Hemingway novels), or catharsis achieved through suffering when aided by sensitivity to phenomenal nature and responsiveness to simple human affection—all themes which were to recur often in her eight remaining books. Two other parallel themes, however, seem nearer the central intent of the author. One is a longing for the identification of spirit, or a yearning to discover a reality beyond fact (what life essentially is, so elusive, so bewildering), an intense search for the permanent underlying so much change.8 Like Ellen in her first novel, Theodosia is "aways a-looken at everything in the world and expecting to see something more." Theodosia was always "looking more deeply within, parting thought and thought, parting the semi-dark which lies between," to use the author's words. The title of the novel features this search: "My heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God." This is the theme stressed in the first half of the book, and it is made appealing by the haunting pathos of Theodosia's absolute aloneness, her mother dead, her father a lecherous and conscienceless reprobate, her grandfather impoverished and defeated by the decay of the world he loved, one lover jilting her and another burned up accidentally. This near-desperate search for the meaning of life is dramatized for the reader about a third of the way through the novel by an image of lonely Theodosia before a waning fire in the bedroom of her dying grandfather: "When all the subtractions were made, the naked man was left.… There should be a soul there somewhere, she thought, and she searched into the withered leavings of crippled body and quavering voice. When she had found this entity in her grandfather she would, she thought, be able to identify it within herself."9 This haunting search is intensified by Theodosia's primary mode of self-expression (the violin) and also by the associative imagery of the highly symbolic prologue, about which more will be said shortly. Theodosia is in somewhat the same mood as Pascal was three hundred years before: "When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me, I am afraid, and wonder to see myself here rather than there, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, now rather than then."10 The more clearly central theme, however, as has been mentioned, is the age-old one of withdrawal and return, or death and rebirth, which was to be a recurring theme in her later writing and the central one in her seventh novel, Black Is My Truelove's Hair. Professors Campbell and Foster comment on the frequent recurrence of this theme in Miss Roberts' books and also its prominence in the Old Testament, one of the strong influences on Miss Roberts: in the stories of Noah, for instance, Jonah, Joseph, and especially Job.11 Theodosia dies and is recreated. She answered affirmatively Job's echoing question: "If a man die, shall he live again?"12 None of the American naturalists (Crane, Norris, or Dreiser) would have depicted this new birth, even if they could understand it, because they did not believe in being born again. Theodosia survives, not because of her physical fitness or accident or luck, but because of her moral progress in working toward the will to live as a dignified and divine human being. The two simple but great influences in effecting this therapy, in bringing about this resurrection, are sensitivity to rural nature and responsiveness to unsophisticated true love, the ego having established a working relationship with the non-ego. From a letter which Miss Roberts wrote to Louise McElroy in Springfield, Kentucky, when she was just getting a good start on this novel, we know that these two themes (search for a reality beyond fact, and death and rebirth) were at the heart of her intention: "I have tried to develop some essence," she wrote her friend, "such as we may call 'the human spirit.'… It is a story of a woman … who went to hell and came back, who was impaled on the very topmost and last and most excruciating pinprick of suffering and privation. By moving all accessories I hope to make live a spirit, a most inner essence, a will-to-live. It is a large problem, a difficult undertaking perhaps, but necessary."13
Miss Roberts mistakenly thought she could help communicate this double theme by experimenting with an ambitious narrative technique in the prologue, beyond her full mastery, but interesting; and now with the benefit of her notes clear enough. This thirty-three-page, over-subtle prologue is a fantasy employing associative imagery, and the cosmic consciousness of Luce (symbolically "light"), ranging over time past, time present, and hinting at time to come. This long stream-of-consciousness introduction is supposed to represent timelessness and omniscience, as the main part of the novel, coming to us through Theodosia, represents transiency. As she wrote to Harriet Monroe, she intended this symbolic prologue to serve as the introduction to a whole cycle of novels she had already in mind, and indeed her fourth novel, The Great Meadow, does serve as an introduction to the House of Bell, here in her second novel falling.14 Luce lives in Mome15 (which represents Covington, Kentucky, where Miss Roberts went to high school), whereas the world of Theodosia is probably in Washington County, Kentucky. Among the Library of Congress papers is a long manuscript called "The Book of Luce," showing Miss Roberts' lifelong fascination with this method of treating symbolically whole cycles of time. Professors Campbell and Foster aptly compare this intriguing prologue in her second novel to the prelude of a symphony.16 By the time the reader gets to the end of the prologue he has left the infinite consciousness of Luce and is supposed to be entering the finite, sensitive consciousness of Theodosia. In a note, Miss Roberts says of her technique: "The mind here to be entered is the mind of the woman, Theodosia. The process begins with a Knower, an Observer, Luce, a sensitive onlooker. The narrative moves slowly into Theodosia's mind, beginning in the mind of Luce, seeing Theodosia first from the outside, moving more closely and intently into her experience until it becomes identical with her consciousness."17
Other interesting characteristics of Miss Roberts' style here and elsewhere are her abundant use of symbolism, her use of music as a major motif, her strange attraction to dreams as a means of deepening meaning (not immediately clear to the hasty reader of My Heart and My Flesh ), surrealistic dialogue,18 her large use of appropriate folklore, and her lyric prose. Her use of symbols throughout her writing, influenced by her liking for Laforgue, Corbière, and Virginia Woolf, is too pervasive for treatment here. Three years before her first novel she had written a note of advice to herself which might be taken as the aptest possible motto for all her work: Cultivate, she says, "the way of symbolism working through poetic realism."19
The symbolic use of dreams is illustrated vividly in this novel by Theodosia's four blurred and prescient dreams on the night her lover burned up, and more suggestively by the dream on pages 177-78 which her publisher objected to and got her to modify a little: one she has in a moment of nodding as she is becoming nauseated at her repulsive father's recollections of lechery; she saw a parade of vague haggard women in the midst of whom her naked father appeared, blown up into a gigantic symbol of excessive sexual vitality.
As with her symbolism, Miss Roberts' large use of appropriate folklore can only be suggested here. It pervades all her books and provides the title of her most elusive book, Black Is My Truelove's Hair. In the novel we are discussing she uses folk speech, Negro work songs, proverbial sayings ("See themthere hens out eaten grass in the rain? When you see hens out in the morning eaten grass in the rain, that's a sure sign hit'll rain all day," page 265), folk health practices (like drinking hog's blood), and folk songs on pages 31, 32, 33, 268, 271, and 284.
Characteristically, Miss Roberts couldn't find a title conveying precisely the right thematic implication. Some of the titles she considered before settling on "My Heart and My Flesh" are: "L'Abondante," "The Abundant Woman," "Plenitude," "Behind Green Pastures," "Field Lovers," "Proud Fields," "Without a Name," "The Glittering Sword" (from Job), "The Sparks Fly Upward" ("Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward," Job), "The Chronicle," "The Season's Return," and "Full Circle." No subject occurs so often in her thirty-seven letters to her publishers about this novel. These are fascinating letters because they tell so much about her intent as literary artist. There is room here for only a third of one of these letters, addressed to Mr. Huebsch of Viking and now in the publisher's files:
August 7, 1927
Dear Mr. Huebsch:
I have worked on titles all week and have written three full pages of them only to scratch most of them out after a little. The difficulty is this. A title throws an emphasis somewhere and this book is already complete in itself. I see it lie out before me continually as a complete design. There are only a few ideas that I seem willing to stress. One is the person, the woman involved. Another is the land.
Many thanks for the suggestion, "As the Sparks Fly Upward." It is indeed all the things you say of it. It throws an emphasis on the idea of trouble, however, and seems to me to throw the design out of plumb a little. It is good, though, and I lean toward it. My ideal title would center to the woman and her abundance as a sensitive body and mind. It would be such a word as the French adjective abondante used as a noun L'abondante, and I have cast about to try to find an English equivalent, but there is not any. "The Abundant Woman" and all such are rejected. The Time of Man gets in the way of any title with "woman" in it. Such an idea as this word would convey is exactly what I want. It would cover the abundance of the woman's trouble or sorrow and her discipline. It would include her as a lover and a living spirit. It is a great title and I wish the book might go into French so that it might be used.…
I wish I had the musician's privilege of merely numbering my work. A title is an impertinence.…
Though not popular, My Heart and My Flesh is a significant novel, as is most of Miss Roberts' fiction. Why, then, was it (is it) not more popular? Here are half a dozen suggested reasons.
1. Miss Roberts was too much concerned with man in general and too little with individual man. After her first novel, she let a veil come between herself and the coarse-grained world.20 Because of her unmarried, somewhat shy, and solitary nature, she lived and wrote as one removed from life in action. Like one of her favorite writers, Virginia Woolf, she lived in an ambiance of ideality, to borrow a phrase coined by Elizabeth Bowen.21 Rovit considers her second novel more like a case history than the presentation of a struggling individual.22
2. In most of her fiction there is too little external action and possibly too little internal tension, especially physical tension. The internal action is probably intense, but more like a severe and unremitting headache and heartache than a shock, and readers in her day wanted to be shocked. Theodosia, for instance, suffers acutely, but she is an enduring sufferer rather than a defiant one; until the end, she undergoes rather than acts. The reader misses the appeal of overt, urgent struggle.
3. Like most of her other fiction, My Heart and My Flesh is a novel of erosion and rebuilding in an age when we were experiencing an epidemic of violence, whether in international war, labor disputes, or gangsterdom, and when the novel of violence was understandably in vogue. My Heart and My Flesh is devoid of overt violence. In fact, there is in it too much humble acceptance and too little rebellion, ranting, and disillusionment for the American public of the 1920's. As in the novel of violence, Miss Roberts reveals our animality, but unlike most specialists in this genre she also reveals the human capacity for self-sacrifice and love. A novel like My Heart and My Flesh takes time to show the process of the development of character, whereas the novels we preferred when Miss Roberts was writing are those beginning near the climax (like a short story or drama) and featuring strenuous and dangerous action, not growth. As Professor Frohock points out, the plot of the novel of violence is like that of a drama more than the conventional novel: it is concerned with mounting tension, climax, and then resolution of tension.
4. McDowell thinks the chief weakness of her second novel is the lack of forceful "subsidiary characters and setting" to reinforce the theme.23
5. The carefully modulated sentences, her poetic diction and imagery, and her successful attempt at symbolism through poetic realism were out of harmony with the staccato style of the Hemingway school and also the rhetorical exuberance and vehemence of Faulkner. This, let us hope, will come to be to her honor and glory. My Heart and My Flesh is poetic in a period when the content and the mood of the strenuous novels we bought were not suited to poetry.24
6. Miss Roberts' unmastered technical experiments (especially in this her second novel, in the fantasy Jingling in the Wind, and in Black Is My Truelove's Hair ) hindered public understanding. Without a little help, the average reader does not fully comprehend her aims in most of her novels, except The Time of Man and The Great Meadow. With only a small amount of help, however, provided by recent studies, her rich experimentation can be understood and appreciated.
One could mention half a dozen commendable features equally compelling. Miss Roberts deserves, and probably will come to receive, more favorable attention than she experienced when living. She is better than our literary historians have discovered yet.
- In the Great Steep's Garden (poems, 1913), Under the Tree (poems, 1922), The Time of Man (a novel, 1925), My Heart and My Flesh (a novel, 1927), Jingling in the Wind (a satirical fantasy, 1928), The Great Meadow (a historical novel, 1930), A Buried Treasure (a novel, 1931), The Haunted Mirror (stories, 1931), He Sent Forth a Raven (a novel, 1935), Black Is My Truelove's Hair (a novel, 1938), Song in the Meadow (poems, 1940), and Not by Strange Gods (stories, 1941).
- Harry M. Campbell and Ruel E. Foster, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, American Novelist, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956; Earl H. Rovit, Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1960; and Frederick P. W. McDowell, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, New York, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1963.
- While composing much of the novel she listened to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as atmospheric reinforcement (her favorite Beethoven works were the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies). E. M. Roberts to Grant C. Knight of Lexington, Ky., May 17, 1930, Grant C. Knight Manuscript Collection, University of Kentucky Library. In a note she left with her manuscripts, she says about her symbolic use of music in My Heart and My Flesh: "In my dark moments when Voice said to me, 'You have no business writing about a violinist since you are not one,' I have always replied that neither am I a tobacco grower." E. M. Roberts Collection (seventeen boxes), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Dr. Woodbridge Spears, in an illuminating dissertation "Elizabeth Madox Roberts, a Biographical and Critical Study," 1953, University of Kentucky Library, gives much information about the growth of her interest in music.
- McDowell (p. 125) defends the prologue but admits that it could serve as well as epilogue: "These opening pages should be read as prologue and as epilogue much as the prologue or first section of a Faulkner novel should be reread in light of the work as a whole."
- November 28, 1926, E. M. Roberts Collection, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
- Roberts Collection, Library of Congress.
- Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition, New York, 1957, suggests that the American novel, more than the English, emphasizes life's contradictions and irreconcilables, reflecting the American passion for extremes, life's disunities.
- "… each of her heroines is sent on an odyssey of self-discovery only to learn there is no self to be discovered; there is rather a self in process of creation." (Rovit, p. 154.)
- My Heart and My Flesh, p. 102.
- Pensées, trans. W. F. Trotter, New York, Modern Library, pp. 74-75.
- Op. cit., pp. 159-60.
- Job xiv:14.
- Roberts Collection, Library of Congress.
- E. M. Roberts to Harriet Monroe, Monroe Collection, University of Chicago.
- Rovit (p. 29) suggests that Mome may stand for "my home."
- Op. cit., p. 166.
- Roberts Collection, Library of Congress.
- Rovit, p. 29.
- Roberts Collection, Library of Congress.
- Clifton Fadiman, reviewing her last book in the New Yorker, March 29, 1941, p. 68, suggests something like this.
- New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1949, p. 21.
- Op. cit., p. 47.
- Op. cit., p. 127.
- For a discussion of the American novel of violence, see W. M. Frohock, The Novel of Violence in America, 1920-1950, Dallas, Texas, Southern Methodist University, 1950.
Mary Niles (essay date September 1969)
SOURCE: Niles, Mary. "Social Development in the Poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Markham Review 2, no. 1 (September 1969): 16-20.
[In the following essay, Niles underscores the "childhood innocence and pristine beauty" of Roberts's Under the Tree and discusses the social messages in Roberts's poetic works.]
An examination of the poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts makes evident that she attempted to develop in this genre many of the same thematic concerns which she forcefully presented in her novels. Therefore, if one is to study thematic variations and development in these poems, wherein thematic ideas of the novel are somewhat foreshadowed, it is helpful to have studied at least Roberts' four major prose works—The Time of Man, The Great Meadow, My Heart and My Flesh, and He Sent Forth a Raven. (For a discussion of which of Roberts' novels are her best, see Campbell and Foster's Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist, Earl Rovit's Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and Wagenknecht's Cavalcade of the American Novel.) It is also expedient to be acquainted with her Journal, in which the poet sets down information helpful in explicating her themes.
However, even without knowledge of Miss Roberts' other writings, it is still possible to see that in her poetry this woman most essentially is again attempting to develop what may loosely be termed her social theme. Other thematic concerns are of course present in her poetry. But it is this idea of man's need to grow more socially aware, an idea that is first generally suggested in Under the Tree and then slowly expanded in Song in the Meadow, that forms the thematic backbone of the Kentuckian's poetry volumes.1
To understand this social development it is valuable to glance briefly at the social thematic concerns that Miss Roberts develops in the four novels. Here, the author moves from The Time of Man, an introspective novel which is almost a-social, through The Great Meadow, a book that introduces readers to geographic and historical and social insights beyond an internal consciousness. This social theme becomes even more prominent in My Heart and My Flesh, a novel that begins to probe sociological matters such as the racial problem and society's response to it. And, this thematic concern finally blossoms forth in He Sent Forth a Raven, a book filled with questions of war, the future of man in a war-filled world, and the effect which this disturbance has on individual lives.
For various stylistic and thematic reasons, ones which could be explored at another time, the poet does not as clearly present her social theme in the poems as she does in her novels. However, her attempt to make a social statement in poetry is still vigorous and successful enough so that these poems may be studied in terms of her attempt at a "social evolution." Therefore, it will be the purpose of this paper to generally suggest how this evolution is structured, to indicate a few of the poems which mark its stepwise development, as well as to mention several related themes concerning the beauties of the physical world, and the need to introspect, to wonder, about it and its people.
In the strictest sense of the word, Under the Tree is not a collection of "social" poems. However, in its emphasis on observation and introspection, this collection remotely prepares the reader for the more obvious social themes of the 1940 collection, and for being able to make some sort of response to them. Many of these 1922 poems are ones which can most easily be appreciated and explained as simple children's lyrics. The majority are carefully constructed short works which admit the reader into a world of childhood innocence and pristine beauty. These lyrics, as Campbell and Foster indicate (Elizabeth Madox Roberts, p. 253), are ones which capture the freshness and vigor and charm of clear first impressions, whether these be visual, auditory, tactile or gustatory.
Roberts' clear impressions of various colorful sights are exemplified in her depiction of various natural objects. In "Horse" one notes the long brown nose of a horse that stands beneath a little shade tree, his mane splashed with the patches of sunlight that have filtered through the leaves. In "The Worm," a worm whose skin is "soft and wet" puckers himself into "a little wad," soon to go "back home inside the clod" (1. 24). A panther whose "streaks are moving on his back" (1.7) is seen in "In the Night." "The Branch" depicts little black spiders that walk on the top of the water, "keen-eyed, hard and stiff and cool" (1. 10), while the poet's eye catches on a "moth wing that was dry / and thin … hung against a burr" (1.14-15) in "Cold Fear."
In her description of people, Miss Roberts' vision is also keen. "A Beautiful Lady" presents a lady wearing little pointed shoes, her best hat one "silvered on the crown" (1. 6). "Miss Kate-Marie" also mentions a lady whose dress is "very soft and thin" (1. 10), and adds that "when she talked her little tongue / Was always wriggling out and in" (1. 11-12). Also, in "Autumn Fields" the old man has "stick tights on his clothes / and little dusts of seeds and stems" (1. 7-8).
The sort of physical awareness which the poet wants her readers to develop—especially if they are to grow socially sensitive—is embodied in the more complex feelings of the child in "My Heart." In lines which involve both the auditory and tactile sense, the poem presents the child as thinking,
My heart is beating up and down,
Is walking like some heavy feet
My heart is going every day.
And I can hear it jump and beat.
At night before I go to sleep,
I feel it beating in my head;
I hear it jumping in my neck
And in the pillowcase on my bed.
Another manifestation of sound appears as the hens rub their feathers in "The Hens" and as the brook in "Water Noises" gurgles on its way. The tactile sense is again invoked in "The Dark." Here, Roberts writes, "a night fly comes with powdery wings / That beat on my face—it's a moth that brings a feel of dust …" (1. 18-19).
Smell comes alive in "Autumn Field" as the little girl "can smell the shocks and clods / and the land where the old man had been" (1. 19-20). "At the Water" offers "five little smells and one big smell … One was the water, a little cold smell" (1. 3, 5). Finally, a poem which contains a number of these sensual images is "Christmas Morning," a work often anthologized in children's magazines and readers. Its final four stanzas well indicate the aura of childlike innocence which these early poems are capable of evoking. Another poem interesting, direct and immediate in its effect on the reader is "Little Rain." Not only rich in succinct detail and verisimilitude, but also somewhat comic are the lines "A chicken came till the rain was gone; / He had just a few feathers on. / He shivered a little under his skin, / And then shut his eyeballs in" (1. 7-10).
However, as Campbell and Foster point out, Under the Tree is not merely a group of simple children's lyrics. It does contain poems which have distinct adult appeal. In the words of these two critics, this collection is "both children's verse of the highest quality and adult poetry with a distinctly metaphysical character and appeal."2 Admittedly, these poems with a deeper character are few, but this select number of them is vitally important for several reasons. First, it is these poems which serve as vehicles for Roberts' poetic statements about man's ability to introspect, to wonder about his physical world. It is in these poems too, that the child who before only just saw, or felt, or heard, is now beginning to question the limits of this sensual knowledge, and to question whether there be any person with whom one can fully communicate, or fully understand. Also, it is with these few poems that some sort of thematic bridge between the merely sensory poetry of the first part of this collection, and the poems of the 1940 volume may be erected.
The sense of wonder which Roberts considered essential if any child or adult were to develop as a sentient, alive, and vibrant human being, one socially aware of other men, is depicted most noticeably in "Mr. Pennybaker at Church" and "Shell in Rock." In the former the little child studies Mr. Pennybaker as he sings out of key and rhythm, and wonders if "he knows it all / About Leviticus and Shem / And Deuteronomy and Saul" (1. 10-12). In the latter, the majesty of the powerful, swirling sea is pondered. "The Pulpit" again mentions wonder in a church setting, and "A Child Asleep" presents a child looking at, and then wondering about a playmate who is sleeping. "In the Night" recalls the fear and terror experienced by a little child whose imagination has created a vicious panther out of a clothes-laden chair. In a similar vein, "Strange Tree" recreates the terror felt by a vividly imaginative child on his way alone through a dark deserted wood. Finally, on a more metaphysical level, "The Star" simply states a truth that is often sensed by children and adults who realize that they and their world are only very small ingredients in a vast universe. "Oh little one away so far / You cannot tell me what you are, / I cannot tell you anything" (1. 1, 2-3), says the lone helpless child who gazes heavenward. "August Night" also mentions the wonder and fear felt by someone contemplating the unknown reaches of space.
In summary, then, the majority of the poems in Under the Tree are interesting only because they are rich in the keen sensual images of the land and people that Roberts knew and loved. A few verses of the collection, however, are important because they operate on both the physical-descriptive and the psychological or metaphysical levels. These few are introspective poems rich in inner reverie, but ones still quite a-social in the strictest sense of the word. However, it is "metaphysical" poems like these that Miss Roberts develops for the 1940 collection, into ones even more introspective and more strictly social in theme.
Song in the Meadow, as Campbell and Foster suggest, can be divided into three sections. The first is a grouping of love lyrics, ones which are again introspective and filled with the joy and mysterious wonder of love. The second is the section which finally brings the reader to Miss Roberts' poems of social protest. Part three, called "Legends," contains only a few poems, many of which are experimentally symbolic. For purposes of this discussion, the poems of this final short section need not be considered.
The awareness of the physical world which marked Under the Tree is also evident in this second volume. However, in this 1940 collection, the poet does not nearly so often devote a poem solely to depiction of a lovely vista, the smell of a field, or the laugh of frolicking children. Here, along with the sharp physical images the poet so deftly creates, there often appears mention of unsettled emotions and various social problems. In other words, whereas Under the Tree with its lovely images and child's point of view could be considered a children's book, this second volume, with its serious, often pessimistic thematic statements, is more adult reading.
In Part I of Song in the Meadow poems like "The Song of the Dove," "Summer Is Ended," and "A Girl at Twilight" are again most "purely" descriptive. "A Girl at Twilight" offers some strikingly beautiful thought-provoking images of dusk falling over the Kentucky farmland. And "Summer Is Ended," along with the two cradle songs "Sleep, My Pretty, My Dear" and "Blessed Spirit, Guard," exemplify the rich fullness of love, the joy to be derived from being alive to one's environment, and the mystery which surrounds life and love. "Love in Harvest," which again contains the spirit of innocence that characterized the pristine world of Under the Tree, is also ultimately concerned with the joy derived from the good harvest and the good rural life. This rich, joyful world is set forth, too, in "Love Newborn" and "Ellen Chesser's Dream of Italy."
However, with "The Lovers," this mood of happy innocence is lost. In this poem, constant thoughts of slipping "down deep / to the cold river bed / Where pulse is still / And breath is shed" (1.4-8) keep haunting the "I" of the poem. It is only a final surge of love of life—an exuberant burst like that in "Love in Harvest" —that prevents a suicide from occurring. As the last optimistic lines say, "But life held me close / In a firm embrace, / Life cradled my feet / and kissed my face" (1. 37-40).
It is with "And What, Dear Heart" that an even more outspoken transition is made from poems concerned mainly with love and delight to the more socially thematic Section II of Song in the Meadow. In this two-part poem, "And What, dear heart, will we see / As we take the road to the town" (1. 1-2) is the refrain spoken by one lover to another as they walk through the countryside. In answer to this query the first three stanzas of the poem depict some delightful rural sights that will be seen, heard, or smelled by the pair. "Men will be sowing and planting and taking / The cattle to graze, or the clover be stacking, / And off in the barn be mending and grinding, and down in the wheat will the reapers be binding" (1. 4-6). Also, hounds and cattle will be calling, birds will be mating, men will be telling of their joys, and happily singing about their loves. However, the last twelve lines of the poem present a change in tone and mood. It is revealed here that in addition to these simple joys, the lovers also hear and see men speak of problems of a bleaker, more pessimistic nature. Roberts writes,
Men will be speaking together to tell of the
wars, and be asking, and leaving
Their labors to hear.
And the hearing be grieving.
The voice of the air loud speaking and making
Of hunger and death, and our brothers be
And over the earth will the war witch be
With pestilence … wrath,
With famine and pillage and death.
It is mention of these problems of war, hunger, and death and the grim reality that men, our brothers, are dying, that characterizes most of Section II.
It must be emphasized here that for Miss Roberts, the appreciation of the various sights and sounds of one's world, though vitally important to an individual's becoming more deeply alive, was not sufficient by itself. As she often indicated in her novels, in addition to perceiving the variety and flux of one's world, man could best attain fuller human stature by attempting to somehow order some of the disharmonies in his milieu. Though this attempt would possibly involve some suffering, it was this try at eradicating disorder, at being concerned for others, that was the key to man's maturation as a human. Developing this concern—actually a process of learning to love others—was absolutely necessary in a world that so often had forgotten how to understand and love, a world, which as a consequence of this lack, was now struggling with the burdens of wars, famine and other forms of human injustices.
It is essentially this message about the necessity that man love man—a message clearly set forth in He Sent Forth a Raven —that the poet here attempts to give us, in "The World and the Earth," the second section of Song in the Meadow. To clearly depict the plight of many contemporary men—men essentially all equal, who should be treated as equals ("A Man" ) —Roberts fills these poems with images of cold, various sorts of deformation, and death. In "Disconsolate Morning" the setting is "the sparse season, the lean time before the cold spring" (1. 1-2). Here, the "cold birds," the "silver-black" water in the mill, "gaunt foxes," "gaunt hounds" and "spent boughs" are part of the "lean day," a day in which "the wood-path leads nowhere" (1. 17). "The Ancient Gulf" also speaks of "a lean time under the grass / A cold season for the rock" (1. 5-6). In "Night and Storm," the wind howls, "the stricken bell … shrieks along the storm" (1. 6, 12), while "the turning sky is black" (1. 2).
Against this symbolic landscape, Miss Roberts points up the injustice involved in men receiving insufficient and unfair wages, in their resulting poverty, and hunger, and also notes the horrors of the awful situation of war. Although in "Man of the Earth" a "little beggar woman," a "one-legged clown," and the "poorhouse yard" (1. 1, 3) are strikingly juxtaposed, it is in "The Lean Year" that the harsh realities of poor wages and poverty are most succinctly set forth. Here the farmers with "knotty hands and sinewy limb" (1. 6) stand in tatters and wonder "Why" or "What for." Line twelve, "Who pinched and squeezed and drained them thin?" powerfully summarizes the mood, tone, and thesis of this poem. "Man Intolerant" discusses another form of injustice. Here, "brothers in flesh" (1. 4) are slaughtering each other in the "act of hatred and intoleration." (1. 6) Here, Miss Roberts states that each man is responsible "before the nations" (1. 7) for the edicts and practices "being bartered" (1. 8). She further reminds the reader that although man's spirit has waned in modern times, and his "poor small hold on God's favor is loosed" (1. 11), he still must see that he is adrift on some course that he must try to chart to the best of his ability. For man not to care where he himself or his fellowman may wander is to hurl the human race "toward the last holocaust, the infinite merciless first-last unknowing abyss" (1. 14).
Finally, the horrible nature of war is revealed in "The Battle of Perryville," and "Corbin the Cobbler." In the former, a man reminisces about a long ago battle until "his face is bent and turns to tears" (1. 19). In the latter a bitter cobbler remembers the gas of the Argonne forest and says that today "a man couldn't trust they'd keep the war down" (1. 9). In lines heavy with understatement and irony this artisan, who has "left his important intentions / Along with his leg in the far side of the water" (1. 21-22), continues to state his feeling that "there'd always be war to take the boys" (1. 13), "there'd still be a new way to line up the nations" (1. 31).
For Miss Roberts, the only hope for such a pessimistic, problematic world seems to be man himself, and his awakening to man. In "Conversations beside a Stream" she offers her reminder that in life—that "multiple flow of human onward-going being" (p. 78) from which no one escapes—"the dread-sick world is not all" (p. 79). For the poet, there is more to life than dissatisfaction and failure. There is also hope. But if one is to hope and realize any tangible rewards from hoping, it must be remembered that "one man himself alone / Cannot make a song" (p. 79). Man needs man, and must come to realize this truth if the race is to survive. In the last poem of this section Miss Roberts tries to show clearly to others what she herself so clearly sees about man and this hope for him. She writes, "We are sitting beside the stream, beside the River of Man's flowing / life, his time, his way on the earth" (p. 79). For her, the hour is late, so man must immediatedly begin to build a new world, one wherein man will not be burdened with the woes we now suffer. To create this place one can "start anywhere!… start with man's liberty … his democracy or … warm love" (p. 80). What could become a reality, the Kentuckian believes, is that the peace and love described in "Evening Hymn," the last poem of this section, could extend to all men. It is the poet's great hope that all men could grant to each other the wish "Quiet and love and peace / Be to this, our rest, our place" (1. 9-10), when "the day is done; / the lamps are lit" (1. 1-2).
This, then, is but a cursory look at Miss Roberts' attempt to develop a social message through two volumes of her poetry. The scope of this survey has been quite broad; therefore, it is hoped that some idea of the general thematic direction in which the poet tried to move has been established—without losing sight of the social thematic value and lyric beauty of specific lines. Of course, to best understand this social trend, one must read and analyze as much poetry as is available, as well as several of her novels. Hopefully, as more of Roberts' poems are located and published, it will become possible to further substantiate and clarify the social thesis of this paper.
- In the Great Steep's Garden (1914), an early collection of poems and matching pictures of Rocky Mountain flowers, has little stylistic or thematic value; therefore, it will not be considered here.
- Harry Modean Campbell and Ruel E. Foster. Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist (Norman, Oklahoma, 1956), p. 253.
William H. Slavick (essay date October 1984)
SOURCE: Slavick, William H. "Taken with a Long-Handled Spoon: The Roberts Papers and Letters." Southern Review 20, no. 4 (October 1984): 752-73.
[In the following essay, Slavick evaluates a selection of biographical material on Roberts and notes that the materials emphasize the important role that community played in Roberts's personal and professional life.]
Unfortunately, none of the half dozen book-length studies of Elizabeth Madox Roberts completed between her death in 1941 and the early sixties, while members of her immediate family were still living, was a biography. A biography that accounted adequately for the two decades before her matriculation at the University of Chicago at the age of thirty-six—a period Woodridge Spears calls her dark night of the soul—and for the last decade of her life, particularly the long illness that finally overwhelmed her, would, I am convinced, prompt a greater interest in the author and in such notable works as Under the Tree, The Time of Man, My Heart and My Flesh, and The Great Meadow.
Unfortunately, too, many of the letters, particularly family correspondence, that might have largely compensated for the lack of a biography are lost. After seeing a scholarly reference to the Roberts family as having lived in poverty and hearing of the supposed projected publication of letters from a lost trunk, Elizabeth's brother, Ivor, burned many pages that would surely have told us much about her family and herself. Other letters and family papers have apparently disappeared with the death of her sister Lel's son. Yvor Winters, with whom she discussed her work most fully while she was at Chicago, burned all of his correspondence. Apparently, letters to Janet Lewis between mid-1924 and 1928 were also destroyed. And, with very few exceptions, Miss Roberts' letters to her close friends of the last decade of her life, Mabel Medora Williams and Dwight and Barbara Anderson, written from Florida where she wintered, have also disappeared.
The destruction of much of this correspondence was consistent with Elizabeth Roberts' wish for privacy. But, finally, the art is the artist's, and we would know the source, an overriding consideration that the artist, in her near sight, may not appreciate.
Fortunately, besides the published work much also remains, most notably the fourteen boxes of materials that comprise the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Papers in the Library of Congress; the Filson Club's sizeable cache of papers; and the extant Roberts correspondence, virtually all with literary friends and associates—Harriet Monroe, Janet Lewis, Maurice Lesemann, Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Gladys Campbell, Pearl Andelson Sherry, Allen Tate, B. W. Huebsch, James Still, Otto Rothcart, and Wallace Kelly.
The letters, particularly those to her University of Chicago friends, provide an invaluable account of the central decade of Elizabeth Madox Roberts' career—from midway in her college years, when she began discovering her material and the voices to employ in giving it form, to the publication of The Great Meadow in 1930. Differences in those correspondences also suggest the subtle differences in her relationships with her friends.
The three thousand-odd pages of papers, as distinct from the letters, include the historical documentation for The Great Meadow she had given the Filson Club and the remains of her workshop—generally speaking, notes about work in progress, art, ideas, herself, and others' writing; manuscripts; a few supplanted drafts of published work; unpublished and unfinished work; remarks about her own work; maps of novel settings; and memoirs. The best of her unpublished poems I collected in the fall 1981 issue of Kentucky Poetry Review. The fiction includes discarded passages from published work and fragments, several substantial, of apparently abandoned story and novel projects. Besides brief notes on poems, there are several incisive commentaries on her novels, the most extensive on The Time of Man. Apparently addressed to posterity, these commentaries—which have been cited by scholars, if rarely in full—are invaluable in discovering and defining the shape of the author's vision. This vision is further illuminated by memoirs concerning her youth in Springfield, Kentucky, which anticipate the child poems of Under the Tree and her first novel, The Time of Man.
Taken together, these materials do not make a biography, a life. The gaps in the correspondence are too glaring. But the beautiful and revealing letters, the memoirs, and her comments on her work and other literature constitute a rich, if fragmentary, record of more value in knowing Elizabeth Madox Roberts than many a literary biography accomplishes for its subject.
This essay can only suggest, in some detail, how the papers and letters provide interesting prospects of Miss Roberts' work and literary career. In trespassing upon this private ground, however, it should be appreciated that it is not Elizabeth Madox Roberts who is making public the artifacts found there. Her letters were almost always for an audience of one or two or three intimate friends and presuppose, as do most letters, a familiarity and friendship the eavesdropper cannot fully imagine. Her notes and working drafts were also private. The distance she traveled from early draft to completed work cautions us not to make too much of them. Her workshop was a workshop, a private domain, as her words on two red-bordered labels on the cover of one black notebook warn:
My Relation to my Notebook is that of a Guineahen to her nest. If you put your Hand into the Guinea-hen's nest She will never return to it. Eggs must be taken, if at all, with a long-handled spoon.
In 1914, a year before a small group of poems, mostly about Rocky Mountain flowers, The Great Steep's Garden, was printed in Colorado, Miss Roberts wrote to Harriet Monroe, describing herself as "ignorant, self-taught in so far as I have any teaching, and frail." After complaining of smug college lectures, she says: "Until I fell upon 'Poetry' I had grasped about rather blindly, unhappily. Some of the false trails I have taken would be pitiful if they were not so ludicrous."
When The Great Steep's Garden appeared, she sent a commentary to her father, noting the fairies, Zuni and other myths, Navajo symbols, the landscape, and the image of the "brave pitlark soaring up until it is lost in the sky" reflected in those seven poems. "Dear Bessie," her father replied, "The muse must have wings or it may be she has a by-plane and has taken Bessie as a guest.…The heavenly Goddess has taught you a sweet song."
By 1920, Elizabeth found herself a member of the Chicago literary fraternity. When Miss Monroe played host to William Butler Yeats, she wrote Wescott of the large and handsome but heavy face of Mrs. Yeats and of her displeasure with America:
I was displeased with America myself last night. Our speech has been called the "American language" somewhere, and the effort among the Americans among us seemed to be to play upon that note. And so Mr. Sandburg read Spoon River Revisited, and it too was described … as being written in the American language, and Kreymborg read his Potato piece! Thus was America represented. It has just occurred to me that perhaps this is why my heart is heavy this morning.
After one of Mrs. William Vaughn Moody's parties, Elizabeth complained to Monroe Wheeler of Vachel Lindsay's rudeness and noisiness.
When Robert Morse Lovett, who took an interest in the work of Poetry Club members, placed several of Elizabeth's child poems with the Atlantic Monthly, she told him, as she wrote Glenway Wescott, that she would not have her poems "turned into little moral Butterbeans with Stevensonesque slants—'And every day when I am good / I have an orange after food.'" And she wonders: "Would I have to compromise my agnosticism to get into a popular magazine? I will not."
Soon, the young poet was in demand for readings, one on her porch during which she found herself transported to the world of her poems: "I had a such-a-pretty dress to wear, a new one," she reported to Wheeler, "and I knew the people were there because they wanted to hear butterbeans and that made me read well." The next reading, she wrote Wescott, was to a hundred Presbyterians:
They were completely in my hands after I had read the first poem.… Much of the interest was founded on identity. They beamed on each other when I read about trees and streams they knew. The Baptists were having something they called a "Literary Society" at the same hour at their church, probably reading papers on Wordsworth and Milton copied from the encyclopedia. They did not adjourn to join us. I had the "intellectuals" of the town, such few as there are. Afterwards, in my room, the bower of the virgins and saints, I felt debased beyond recovery. They had liked my work for its most external color.
Elizabeth used a loose-leaf notebook for her readings, jotting notes on poems on the backs of the previous pages. One note insists that her poems are "not for children only, for little ungrown children, but people 18 to 80." A March 23, 1922, letter to Harriet Monroe occasions another comment: "My people here are close to the soil and their talk is out of the clods. A hard, close verse form is necessary if one is to try to render them, and a simple speech." In Chicago that winter she wrote Wescott about old songs from Shakespeare that sent her:
… back to Chaucer, driven back by the strength of the old words. And so I read much Chaucer in these cold days, listening to the low, deep tones, and then I wonder why we pitched our vowels higher when we shifted them. We must be more hysterical than we used to be. With our westward ho! and the Cabots we uttered a great scream, and we have not quieted our pulses yet.
In a 1922 letter to Wescott she remarks that she has the old ballads "in the marrow of my bones and in my flesh."
In dozens of letters Miss Roberts' running commentary on the making of her child poems and remarks about superannuated butterbeans she encountered—an old teacher, a town fixture—suggest how much Under the Tree emerges from Springfield life. Later, when Viking Press brought out an enlarged, illustrated edition, she instructed the artist about children's hats—summer straw jimmys, winter fascinators, and boys' caps with bills; dress styles; the landscape; the courthouse; and the local appreciation of fine horses: "The town, during my early childhood, was a little old drowsy town, the streets tree-shaded with English elms or sycamores or honey locusts.…"The bells of several churches "used to clatter pleasantly together on a Sunday morning." She concludes: "The book is autobiographical, probably the only autobiography I shall ever write." It was also, she observed in a letter to Maurice Lesemann, the first "'Canto' of a Work."
One of Miss Roberts' early notes begins: "I wish to write one piece of prose. I can make no plan for it; it seems to be written into the fibers of my being. I wish to present myself against the background of my world, and that is all that I shall ever be able to present." As early as 1919, she writes, "I began to think of the wandering tenant farmer of our region as offering a symbol for an Odyssey of man as wanderer buffeted about by the fates and the weather." The Time of Man was four years writing, and the early autobiographical story of Sallie May and Homer was radically transformed. In a June 1922 letter to Wescott, she observes, "I merely want this clod-woman, Sallie May, this animated soil, to emerge a little, become for a brief moment an essence.…" Six weeks later, in writing Wheeler, she ponders the difficulty of the book not being a love story but requiring lovers. Now one of the clods becomes "aware of itself and the world around and the mesh and beauty and wonder of the sky." Already Miss Roberts is finding the folk poetic idiom as a quoted passage of conversation about the stars and her interest in local speech indicate: "When someone uses a rich flow of archaic words, indicative of deep resting pools of archaic thought, my very heart leaps."
The book in the publisher's hands, she wrote Harriet Monroe: "It is, perhaps, as much within the province of poetry as it is within that of the novel.…I poured into it the notes which might otherwise have gone into the making of many bits of verse, and in the structure of the entire work I tried to achieve a form in which the uses of poetry and prose are identical." On July 4, 1926, she writes Miss Monroe of her characters' speech as bringing her book "close to poetry." Writing her again later that summer, she identifies Dick as "Man in his search for knowledge" and adds:
When in the last chapter I resolve Ellen into her elements, these elements are represented in the voices of her children, more particularly in the three, Nannie in her womanliness and her wonder about the universe, Melissey in her love of life and her determination to keep it, and Dick in his great want for knowledge, wisdom, songs.
Another apropos note identifies a
… glorious selfishness that wishes to lift the self and its devious and divers connections all together forward as one object, in one mesh.… We experience life deeply, realize it, when we feel alive, awake. "I am living"—a feeling or sensation rather than an idea or a principle. This feeling or sensation is kinesthetic, organic, visual, and perhaps auditory. "I am living!!"
The observing figure of Luce, who appears at the beginning of My Heart and My Flesh, she sees now as an ancestor, as a link between the past of England and the present. The same note defines the book as "presenting the whole of Life" and the ending as Man "Indestructible finally in creative power [and] wonder at the earth," as "oneness with life—SELF SOUL SPIRIT."
A discarded scene, at a circus, shows Ellen in that Berkeleyan role Diony plays in The Great Meadow :
The order of the show assumed itself in Ellen's mind. The serpent tent came after the tent of the beautiful doll and after the calculating horse, and beyond ran white swans before a dark board, the white swans of the shooting gallery. Ellen remembered fields of tobacco and corn and they were fantastical, wide spread over much space, crows flying over the sloping hills. The world had turned and turned, spinning, until it was a tight little wheel, a carnival pinwheel, Ellen in the spokes of it.
Midway in the writing of The Time of Man, she noted the book's musical form, the first two parts forming an overture. Then she observes:
The most that I care to do is to present the sweet soil, the dirt of the ground, black ground, bitter and full of odor, full of worms, full of decay which is change, not evil—and the other one, white sun, light, these two forever mingled and mystically braided together in life form—all life—which is Ellen.
… The social order fails and all social relations fail.… Man the monster walks. Life is a slender thread running like a ripple through the brown crust of the earth. The last words of the book are "I'm alive. I'm still a-living," Ellen's words.
Again that year: "Life runs in form, design, alike for all instances. Ellen is the variant, the ego, the wonder, the asking unit—until she is drawn to a focus with Life, identified with behind and before, here and then and hereafter. Merged with all Life. Soul is in this merging." A later note identifies soul as "the inner inmost affirmation of being, the most individual I am of a creature." A plan of several pages, often cited in part in Roberts studies, defines the book's structure.
By the time she began work on My Heart and My Flesh, Miss Roberts had identified Luce Jarvis as a present figure contemplating the past. Notes indicate that she would also appear in The Great Meadow, weaving a tapestry on a great loom: "She has conceived the whole of the cloth, looking forward from the beginning and backward from the end." A brief note calls it an epic cycle and identifies one projected part as the "agricultural feudal age"—the story of Negro serfs whose tragedy was not clinging to the soil. Luce, herself, would be the heroine of He Sent Forth a Raven. Another note commands: "Build back the forebears of Luce. Bring it forth several times as a litany. Build it back to the Litany of the Saints which rises backwards to God." She wrote Huebsch in 1930: "The constant trend of my thought is toward a synthesis of all that I do."
Discarded fragments show the introductory Luce section in My Heart and My Flesh to have been conceived, originally, as a distinctly local setting that included several scenes reminiscent of her child poems, as well as an account of Uncle Wilse (or Nelse) building his mansion on High Street, board by board, out of "poverty and privation": "Myself a little girl trying to climb out of my world by the way of high towers and Uncle Wilse with his mansion house rising above the shanties of High Street: I am glad we knew each other. He was a better builder than I."
"Who is speaking? The Time of Man on earth is speaking," the text of the Luce manuscript announces. Theodosia's story is "but an incident of the whole" known by Luce. Luce, "a knower … a sensitive onlooker," would try to bring order and clarity out of the confusion of what she sees: Luce would "pick up the dropped threads and knit, or weave, anew. With Muir and their children she will pick up what is lost off … renew the ancient forms and devotions.…" She represents the "beauty of on-going life."
Miss Roberts distinguished My Heart and My Flesh as "not a life design," but she measures Theodosia by her first heroine:
Do I write about Theodosia less lovingly than I did of Ellen…?
Ellen is and was for me life itself. Have I less sympathy for Theodosia … ?
She is a wandering spirit, a lost thing.
Why is she lost more than Ellen is?
She is lost through a partial consciousness which leads her to set up standards and anti-standards. Ellen is not lost because she belongs to the earth itself, to the swing of the tides of the seasons.
Theodosia will merge in with the flocks and herd.
Notes interspersed in the typescript focus her intention. The novel is Theodosia's search for a soul. Music is the "language of soul," but she has no soul. It is the story of "man looking within upon the wonder of his inner part," man "looking more deeply within, parting thought and thought, parting its semi-dark which lies between sleeping and waking." The self-directions trail off before the finale when her "subtraction from the earth" ends with the courtship of Caleb Burns, who is one with the earth. It is, she notes, the story of a woman who "went to hell and returned to walk among you."
Jingling in the Wind, an often humorous satiric companion project to her first novel, expresses much of Miss Roberts' disapproval of the commercialized, scientific, gaudy, and spiritually lost world of contemporary America. As she explained in a 1929 letter to Stith Thompson, the folklorist, "I carry along a fantasy always as a rounding out of experience." The papers include an extensive earlier version called "The Rainmaker's Wife." "Drusilla," the title on another part of that folder, suggests another fantasy in the making.
Much of Miss Roberts' extensive research into the settlement of Kentucky for The Great Meadow and a long epic poem on Boone she had projected has survived, including her college notes on Berkeley, her father's favorite philosopher, defining the perceiving being as "Mind Soul or Myself" and asserting that nothing has any substance except when "actually perceived by me." Berk Jarvis her notes identify as the strong leader "driving Diony beyond herself, driving Man forward." He is not the half-mythic "demi-hero" Boone is, but of his kind. Diony is the mythical mother of Aphrodite, the goddess of nature rising above matter:
Diony represents ordered life and the processes of the mind, the mind life. She is not of the Boone kind. She feels lost in an indefinite universe. She wants ordered ways. She wants beauty and dignity and ceremony and the reasons of all things. Berk represents art. Boone represents the indefinite earth, the outside of chaos, but he is an apostle to chaos to prepare it for man's order.
In a letter in appreciation of Glenway Wescott's essay discussing her work, Miss Roberts describes her achievement and that novel's place in her development:
It is utterly of Kentucky—origins and heroic journeys, strong men fighting to take and hold a fine land. I merge now with the whole Pigeon River country where this stream rolls two ways through the land and fathers up many little creeks, making a region, a place of confines, bounded and comprehended, where the exhausting infinities come to an end and the mind can ease itself among substantial rivers.
When The Great Meadow failed to win a Pulitzer Prize—Lovett had argued unsuccessfully in favor of The Time of Man, Elizabeth wrote her editor, Marshall Best, that she feared the award had "missed its last chance with me."
The papers yield less on most of her later work. The title of He Sent Forth a Raven she considers misunderstood by those seeking to identify one or another character as the raven. She sees Drake as a man hostile to his fate, unrepentant, the people beyond his farm a "voiceless, suffering legion." She sees his progression as from passionate rebellion against God to uncompromising pity for Man in his defeat to a pity for man that he would make such a vow—for all men—and a renewed appreciation of nature's gifts.
Black Is My Truelove's Hair apparently began as a sketch, "The Captive," a story of Journeyman, the orchard-keeper, and Sam Judd, focusing on a Susanne among the elders; the point of view is omniscient. In 1936 it became "The Screaming Gander" —the gander a figure of man protesting his fate, the thimble a symbol of the thing (love) lost and found. During the years she wrote her last novel, Miss Roberts knew she was dying:
I was very tired. I brought the sheets below stairs, a large bulk—yellow pages and white, repeated over and over. My sister numbered the pages. The title was being considered slowly, but suddenly was resolved as inevitable. The pages were separated … and the white pages sent away.
After that I slept many hours. Each night and much in the afternoon.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts' unfinished fiction echoes her readiness to experiment and her interest in the feminine consciousness discovering being and the order and mystery of life. Several of these fragments also reveal another set of experiences, of men—not the kind of symbolic figures or ideologues of her last two novels but men in disorder, at odds with life, in two instances of the land but detached from it, men burdened with guilt they carry into a present pursuit of happiness. They were stories she could not—perhaps in one case was not physically able to—carry forward to resolution.
Several focus again on a sensitive young woman. One fragment, Clovie, presents "a beautiful thing, the spirit of the swine" she tends, as her husband had called her at first meeting, who has survived in a din of urban machines and the stink of industrial odors and now, pregnant, sits by the wall in a spring of flowering cherries. Tucked in the pages of a fragment of a novel or novella, Dorabella, is a note: "should have Ellen Chesser's acute appreciation or discovery of the physical world." She does, but she is more alone than Ellen, first in an orphanage, then in a momentary experience of unreality as a live mannikin, then on a farm where her personality is denied and she is unloved. A homely figure in her deprivation, Dorabella is plucky, a cross between Ellen and Theodosia: "All right. I'm here. I'm Dora. I'm under the bench and ate already three biscuits and a pan of old ham and potatoes."
In The House Torn Down, the central figure is Daniel Berkley, who is reminded of his earlier moral disintegration by the demolition of the old house, a symbol of civilization and society but also of his mind, being his "fort, palace, cathedral, ship," his center of reference. In the opening of its walls he imagines exposure anew of his past wrongdoing—the still unwritten part of the story, and only in completing the razing of the building himself can he experience "inner security and lightness of being."
Miss Roberts' most extensive—and ambitious—uncompleted fictional work was the 1937 Louisville flood novel. Here her sensitive female consciousness is replaced by two men: Joel Marsh, a twenty-six-year-old widower, a tragic figure who blames himself for his wife's death, a destroyer almost lost in the flood of life in which "the dark waters of life lash and seeth," and Martin Beard, strong, modest, fearless, and simple, "an old Lear who had not given all, who had kept back one small principality for himself," who knew death in his empty marriage and flees it with his savings sewed in his clothing. (His wandering through the countryside is clearly indebted to a story Miss Roberts recounts to Janet Lewis in a letter of August 27, 1920.) Joel and Martin are eventually to meet in a flood refugee center, a schoolhouse, along with a pastoral "life-knowing" figure, a ballad singer, a cynic who deems the earth too wet, and a "lovely woman," where there is to be "poetry among the damned."
Broadly, the flood symbolizes the "flood of life and death" and the destructive spirit of the time, the "sour" flood's "backward flow of life and time" up through the sewers. The old world and its moral order are gone. Gabriel Marsh defines it as the age of social power: "Wars over oil. Finds God in himself in mankind. He leaves Jehovah out then. When he makes himself a God he breaks the first commandment. And once he gets this one broke he breaks all the balance, the last one." One woman, watching the stream of refugees, observes: "It was like the Judgment Day.… Every kind, and all on one land." For Joel and Martin such a perspective is lacking. Joel, searching by boat for his sister, feels himself all but lost in the flood. In the midst of a sea of oil and water, he envisions his death in a maelstrom of water and fire. Notably, while the rural settings from which Joel and Martin come are established, it is no pastoral world. Both are uprooted, adrift in the symbolic flood: "The original deluge, the flood … one could never escape from God's great flood of life and death." Her notes suggest that Martin's music will "bring back the young life" to Leonora's "being" and that Joel will discover that "happiness is in loving" and "make himself a peace" that included what "had gone before" and "what remained of life."
Miss Roberts' memoirs of childhood, some of which may have begun as class exercises on "The Little Land" at Chicago, and her letters provide virtually her only directly autobiographical writings.
When she was four, her mother spoke of living in the Highgate house:
"… I remember," I said. "We used to live in a place where there were trees and trees. And I remember the wind blowing"—I made a noise of wind—"and the air was gray and blue, and the trees were bending out and somebody carried me over a fence. We walked on steps that went over a fence and arms were up around me and I could see out and the air was blue and gray and the trees made a going noise bending all that way and going.
"You cannot remember that," Mother said. "You were about ten months old when we went away from that place and we never went back there any more. How can you remember that place?"
"… I could feel strong arms about me and a sense of fear that was not my fear. I was safe for I was to be preserved, the lovely and the loved, but there was Fear somewhere.…"
The remembered world of Under the Tree is clearly evident here as in another passage where she recalls the variety of bugs, the feel of tomato leaves, and the fresh taste of corn leaves: "It was cool and sweet among the butterbean vines. I knew the taste of the grass and the sweetness of white clover. I tasted some dust."
She describes the family gathered at the hearth, her mother singing. Again the fictional antecedent is evident:
It was a blissful time. Our room was lovely in the light from the open stove. The tears in the carpet were familiar and the letters on the stove were ours. We could read them. The broken places in the wall paper were ours too; we knew every bend in every fissure. This boy sat with his hands folded over one knee, his way of sitting, and another begged for the songs; his body swayed a little toward Mother, his body unevenly balanced on his stool.
She remembers sitting on the stairs, like Ellen Chesser, "shaking with misery" at the "utter uselessness of everything": "All things were related and all things were nil. I was akin to no one. People were nothing, relations were nothing. I did not know what was the matter. I only knew that I was alone in a spaceless, thing-less universe."
Attending a Catholic funeral with her father, Elizabeth is intent upon recovering her own world in the midst of the massed candles:
She tried to remember about the house—their house—and about the dishes in the safe, the blue cup sitting inside the white one and the little butter chips in the corner. But the incense poured over and the Latin knocked with strong hammers and she could feel her flesh tremble.
She is saved only by the reality of her father beside her.
Documents relating to her high school years at Covington, Kentucky, and her teaching years appear few. In 1927, Lucille Green McIntyre received a letter from the "very frail" and "very sweet quiet" woman who had been her teacher:
Yes, indeed, I do remember you … as a very little dark-eyed girl who wrote a pretty hand and did very careful work. I was not very much more than a child myself then and I probably did not know very much about teaching, but I liked youngsters.…
Resorting to the mails to communicate between student lodgings at Chicago and then the scattering of friends to Santa Fe and Paris occasioned reports of the Poetry Club, classes, literary visitors, and descriptions of her rooms. One such report ends:
I went to French just now in a fine state of inflation, chanting a couplet, and I came away restless and crushed. I sat next to a woman who had eaten onions or some other more powerful legume. How does one hope to utter the graceful and beautiful language—la belle langue—with a breath heavy with yesterday's garlic? Moreover, she had no book and borrowed mine. I stole infrequent glances at the lesson over her shoulder and followed Mademoiselle badly. I came away sad in heart.
While at Chicago and in the early 1920s, Miss Roberts corresponded frequently with Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Yvor Winters, Maurice Lesemann, and her dearest friend, Janet Lewis. She missed them. Back in Springfield, she wrote Wescott: "I wish our flocks could be together now. There is a slim thread of a moon up in the west. And that is my love for you." A letter to Wheeler concludes, "Much love to you, Monie my dear." Each letter to Janet Lewis ended with a fresh proclamation of love. When Maurice and Glenway quarreled in Santa Fe in 1920, as Winters reported, she wrote Wescott:
Since I have Arthur's letter I do not cease to weep.
I cannot endure that there should be any misunderstandings between you and Maurice. You have loved each other too much and you have been too close together, and I have loved you both too much.
That is a terrible and violent country for all of its beauty.
I want you two to go back to the time when you left Chicago and begin all over again. Please see Maurice within a day in some lonely quiet place with one other person present and go back to the night you came to my little parlor for the last time. Do you remember? Janet was there. I wore the rose-pink blouse with its sleeves basted in.…We quoted a great deal of Yeats.… Do you remember!
… Please go back
So that I may cease weeping.
I love you Glenway. Few people will ever love you more.
This rupture in her circle of friends continued to distress her for months.
But there were mundane dramas, too. One, in 1923, was putting up a stove. She wrote Janet Lewis: "The stove will be ugly and it will spoil my room and make me have to take down my pretty Angelicos.…All stoves are ugly."
Anticipating Monroe Wheeler's visit in 1930, she spoke of driving him about:
I am sure you will be pleased to know how well I get on with my driving. I turn badly, but I do all the rest very well, and I greatly enjoy it—the increased sense of power and speed my nerves are acquiring. This is purely a physical growth. When I drive straight along on a good road, making thirty-five, I feel as if I might be getting to be a bird. The modern mania for movement is not a disease, I think, but an evolutionary necessity.
Elizabeth Roberts' correspondence is punctuated with reports of her ill health, a fact always present in her adult life—tuberculosis, anemia, migraine headaches, low blood pressure. A tonsil infection was a major illness; in 1934 she had a complete nervous collapse, after that skin problems eventually diagnosed as Hodgkins' disease, skin cancer, or both—unlike her other health problems in being fatal. Two late letters describe, all too vividly, the ravages of the skin disorder and experimental remedies. A 1922 letter to Monroe Wheeler is probably representative of her social life in Springfield: "I live a curiously lonely existence—you would not endure it a week, thinking all my thoughts to myself."
The Library of Congress papers include no descriptions of the natural scene in the Little Country. But it seems that almost every letter records her feelings for the Pigeon River country—place in the aspect of sense experience and time, as if her recognition of its beauty and form and her identification with it define her very being to her friends. The accounts for Janet Lewis are most extensive; those for Wescott and Wheeler, from which the following passages are taken, are carefully distilled.
March, 1922. We have the most glorious weather, wild and wind-blown every day—gales taking off treetops and setting the world to rights generally. The grass is green and the March lilies are in bloom, all out in the high winds.…I go to my garden every day.… I know what is the matter with me. I am a ground-grass-sky-sun-shine-rain-wind person. When winter comes and shuts me indoors I go quite mad. And the butterbeans are all-out-doors and almost never come in the house. And my novel is all out in sun and wind and clods.
The blackbirds, grackles, are a handsome sort, their coats as bright as brass. I see them at their domestic beginnings, building a rude sort of nest up in the crotch of the maple tree. They do not seem to be caring one blessed damn about what they do, but are off the next minute in the grass strutting about and looking handsome, and yet they seem not to be able to help doing a little toward the nest now and then. I see them drag up sticks and twigs and stab them into place with a lot of unnecessary bill gestures, pure swagger.
I am still planting and digging, far-seeing into the time when my garden will be a burst of color, a symphony surrounding me magnificently with—at least, my reward. Blue iris and red rose, zinnia and salvia and phlox, ivy vines and scarlet runner and peonies. I ought to have some things with lovely names, like delphinium. I have no idea what delphinium is like, but I think it would be blue. If I wanted to hide in the name of a flower, I could find no word into which to go more beautiful or more full of content. I will content myself with morning-glory. It is a cathedral choir song and a burst of sun-light and organ notes, the host lifted and the people forgiven.
It is fun to be at home now. The country is beautiful with lush green and damp. The catalpa trees have just finished blooming, and the roses—the hardy ramblers—were a wonder and a myth, just gone. The hills float off in beautiful rhythms, lifting and turning, line on line. It is beautiful to be lost in the meshes of my story—my own world enhanced to an essence and selected for form. On one side of our place there is a rye field, now yellow and hard, rhythmic crystals in the wind. At night the fireflies rise in little up-going streaks of flame. I sit on the top of a high gate post overlooking the world and the dusk, lonely and happy, over-seeing the rye field and the fireflies and deep pools of tree-green, and far away to the west the rolling hills set in tobacco and wheat.
Our world is beautiful and green again, with many rains. Sometimes I walk out the curving road, gathering chicory blossoms, as blue as a bit of a pale morning sky.…The road curves up and out and over, and into all the dimensions there are. A white fence follows it, and a quail calls over in a drooping field.
The dusty road is white and yellow in the autumn air and the dust hangs over it all day or clings to the dry mint and the frost-bitten sweet-fern. The flat cries of the crows come from the cut fields when the cries of the little birds are forgotten. A moonlit night, and there is a clatter of horses on the road running with the music of the hounds and the cruel beauty of the horn.
The sheep and the lambs went by, running crying down the lane, driven by a great wind. The wind was a voice—three voices—crying "oo-ee how-uu hoop!" This mingled with the clatter of their own bells and made a great terror in the nerves of the sheep. They ran crying, the lambs in high thin tones, the bucks in low gutterals.
From far away across a hill … I can hear the morning music from some church.… It is like a line of ecclesiastic bees, falling, over and over—trying and trying. It falls away, melting into the rustle of the leaves. When I think it is gone, it rises into the morning again, very far away but never high or thin, always as deep as the earth.
The moon, round and full, is a very beautiful honeycomb, deep yellow, coming up the sky a little north or east. After a while …, in the deep middle of the night, it will be a small silver bowl, very cold and very high, holding a drink for I know not what gods for I will close my eyes and let the gods have their portions, for I have a drink of my own.
Some day I will have called all my songs in from the air and the sky.
In 1940, Miss Roberts wrote James Still: "The country is most gracious and most lovely. The moles do some damage, but all is so tender and fresh and new-made that one cannot but forgive the poor underground creature. Maybe an above-ground life is what he most wants and cannot find it."
Miss Roberts' nature world is also a human community. She describes the high roads leading out from town, others "gouted in gullies," and ways "that dip down into creek beds or lift over hills or run off between fencerows, and along these ways or at the ends of them are farm places where people live.… Thus," she observes, "the people sink back into the country and embrace the soil." She describes a county fair, focusing on a "thin brown girl" who "sat beside me on brown sweaty hands" and a "gaunt young man" who slumps "down beside her with a happy nonchalance." She notes the local manner of speech and custom: "Try to get hold of that book. Get hold was the tone they took. They did not buy books; one borrowed or begged or trusted to chance.…"
She sees the farm mind as "freer, lonelier, less acute perhaps, more dreaming and more wise" than the factory mind—"prosperous, abundant, commercial, expedient.…"
The agricultural people are close to their morality. They touch it daily and finger it with slow deliberate hands. Whatever rises above morality or frees itself from the earth escapes with greater ease and more swift flight by reason of their identity with the earth. I believe then, that for the uses of the tragic muse, images can continually be drawn from some region close to the soil.
"It was out of some such thinking as this," she says, that she prepared The Time of Man.
It is a country with a sense of the past: "It was a mythical country into which they went.… Their farewells in Virginia were known to be final, or epic, farewells."
People generally have a vague idea of their origins.…We… hold fine myths of ourselves, as if we were descended from an old race of immortals or came out of some place of fabulous well-being. Asked from whence our ancestors came, we always say, with pride, that we came from Virginia.…"From old Virginia" is the voice less of the flesh and more of the spirit, as if old customs and settled ideals of life would speak out of the mouths of wanderers, the dominant race speaking above the actual fleshly man.
She was also intensely anxious about the fate of the region's cultural heritage: "A country that has been laid waste by thrift and commerce." "The men here have a passion for tree chopping—inherited from a race of backwoodsmen.…This is a barren country, cut to the earth and scraped. The Irish do not remember Deirdre or Conchubor and they know nothing of Emer or Red Hanrahan or Tara. You cannot make them remember. There are no Indian legends and no traces of Indian life or myth." She complains of the Shady Bower Saloon being replaced by traffic directions and a Coca Cola sign.
But her region was distinct, as her irritation at a newspaper's misclassification of Louisville news as Middle Western indicates:
The Middle West is a good part. Lying without boundaries across the map, sharing the seacoast of Bohemia, it puts up a fine argument for itself.… But the Middle West could not cross our northern barrier. It must keep on the other side of the Ohio.
In another note, the barrier appears in imminent danger of being breached: "Kentucky, my country, for God's sake resist the Middle West before it is too late. Remember your past, your fine names, place words, your Boone."
Almost never is her regional identification defined in larger terms than Kentucky. But there is one ringing declaration. On reading I'll Take My Stand, she wrote to Allen Tate of her pleasure in it:
Indeed I never thought I should live to see some part of this truth told and my personal vindication. As a child I refused to sing "Marching through Georgia" and the so-called "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; I have sat in my high school, refusing to stand, while these songs went forward, burning within, all one little frail blonde rage.
Our text books should be rewritten, to foster the true myths and symbols. My own region is rich. We sprang from a race of giants.
In occasional notes or in letters, she expressed her ideas, usually about art or literature, directly.
Several brief notes mention other artists: "J. M. Synge is dead!!! I go to the window and fling up the blind. I look out on the sky—I want to shout in great bursts of grief." "Ulysses." "Study Dynasts again." "See Blake." "A. E. Housman was a pure poet, singing what he lived and knew." "Eliot." "Mann." "Frost." "Pound." "Confessions of St. Augustine." "Yeats." "Turgenev." "James."
Now my masters are Hardy, Shakespeare, Synge, Beethoven—the symphonies—Dickinson, Hopkins. I am still a musician deeply within along with whatever else I am. The Time of Man is a symphony brought into words, or not quite that, for I believe that it is, whatever its failings, complete in itself. At its roots, its inception, it might have taken musical form.
I am reading Brothers Karamazov now. I do not like Dostoyevsky.… I think… one can summarize him as a sentimentalist.…He projects an entire order made up of "queer," unnormal people, curiously and even admirably compounded of marvelous penetration and flighty unreason, whimsical childish, even savage demeanors.…But where in his life picture are the regular people, the people who work and make society go? In his world people borrow money incessantly which they never intend to repay.…
In 1925 she wrote Maurice Lesemann:
In Ulysses prose breaks into two divergencies. We can never go back of this monumental book. Prose has been moving toward a new form for ten years or more, and here it is, not a novel, perhaps—certainly not. I think that the tale, the novel, structurally authentic and classic, will probably be all the stronger for the divergence. Ulysses is a book to ponder.
A number of notes address her vocation as an artist or speak of art: "I shall never be a critic. I can never be deliberate. But I know a few things about myself." "For me, it seems that some sensitivity must always be present. I can accept no other way. Some sensitive person, some cerebrosensual interpretation or interpreter." "The pattern of being—the design—takes form within the creator. It is identified, however, at every point with … the medium or better the media, meaning locality, season, persons."
In poverty, in mindsickness, for better or for worse, in wrecked illusions, whatever the struggle may be, whatever the belief or unbelief which prevails, even into the new chaos, man the artist is always on the side of man in conflict, fighting with and for him. No race of men was ever so low in the scale of being that it did not live by some sort of moral order.…Flowing out of him forever is the imperative need, the "desire" for some good way, some harmonious plan by which to live. And thus the argument leads back to God.…
"Only large symbols are lasting," she observes—Noah's ark, the earth, God's covenant: "They think they can … climb out of the way of God's flood of life and death. How poor, how vain, to try to tie spiritual truth to science. The tower of babel. Eternal truths. Yesterday, now and forever."
Two final statements from the Roberts Papers about art:
It is my belief that the Highest Beauty and the deepest emotion pertain to the beauty of form—pattern—and the little order that we know and sense in the chaos of the universe, know less and sense more, through the high and unconscious moments of faith. All men do not have the sense of pure form; and it is peculiarly rich in the body of the artist, but I have seen manifestations of it in the behavior of very lowly people and of those who could not create for lack of power or other supporting qualities, for lack of mental stability, or intelligence, or a rounded being.… It is intuition, innate, a message as it were from Beyond.…
At this point only we can touch God. Here we can say, seeing this force at work among men: Here is Art; here is God. This power, running above man and dipping graciously down into his writhing mass, the writhing mass with which Science has moved with freedom and invented or discovered mechanisms—or laws—this power has blended or fused with his "word-touch" and made literature.
Almost never does Miss Roberts notice the political scene. In 1939 she wrote B. W. Huebsch of her sense of helplessness in the face of Nazi persecutions. In 1922 she complained to Janet Lewis of Baptist opposition to a town swimming pool:
We are a high-collared, long-skirted, rhythm-less, dance-less race, descended neither from the monkey nor the orang, related not at all to Darwin, and if we are to swim we must swim in a sublimated substance lying mystically between chemical water, that is H2O, and mental ether, for free-thought and higher "criticism" are not permitted either. No, no. Hands off, keep out. Posted! Take the pellet we have rolled out for you, swallow it down, sing the hymn, be constant in attendance at the house of the Lord, pay your dues, and we will look after all the rest.
The remarks about religion in the Roberts Papers are infrequent but decided:
Our religion is a barren, treeless, flowerless, truthless waste, deriving from the reason of the 18th century. The preacher cannot bring religion home to these hills. Religion is all platitude and set sayings. A woman sings, "Let Jesus come into your heart." And what can this mean without reference to beauty?
And her interest in Catholicism, reflected in her many references to St. Rose Priory and St. Catharine's, is echoed in her Library of Congress notes:
If I should follow Mr. Cross I would become so great a purist that I would keep silent nor would I ever write a line—I would become pure in speech—and as a Trappist, never utter words more—take the vows of silence and perhaps, being pure in speech, I should become pure in heart. Perhaps that explains Trappist monks.
After describing old women going to Mass, she asks:
How will it be with you, Kathleen O'Neal, with your silk stockings and your embroidered under clothes, your dancing and your pert, pretty speeches, when you are one of the old women in the morning processional? Last night you kissed Jack Barnes after the dance.… Some day you will be stumbling to church in the blue of a winter morning, in a black dress, to mumble prayers for his soul in purgatory, perhaps … or hell.
When Elizabeth Madox Roberts' papers—letters, notes, memoirs, and work in progress—are seen together, they tell us much of this remarkable woman. Her determination and tenacity were extraordinary. Like other writers of the Southern Renascence, she had a rich sense of her people's past, their feelings, and language, and, at Chicago, found her way into the modernist literary current, which made possible her discovery of the truth of life in the Pigeon River country. And she found in her friends at Chicago the literary community her isolation in Springfield would otherwise have denied her, a community that continued by mail and occasional visits through her most creative years. More, in a group of students then half her age she found lifelong friends. She loved—family and friends and life, but she was very much alone. Visitors were infrequent, and pleas to her old friends to come home from Europe have a pathetic ring: they would, she knows, still be a thousand miles away, except perhaps for a few days' visit.
But the soil, the birds, the sky, the folk of Springfield were ever present to her, and in the experience of her world she found life. "Living" for her constituted an aesthetic; a philosophy, Berkeleyan in origin but also Aristotelian and Thomistic; a faith; a religious experience. In nature; in the stories, songs, and superstitions; in the annual and generational cycles and the folkways and manners of rural southern agriculture; in the community's memory of roots extending through Boone and Virginia to Elizabethan England; her poetic intuition—she was ultimately the sensitive onlooker—found form, design, which form revealed for her the "Hand of Creation." She found beauty—but also truth and goodness—in contrast to the false commercial and materialistic spirit of the time. In a profound awareness of life, she found being, self. In the order and mystery she found in the universe, intuitions informed by the great Biblical events of the Fall, the Flood, and the Incarnation and by the ordering Catholic culture that reached Springfield, especially the bells and chant at St. Rose Priory which was ever her favorite excursion, she experienced "God's great flood of life." Hers was a democratic vision, too, of the time of man, all men, "the Time of Man, exquisitely going"—"the River of Men's flowing life, his time, his way on the earth." It is a mystical vision, a joyful affirmation of life, personal and cosmic, telling acceptance, love, reverence, thanksgiving.
"Life is from within," she says. After Chicago, like her major characters, she was much alone, a frail onlooker, searching for identity and answers to life's riddles, living from within. Before too long, her ills mounted. But, in the spirit of a 1922 letters to Janet Lewis, she continued:
I have known tragedy for a long time, and what it is to be marked, estranged, and what it is to die over and over, and to be born again.… Something radiates Something. Out of me pours wave and flood of being or "energy," straight outward to some comprehending and absorbing Mass, and these are my moments of rebirth. In these moments I make my little songs, and in these moments I realize the surrounding love of friends.
This is religion in operation. It functions forever. Two cinders fall and it takes cognizance.…It has its high moments of happiness.
Such affirmations sustained her.
There was one thing more, the addition of the "word-touch," language, often poetic in its intensity and beauty: she took in hand everything she wrote that went beyond her nest and much that remained there. With that addition, those affirmations sustain us, too.
Janet Lewis (essay date October 1984)
SOURCE: Lewis, Janet. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A Memoir." Southern Review 20, no. 4 (October 1984): 803-16.
[In the following essay, Lewis recalls her close friendship with Roberts during the writer's early literary career.]
I first met Elizabeth Roberts early in the winter quarter of 1919, at a meeting of the Poetry Club of the University of Chicago, the first meeting which I attended. I remember her most clearly as we stood outside the cloakroom door in Ida Noyes Hall, Glenway Wescott, Elizabeth and I, waiting for our coats. In those days of the smoky Illinois Central everything exposed to the outer air was sooty, even the feet of squirrels, and we were all required to check our wraps in order to spare the upholstery of the charming room where we were allowed to meet. I remember a tall, slender woman in a snuff-brown coat, long, down to her ankles, wearing a brown three-cornered hat with a heavy mesh veil drawn closely over her nose and lips, and pinned at the back of her head somewhere under the brim of her hat.
"We are arranging a tryst, Janet and I," she said to Glenway.
I see the lips moving under the veil; and, as far as I can remember, she had worn that hat and veil all through the meeting.
I knew very well later that her eyes were blue, and of a blue that never appeared to be anything less. Her hair, as she herself remarked, was the color of corn silk, and her lips were a pale rose, the color of wild roses. The touch of quaintness in her speech that evening was completely characteristic. She wore her hair drawn simply back from her face and plaited in a long braid, which she sometimes pinned around her head, or coiled in a soft mass at the back of her head. Or, if she was resting in her room, she let the long braid hang free.
Her face was long and narrow, with a long, delicate nose, the forehead wide, since the skull was large, a true English type from Albemarle County.
The face was that of a woman who had been ill for a long time, but the eyes were extraordinary for their liveliness. They were never still. They looked beyond you, flickering over the room or whatever was behind you, high, low, or sideways, and then they returned to meet your eyes squarely for a flash, and then were off again in their constant observation. Her smile was quick and disarming; I remember her eyes full of affection, and sometimes very humorous. I remember also that if she did not care for a person or for the conversation, she did not look at the speaker, but investigated the lower corners of the room beyond with obliterating persistence.
Sometimes even when she liked a person she would still look to the side, and even twist her body and her hands to the side, as if to avoid all direct confrontation. And she may have sat like this when Hart Crane called upon her in New York, for he wrote to my husband that he had never encountered anyone who, in conversation, had so impressed him as a tortured sybil, if not on a tripod. Crane was greatly admiring of The Time of Man. I remember also Crane's admiration for a passage in My Heart and My Flesh, a scene in which Theodosia returns to her schoolroom to find the blackboard scrawled with common four-letter words of bodily excretions. Theodosia adds one more before she clears the board. Tears, also spelled with four letters, also an excretion of the body, "a true juice of the human frame." And, to quote exactly: "Let the boy, whoever he was, who wrote for the whole people of the community, let him write the last word; he would write it in time, this supreme juice from the body of man, the point where he stands above himself, where he outdoes the cattle." Crane found this tremendously moving, as indeed I do, as I repeat it.
Add to all these bits of description a voice light and childlike and often evasive, and you have a person whose presence could sometimes be intimidating, if not disturbing to her younger associates. I loved her at once, as did many others; the story of her life is full of lasting friendships.
Among those present at my first meeting of the Club was Maurine Smith, whom I did not see again, because she became ill and died that spring of 1919. I mention her name now because Elizabeth had a great tenderness for her, and because she wrote some very lovely poems, which ought not to be forever lost.
Monroe Wheeler published them in a small, distinguished book, called The Keen Edge, for which Yvor Winters wrote the preface. It is one of Monroe's earliest publications, and hard to come by, now. Maurine sat quietly all evening, smiled from time to time, was alert, but I can't remember that she spoke at all, I can see her face quite clearly. Although she did not come again to the meetings of the Club, she sent poems, which went straight to the heart.
The importance of the Poetry Club for Elizabeth, and to me for that matter, because of the friendships formed through it, can hardly be overestimated.
How little we knew of her background in those days! How little it mattered! We knew vaguely that she was older than we were, that she had returned to college after a long absence; that she came from Kentucky, but had spent some years in Colorado. Much much later I learned that the year that she had been obliged to give up her studies at the University of Kentucky because of ill health, at the end of her first year, was the year of my birth. I am still vague about how she passed the first seventeen or eighteen years of this century. Mostly in ill health in her parents' home in Springfield, I guess. With her mother she conducted a private school for younger children in her parents' home in Springfield. She may have taught also in Colorado. I believe that an attempt to teach in public school in Kentucky—I don't know where—ended in emotional disaster.
Eventually a scholarship was arranged for her at the University of Chicago, through Robert Morss Lovett, and financial help provided too, through friends or members of her family; and that she mustered all her strength, and, well or not, was able to come to Chicago. One thing is certain, that she had hungered and thirsted for the adventures of the mind which she found at the University, and for the friendships.
In endless conversations in one little rented room or another, always within walking distance of the campus, and mostly pretty dreary and cell like, except for the last one, on Ellis, she told me about what she soon began to call the Little Country, her world of Kentucky. She had the phrase from Willa Cather, and she adopted also from Cather the lines of Horace which became her motto. Primus ego in patriam mecum … deducam Musas. Like Cather she had needed to leave the Little Country in order to understand it, and to be able to return to it without feeling imprisoned.
I first called on her on a day when she was ill, in a dim room of which I can't remember the location. I found her wrapped in a gray wool dressing gown and surrounded, or so it seemed, by milk bottles. She explained that some years earlier she had been put on a total milk diet in a sanatarium where she had hoped to be cured of her recurring pains and devastating headaches. When she decided to come to the University she found it necessary to get herself off the complete dependence on milk, but milk was still the "chief of her diet." I remember also in that room a huge old trunk with a dome lid, and I have a picture in my mind, which Elizabeth surely put there, because I did not meet Gladys Campbell for many years after, of Gladys sitting on that trunk, young and boyish—Elizabeth's word.
She moved again, and again. The trunk followed her to a room on Maryland Avenue, a room with a window overlooking the street, no closet, but a curtain behind which she could hang her clothing, a bed, a chair, a table. With that room she had parlor privileges. I remember many evenings spent there with Glenway, Maurice Lesemann, and Elizabeth, perched on stiff chairs while the gas jet hissed softly, and we talked. The room had a window giving on an air well. We opened it once, but the next time we tried, I remember, it had been nailed shut. Elizabeth had kitchen privileges here also, and taught me to cook six-minute cabbage with milk, and to eat rolled oats uncooked but soaked in milk. She called this Goggy-noober food, after a nation of imaginary people known to her and her six brothers and Lel, her sister. The name, she guessed, derived from the label of her father's cologne and meant "across the street." The Goggy-noobers were a part of the childhood conversations of all the Roberts children, I gathered, for years.
I remember another room, I don't know on what street, with an upstairs window looking on a garden. I remember it chiefly because it was here that Elizabeth talked most of Sue Ray, of the farm with the peafowl, and of an old woman who isolated herself, read the books from her father's or grandfather's old library, and ate the food which she cooked for the dogs.
As a young woman Elizabeth rode with Sue Ray and with Sue Ray's father, as she said, to amuse them. She considered herself as a kind of court jester, not wealthy enough to own a horse, but welcomed by the riders for her presence and wit. And although I cannot well imagine my friend on horseback, I have her word for it that she was for a time very horsey, and, as well as riding often, knew all the horsey vocabulary and gossip. She talked at great length about Sue, whom she loved dearly, and who died very young under a cloud of unmerited scandal.
It is interesting to see how early she began to take in hand, and actually write, in her notes, much of the material which she used in My Heart and My Flesh.
She showed me soon after we met a poem which began: "I will not sing about myself." It went on to sing of a beautiful thing, white butterflies over a field of alfalfa, like snow above the blue flowers. But presently a cold wind struck the butterflies, and they began to perish. The poem ends, "I said I would not sing about myself.… I will sing about a bird flying south."
I did not like the poem, being wary of the quibble and the danger of self-pity, and she was quick to lay it aside. She gave me another poem which was published the next year in the student newspaper, The Daily Maroon, December 18, 1919, a poem which I searched for in vain in her last volume of poetry. I don't know why she left it out. I still find it very lovely. It is called "At Morning."
Among the morning grasses where the slow herds browse,
In the open pastures with the clovers and the cows,
The morning seems to flutter with the shy birds' wings,
And the touch of morning lingers over all dewed things.
Who can keep a sense of his habitual default,
Or his mind on his relation to the star-hung vault?
The pee-s-wee is calling in the osage tree,
And the great winds and little winds are blowing over me,
Taking time to tap the little mallows as they pass,
And to finger all lovingly the flowers of the grass,
And the flowers of the goldenrod that quiver at their touch
And the smart-weed's blossoms that do not care so much.
I cannot seem to hold in mind a very clear sense
Of any grave hereafter, a stern, far whence.
The voices of the men about the barn far-float
Meaningless and beautiful, a wind-cleansed note.
And very many other things that used to mean the most
Are blurred and gone to shadows, set apart and lost;—
And for a little space within the circle of the rim
Of the hills, a vivid moment hangs,—clean, un-dim,
A bit of other worldliness, that somehow links
With the shy birds going and the smart-weeds' pinks
And the swift moving shadows of the grasses and the boughs,
Among the morning pastures where the wise herds browse.
"At Morning" is full of music, and in it you can find the beginnings of her delight in the Little Country. William H. Slavick has included the poem in his essay on her poetry in the edition of KentuckyPoetry Review, a special issue of poems by Elizabeth, called I Touched White Clover. 1
I cannot remember any mention of her having published in 1915 a book of poems called In the Great Steep's Garden. Apparently she had for the time being disowned it. I remember a few other "lost" poems. But she appeared one day on campus with a very simple, very charming poem about a little girl who spent a long, long day in the butterbean tent, a poem which in itself is a long sigh of contentment. This was the first, unless my memory plays me false, of the poems which made up what may be considered her first book, Under the Tree. Glenway Wescott promptly nicknamed them "the butterbeans," a name which Elizabeth liked so well that she used it ever after, writing to me once, "I have new butterbeans, perhaps not very good, mere cow fodder."
This was far from the case, of course. They were some of the best. She went on producing butterbeans steadily for the next two years, with some later strays. She came to have soon a very exact feeling of the book which began apparently so casually, and though she wrote other poems during the same years, she was very strict about which poems should go into Under the Tree. The book is a unit, carefully conceived.
It was a delight to have these poems appearing with frequency, drawn from a muff, as one met Elizabeth on campus, folded into a book, borrowed and returned, tucked into a letter. The muff was perhaps of beaver, brown short fur, and the shape of a small cylinder, satin-lined, and just large enough for two slim hands. I had one like it of sealskin which had been carried by my maternal grandmother. A copy of one such poem, The Pilaster, which I still have, has this note typed below it: "In showing the last group to Mr. Lovett I said, very apologetically that he would not like this one. 'Nobody but Arthur will like this,' I said. 'This is an Arthur Winters one.' But he insisted that he liked it."
Arthur Yvor Winters had been secretary of the Poetry Club the year before, 1917-18, Elizabeth's first year at the university. Though he wrote me in the fall of 1918 an invitation to join the Club, I did not meet him until May 5, 1921. I have the exact date because of a letter written by Elizabeth to Pearl Andelson (Mrs. Edward Sherry). He left the university before Christmas 1918, and spent most of the next two years in Sunmount Sanatorium in Santa Fe, confined to bed with tuberculosis. But he and Elizabeth, and Glenway and Maurice were old friends before I arrived on the scene, and through them, and his letters to them he remained a part of the Club, and very effectively. He took a particular interest in the butterbeans.
I seem to remember Elizabeth at the end of spring quarter that year of 1919, in the room on Maryland Avenue, her large head swathed in the pale gold of her hair, her face flushed in the Chicago heat, the room in total confusion, as she tried to pack the accumulation of the year's activities into the big trunk, which was soon to be picked up by the expressmen. She returned to the world of the poems, of the long reminiscent conversations, and she wrote to me extraordinary letters about her Little Country.
It is hard to know just when she began writing for her own purposes about Springfield and the Kentucky folk. We sat together, Elizabeth and I, in the back row of a class in narrative writing taught by Edith Foster Flint. It was a very valuable course for us, because it demanded a daily theme, and many longer papers through the weeks. We wrote on prescribed subjects—once parodies, for which Elizabeth submitted one on the Tower of Babel according to Vachel Lindsay, which ended: "And the chimpanzee in the far south sea, gnawing on a coconut hanging on a tree, he heard the jabber, and he said, by Zens, something is a-happening to Homo sapiens." Elizabeth was writing the butterbeans then, but did not submit any in the class. She was also writing copiously about her people of Springfield, but none of this, as far as I can remember, was ever presented to the class. The friendship with Mrs. Flint was important to Elizabeth.
We had another year of companionship at the university, from the fall of 1919 until the end of spring quarter, in 1920. We discovered a new man on campus, Dr. Richard Offner, who was giving a course in Florentine Art. We signed up, a little late, Maurice Lesemann, Elizabeth and I, among others, and fell under the enchantment of the Florentines before Raphael. The reflection of that work shines through the butterbeans in an unobtrusive way, but clearly enough so that when Mr. Lovett heard her read Flight into Egypt he promptly remarked, to Elizabeth's great delight, "That's Fra Angelico."
From Dr. Offner we learned of Giovanni Bellini, the great Venetian, who grew old in art, becoming ever better and who brought into Italian painting a sense of "the wetness of water and the greenness of leaves," a sense of air. Elizabeth, quick to be touched by such a phrase and such a notion, declared that as an artist she would become like Bellini. She used to carry about with her, to be eaten between classes, small apples with a curiously pointed shape, which she called gillyflowers—I don't know why. My personal gillyflowers were always wallflowers. But when she discovered in fruit garlands of Bellini the same little apples, she was charmed at linking Italy with Chicago with Kentucky.
When I consider the many elements that went into the poems of Under the Tree I think of them as prophetic of much of her later work. Her delight in the Kentucky countryside, her feeling for the Kentucky people, their folkways, their slow archaic speech, the ancestors from Maryland, and the ballads which the ancestors brought from England into Kentucky, the metaphysical problems, the metaphysical terrors, are all there. And the spirit of Bishop Berkeley.
She once told me that when she was a very little girl, watching a lamp, she saw long lines of light issuing from her eyes and going into the lamp, and when she shut her eyes, the light ceased. She believed then that the light came from her eyes, and that the light in the lamp went out when she closed her eyes. This, it has seemed to me, is the little girl of the butterbean poems, alert to every sensory message from the outer world, puzzling about the realities of both inner and outer worlds. And this is also the woman who wrote to me in August, 1920, after returning from a country fair and carnival:
Madam Stella, as the sign over the tent says in scrawled letters, can answer any question put to her. She was born with a veil over her face and so, you see, she has an inner relation with the hidden, veiled world. She looks like a gypsy and she is old and withered and she probably does know everything.… I want to go back to ask Madam Stella a question … I should like to ask her if there is any reality in the external world.
Curiously, a duplicate of this letter was found, never folded, among her manuscripts at the Library of Congress; it has been quoted, and more extensively, several times. I was surprised and distressed when I first saw this letter in print that a letter addressed to me had been quoted without my permission. I wondered greatly how it had found a way into other hands. I would like to quote a part of the letter, but not all of it. I could not at that time assure myself that the original letter was still in my possession, and I had no way of knowing that a duplicate was with the Roberts papers in the Library of Congress. I was also at that time still intensely aware of the horror which Elizabeth felt at having a personal letter publicly printed, as witness her distress in a letter to Pearl Andelson Sherry because Harriet Monroe had published in Poetry a letter from Elizabeth.
… And moreover, at the end of it I wrote, "Of course this letter is not for publication."…I trusted Miss Monroe so utterly that I feel as if the bottom had dropped out of the world.
However, this letter of August 5, 1920, is almost a key letter to her way of thinking. She continues:
I will tell you why we continually go back to realism in art. Somewhere there is a connection between the world of the mind and the outer order. It is the secret of the contact that we are after, the point, the moment of the union. We faintly sense the one and we as faintly know the other, but there is a point at which they come together and we can never know the whole of reality until we can know these two completely. And so we pursue first the one and then the other. We probe deeper and deeper into the world of sense and experience, and we say, "Now I have it, it is this …" and presently it is seen that we haven't it yet, and we make another effort in a newer realism, or perhaps some of us try the other way round.
In her senior year Elizabeth was president of the Poetry Club; received the Fiske Prize for Under the Tree, a title finally settled on for the collection of butterbeans. The people from whom she rented a room on Ellis Avenue were fond of her; she was happy there. She read her poems to Rabindranath Tagore, who, as my father's friend, received the members of the Poetry Club at our house in Oak Park. She saw her friends often, and although Maurice Lesemann was still in New Mexico, teaching in the high school at Cerillos, Arthur Winters came to Chicago in May for a visit with his family, and Elizabeth spent several weekends with them in Wilmette. She graduated in cap and gown with honors, and returned to Springfield for the summer and the following year.
Shortly after Christmas of 1921 I was able to visit her in Kentucky and see for myself something of the Little Country of which she had been talking and writing.
I took the night train for Louisville at nine-thirty from the Union Station, as Elizabeth had done so often, and reached Springfield about eleven-thirty the next morning, to be met by Elizabeth and her friend Louise McElroy, who drove a car. It was pleasant to be out of the Chicago dark and cold, to see in December what looked like an early spring—green coming up under dead grass, a few violets in Louise's garden.
It was a very small town then, Springfield, although the county seat. The Roberts house was at the edge of town. From her bedroom window Elizabeth could see a hillside where cows were grazing. There was garden space surrounding the house. Elizabeth's room was at the front, linked with her parents' room by a small, square hallway, almost large enough to be used as a parlor. The parents' chamber was a complete sitting and bedroom in itself, as was Elizabeth's. It was large, high-ceilinged, with its own stove, with a rocking chair for her father, and certainly a particular chair and sewing table for her mother.
I have a snapshot of her father sitting near the new addition which Elizabeth built on the old house when she realized some money from her work, and which she called Elenores. He is white haired and bent, and much as I remember him. I cannot dissociate him in my mind from the poem in Under the Tree, seated in the rocker with the small daughter at his side, "for that is my place," and, "while he is talking or telling the tale," poking with her small finger "holes in his big rough face." And since she told me that one day she learned that the book which she saw so often in his hands was the New Testament in Greek, I see him also with that book in his hands. A retired surveyor, to me he seemed old in 1921, and Mrs. Roberts was already, as John Jacob Niles said, "ancient of days," although sturdy. She survived well into my days at Stanford, in the fifties—is it possible?—when Niles came with his dulcimer and sang for us the old Kentucky folk ballads, and told me how he had worked with Elizabeth when she was writing Black Is My Truelove's Hair.
We did not casually enter the parents' chamber. When I met Mrs. Roberts it was most often in the kitchen. The entry hall led into a narrow dining room which in turn led into the kitchen. At meals I was the only guest, and Elizabeth was the only child of the house. Mrs. Roberts addressed her husband always as Mr. Roberts, a pretty custom, and new to me at that time. She was a short, fairly round woman, with warm brown eyes like Lel's Elizabeth's younger sister, and she was very kind to me. She wanted to rest me and feed me up. I remember the peach turnovers she made for us as the best I have ever eaten.
I was given a bedroom adjoining that of Elizabeth, which I believe opened into the dining room. It had also a door to Elizabeth's room. There was no heat, save from Elizabeth's stove through the open doorway. There was a washstand with a great white china pitcher, a basin to match and a slop jar, all of which seemed homely and natural to me, after some months in Paris in 1920 and after many years in cabins in the north woods. There was a quilt for the big metal bedstead made entirely of little muffins of silk or satin or even velvet, stuffed with wool or cotton and then sewn to a single piece of backing material. It was interesting, muffin by muffin, in color and texture, and heavy, and not very warm.
We spent most of our time in Elizabeth's room, with its stove. She had written me in the fall an epic account of how the stove was set up, with a pipe like a dragon's tail, with many angles adjusted to the architecture of the room. On the walls were reproductions of some of the Italian masters which I had brought from Florence in memory of Dr. Offner's classes. There was a good writing table near the window through which she could see the cows grazing; on it her portable Corona, which she called La Petite Bibiche, of which the type was as familiar to me as her handwriting. There was the big bed, and before the stove, a pair of rocking chairs. The walls were a pale yellow, the drapes yellow. She had painted the walls and the furniture herself in a great expenditure of energy upon her return from Chicago, as she had also planted a garden, and made plans for spring.
I see Elspeth with her head and shoulders muffled in shawls, in the rocking chair, or under warm covers in bed. She suffered much from cold, then as ever afterwards. She rested every afternoon and although I was free to rest then also, I walked out often on the road which led directly into the hills.
I have called her Elspeth inadvertently. It was a name given her first by Maurice Lesemann, and adopted by us all as being more wispy and elusive, more suitable for our fragile friend than the name of the great queen. Her mother called her Bess, and her neighbors, Miss Bess.
That summer of 1921 she had given readings of the butterbeans, first to the friends in Springfield on the front porch, then for various groups and schools. These had been very successful, and after the first trepidations she came to feel that she could hold her audience in the palm of her hand.
She read in Springfield that summer at the Presbyterian Church and also in Lexington, Covington, Louisville.
With the help of my mother I managed to arrange a reading for her in Oak Park the coming spring at the home of Mrs. Edgar Hamilton. This was highly successful and netted a fair amount of money. I was not, alas, permitted to be present because immediately after my return from Springfield I became very ill with an infection which left me with a touch of pulmonary tuberculosis. It was not considered necessary at that time to send me to a sanatorium, so I remained at home on my honor as a bed patient. But after the reading at Mrs. Hamilton's, Elizabeth, who was our house guest, became ill with a slight fever and a bad headache and took to her bed. My mother, also, succumbed to an attack of influenza, and my father, who was teaching his classes daily at Lewis Institute, found himself responsible for nourishment and comfort to a houseful of bed patients. He cared for us cheerfully and well. I found in his diary for that year a series of entries for the last week in March. "Girls still in bed."
Eventually Elizabeth and my mother got back on their feet, and Elizabeth, having found another respectable little room within walking distance of the campus, moved to the south side for the rest of the spring.
I rode with them, my mother and Mrs. Hamilton who drove an electric car—we had no car—when Elizabeth and her belongings were moved, and my mother went with her to the new room. I was not allowed to climb the stairs, however, and so that became, as well as I can remember, the last day on which I saw Elizabeth until a day in March of 1926, when she came to visit me in Santa Fe.
However, she wrote happily from that room, found it comforting that my mother could visualize her in her new surroundings, and had, I think, a good spring in Chicago. She gave another reading, two, in fact, and saw some old friends. Mrs. Moody invited her for an evening with Vachel Lindsay. She had a visit with Miss Harriet Monroe. It was all very hopeful.
I did not see her again that spring because my father obtained leave of absence for the last weeks of spring quarter, and took my mother and me to a new cabin in the north woods. I continued to regain strength, and in late August went to Santa Fe, to Sunmount Sanatorium where Arthur Winters had regained his health. He was no longer at Sunmount, but he had arranged for me to come as tutor for a young boy with a tubercular knee. I was at Sunmount that year as an "arrested case"—no one was ever pronounced cured. The letters from Elizabeth followed me. She could hardly have been more present in my life.
When she began the story of Ellen Chesser is impossible to say exactly. She had been preparing for it so long. In January, 1922, she wrote me:
I have had out all my notes, reading them, my "prose" notes trying to recapture the vision of my story as it once floated over me not analyzed or outlined, but clearly sensed as a nebulous rhythm. In moments I can glimpse it again. I did yesterday, but today it is dull and in dim shadow.
Again, in March, she wrote:
My difficulty with the prose is that I have masses and masses of material and no plan on which to select. I have no thesis to air and no propaganda. Myself against the background of this land would be the sum of it … but I have talked to you of this before.
And still again in March of that same year she wrote: "My plan is to present the chaos of the world and the chaos of myself, coming up to one fine ordered thing—art."
But June 13, 1922, she had written to Glenway Wescott, "I am writing a novel, too. I have done much since I came from Chicago three weeks ago. In less than two weeks I had set thirteen thousand words on paper." By June 17 she wrote to Monroe Wheeler, "My own story goes along so swiftly that I am out of breath with the swirl of it. I have done more than twenty-thousand words. I am not telling even Janet about it, because I may have to throw it away. It works me so hard that I find myself irritated at everything that hinders it."
She wrote during these months fewer letters to her friends, and one of them inquired what had become of her. She exclaimed to me in a letter in July of the same year, "I am writing a story, so that is what has become of me." She was indeed so lost in the story that when she came to see me at Sunmount, when The Time of Man was complete and in the hands of the publisher if not of the printers, she asked me quite seriously what year it was.
That summer, 1922, in Springfield was very difficult for her, what with interruptions from her family, fatigue from working too long stretches on the story, with increasing pain and headache. She saw no way to escape, between ill health and lack of funds, yet she knew that she needed to leave Springfield for a time. Things did not become any easier for her as the year went on. She was persuaded finally by a few of her friends to write to Dr. Riggs at the Riggs Foundation at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a remarkable man who seems to have been in advance of his time a believer in holistic medicine.
By autumn of 1923 friends had contributed enough money to make a sojourn in Stockbridge possible. Her brother Ivor—her letters are full of her appreciation of his love and devotion—shepherded her safely through New York to Stockbridge. Other friends who were in New York at that time helped also—Marianne Moore and her mother, Monroe Wheeler, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Glenway Wescott. She went protesting, and only for the sake of her story, on which she counted to make enough money to become independent.
The sojourn with Dr. Riggs was not entirely easy, but it was successful. Her letters were buoyant. She became stronger than she had been in years, and she managed to maintain that strength for a long time.
Dr. Riggs found some traces of pulmonary tuberculosis; probably those dreadful attacks of bronchitis had not been merely colds. When she came to see me at Sunmount she was exhausted. Dr. Mera, examining her then, found a slight activity and counseled more rest. She went on to California to be with her sister, Lel, but the winter fogs of Santa Monica were very hard on her, and later, when she felt the need of a warm climate, she went to Florida.
The great success of The Time of Man is on record; and the extraordinary sequence of novels which followed it, one a year for a time, and then the others still in quick succession up to the time of her death. It would have been a prodigious accomplishment for anyone in the best of health and strength. How she accomplished it is a marvel.
Her letters to me continued but became fewer, as she spent more time on her stories. My replies, I'm sure, became fewer also, as I married, left the sanatorium and became involved again in normal life.
I was at work on an historical narrative of a family, half Irish, half Ojibway, which settled at the end of the eighteenth century in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Elizabeth at the same time was at work on The Great Meadow. She wrote, asking me for a few Ojibway names and some Ojibway lore, which I was most happy to send her, and even happier to find later in The Great Meadow.
This was like old times. The correspondence thinned as each of us followed her own path, but did not cease, until just before Thanksgiving of 1938. I had no news of her again until I received the telegram from Ivor, saying that she had died on March 13, 1941. I did not know her whereabouts, nor that she had been ill with Hodgkins disease. I felt then very keenly the regret that I had not been near her in her illness, neither in the spirit nor the flesh, and I faced a long look backward at our decreasing closeness. The next to the last letter I have from her is dated October 27—so close to the birthday which she never mentioned—1938. She wrote then:
I wish I could see you. Sometimes it seems, suddenly, as if we were back where we used to be, as if all the tides of us had not ebbed out from Chicago, as if we might be hurrying to Dr. Offner's class with little gilliflowers in my pocket.… Then all the years and the books rise up between.… I shall be watching for a line from you before I go south.…My constant love.
Ah yes, the books, and the love. I was washing dishes when I was called to the phone by Ivor's telegram, I remember. I went back to my task, and I cried.
Maurice Lesemann was one of the circle of poets and Elizabeth Madox Roberts' lifelong friends who met in University of Chicago English classes and in the Poetry Club. He and Elizabeth Roberts found much in common—in the arts and the world of mind and spirit. Many years later, after her death, it was reported that they had been in love, but the difference in their ages and her semi-invalid condition had precluded any such interest on his part or, for a long time, his recognition of the strength of her feeling for him. They remained good friends and corresponded for many years. Mr. Lesemann's memoir was prepared in 1974; a stroke prevented his addition to it for the centenary. He died October 2, 1981.
—William H. Slavick
Needless to say, knowing Elizabeth Madox Roberts was one of the great experiences of my life and one in which I have always taken pride.
We got acquainted at the University of Chicago through the University Poetry Club and Robert Lovett's and Dean Flint's composition classes. I would often stop by at her lodging house on Maryland Avenue and talk with her in the landlady's tiny, shabby sitting room where she was allowed to receive callers. Often she would greet me with "I have a new butterbean for you," and she would read me a new child-poem, one of those that eventually were brought together in Under the Tree. We called them "the butterbeans" because the first one written was "The Butterbean Tent."
Even at this early time those of us who were becoming her close friends—Glenway Wescott, Janet Lewis, Arthur Yvor Winters and myself—felt what an extraordinary person she was. We did not set her on a pedestal, as later, for there was nothing as yet to hint of the dimensions of her talent and we all thought of ourselves as extraordinary persons. But, as youngsters, we were enormously impressed by the presence of this subtle, mature mind in our midst, this person so collected, so shy and yet so firmly centered, so consistently herself. Her personal self was not diluted by the presence and conversation of others. She had a habit of looking away from you while she talked to you, especially when she had something important to say, keeping her whole self intact so that whatever subtle thing she wished to impart would come out exactly as she wanted it to, and at intervals her cheek would twitch with a little nervous tic just below the eye and she would give you a quick sidewise glance to see if you understood. We were fascinated by her.
I was in New Mexico most of the time from June 1920 to November 1922. It must have been then that I began addressing my letters "Dear Elspeth" because her reticence and formality had a touch of quaintness that made me think of a Scotch woman named Elspeth in a book by Ian Maclaren that I had read as a boy. Elizabeth was amused and pleased by the name and began signing it to her letters, and soon others took it up.
I got back to Chicago in November 1922 and in January 1923 began my senior year at the university. Elizabeth had graduated and gone home to Kentucky and was working on The Time of Man. As I did all through my college years, I lived at home; my father was then president of a Methodist school for training missionaries and social workers which was within walking distance of the university. Our family had an apartment in one of the school dormitories and ate in the school dining room. So it was no hardship for my mother to have Elizabeth pay us an extended visit. Early in 1925 she spent some seven weeks with us. She wrote part of The Time of Man at my desk—notably the magnificent comic passage in which Henry reminisces by the fire while Ellen and Jonas wait for him to go to bed. I well remember the hilarity that filled the room when she read that passage to my brother and me the evening of the day she finished it. Some time after the visit my mother received from Springfield a beautiful bed coverlet that Elizabeth had woven for her as a thank-you.
Later that year I visited Elizabeth in Springfield; she arranged for me to stay next door and take my meals with her family. We took walks together. We talked in her flower garden in the late afternoons. She got a friend to drive us around through the country, the landscape of so many of her stories.
By now The Time of Man had been completed up through the part dealing with Jonas. In the early afternoons while Elizabeth rested I took portions of the typescript over to my room. I read it consecutively from the beginning, and long before I reached the end of the finished part I was overcome by the awed conviction that I was witnessing the birth of a masterpiece. I shall never forget the breathlessness, the coldness sweeping the skin, the tingles along the spine with which I advanced from page to page.
The original plan for The Time of Man did not go beyond the Jonas episode. Elizabeth was at this moment undecided whether to conclude the book at that point, making it the story of a young girl, as originally envisioned, or whether to give it a larger curve, carrying it on into Ellen's mature years. She asked me what I thought, and I of course urged strongly that she attempt the latter and more difficult task. Others must have done the same, but I daresay none of us deserves any credit; we only confirmed her in a decision she was coming to anyway. She often asked advice as a way of sounding out what she thought herself.
In 1926 I married Marjorie Elizabeth Haskin, one of my father's former students, a singer and pianist a year younger than myself, twenty years younger than Elizabeth Roberts. The two women had met the previous year and had found a common bond in their interest in folk song. Remarkably enough, a real affection developed between them. In early 1927, after my wife and I had rented a little house on Chicago's South Side near the lake, Elizabeth spent a month with us. Her upstairs room gave her complete privacy and she spent her days working on My Heart and My Flesh. After her return to Kentucky, the cloth she designed and made for Marjorie, in dove gray linen and pale blue silk, was one of the loveliest examples of her weaving.
During these years I became fairly familiar with Elizabeth Roberts' ways of working. Her note-taking was helter skelter. To avoid chaos she formed the habit of keeping a separate envelope for each chapter and slipping the notes into the proper envelopes. Although she often wrote swiftly, riding a wave of inspiration, her total creative process was not orderly and her actual writing not consistently fluent and spontaneous. I have seen the small, half-foolscap sheets she always used covered with false starts, passages crossed out or corrected in pencil, the total effect very like the work sheets of other writers. Likewise, the process of composition from her notes was, I am confident, open to the influence of new thoughts or information or new notes made while she was writing. If, while she wrote chapter four, some vivid detail or bit of dialogue needed for chapter eight sprang into her mind, she would not suppress or ignore it but quickly and gratefully put a note in the appropriate envelope. The creative ferment certainly never ended for her until the book itself came to an end.
Like John Millington Synge, she always composed on the typewriter. When a passage was completed to her satisfaction, she typed a fair copy of it, adding that to the fair copy of the book as completed thus far; then she at once destroyed all the work sheets and all the notes and jotted reminders that had now served their purpose, so that nothing remained except the text in its final form.
It has been said that being "able to compose quickly and easily, she wrote the first draft of The Time of Man in long hand, then typed it. After this novel she typed all the rest." The fact is that The Time of Man, like the other Roberts novels, was written on the typewriter, in the manner described above. After the book was off the press, Miss Roberts offered to make me a gift of the original typescript. I told her lightly that she had better keep it, that it might be very valuable some day. She was a bit offended, I think, by this cavalier response, but I believe it set her thinking about manuscripts. She knew The Time of Man was a masterpiece. It began to trouble her that there existed no copy of it in the author's own hand. Whereupon, to the amazement and amusement of her intimates, she wrote out the entire book long hand, devoting a little time each day to the task, copying it word for word from a bound copy of the first edition. So came about the holograph that has made her working method in The Time of Man appear different from her working method in all the other novels—and implied a fluency as miraculous as Mozart's.
Even now, after all these years, Elizabeth Roberts is a daily presence in my life. In all my inner landscapes, to the farthest outlying territories, I come upon her footprints. Still in all hours of day or night her wise sayings come quietly to mind. In 1930 Marjorie and I moved to California and I never saw Elizabeth again. Time, distance and other factors tended to draw us apart. In the end I failed her by negligently allowing our long correspondence to dwindle to nothing at a time—in the late thirties—when she most needed support for her spirit—a neglect for which I can never forgive myself.
Probably I was Elizabeth Roberts' first friend at the University of Chicago. We were both latecomers. I had taught for five years before I went, and she had taught or worked for awhile before she came. We arrived at the same time and went into a composition class taught by George Sherburn. At that time, he was just a young instructor, but we were lucky. He was a very brilliant young man, a very keen mind, a good critic, later to become very well known as a scholarly writer. His was a very good course, and I'm sure Elizabeth gained a great deal from it. We went into Robert Morse Lovett's class later, and he was an inspiration as a person but not the teacher and critic George Sherburn was.
I don't know just how we got together. Perhaps it was because, as we use the expression in the bookstore, I felt that she was my sort. I think I probably took the initiative. We were both older than the rest of the class, and that set us apart and made us look at each other. And so when the young people would go out of the classroom, laughing and talking and going on their way, we drifted together and walked away from the class together and talked about what was going on, what had been written, and that sort of thing, and we became friends in that way.
Finally, I began going to see her. She didn't talk very much, was rather frail, and always gave me the feeling that she was very delicate. She had a little room and was living very sparsely. And I remember particularly visiting her one Christmas night. I didn't know anybody in the city, and at that time, I think, she didn't know many people. She was alone. I had brought a couple of sandwiches, and we began talking. She said, "I spent Christmas day washing, washing all my clothes." Then, very seriously, she said, "I love washing clothes, because I feel that I cleanse myself inside and out when I wash clothes; I feel soap suds in my soul." We looked out of the window and felt cold air on our faces, and that was just about all of our celebration of Christmas.
We did talk about writing a little bit. I remember once I was writing a story and I was a rather green country girl—there were many things I didn't know—and there was a courtroom in my story, and I didn't know anything about a court. I asked Elizabeth, "Don't they say something when they begin?"
A strange smile appeared on her face and she threw back her head—it was one of those strange moments of humor—and she said, "The honorable judge of Washington County is now sitting—is now sitting." Later on, of course, I read that in The Time of Man and I knew she was thinking about The Time of Man even then. In fact, I think that she wrote some of the first drafts of it in our composition class because of what I found out later: I got to be a very good friend of George Sherburn's; as they say, we went together for awhile.
I said to him one day after class, "I got an A-in the course"—I had an A on every paper I handed in, so I said to him boldly, "Why did you give me an A-in that course when you always put an A on my papers?"
"Well," he was somewhat embarrassed, "you know, that was a funny thing to do, but I'll tell you why. You know, Elizabeth Roberts was in that class and when it came to the final grades, it seemed to me, I just couldn't give anybody else the same grade I gave Elizabeth Roberts." She was utterly unknown at that time, but that was the impression he had of her.
At that time Elizabeth began to see more people and to be more active on campus. Of course, she didn't keep me for her only friend because she was a friendly person and soon people were attracted to her. Then the Poetry Club began to take shape. It just sort of coalesced; nobody really started it, but friends got together and pretty soon they were meeting and talking. She never went to the meetings very often, but she became great friends with many of the people—among them Janet Lewis, Glenway Wescott, Arthur Winters, Monroe Wheeler, Maurice Lesemann, Bernard Raymond, Dan Rich, and Bertha T. James. Those were the people who were most important in our lives then.
Then in 1918 I was graduated and went away to teach, because that was my living. We had different attitudes about writing. We both liked to write, and we were both interested in it. But to me it was a release, an entertainment, something I did to relieve me from other hard work I was doing in another way. But for her it was a way of life. She would sacrifice everything for it, which I didn't, of course. I took a job where you get a paycheck at the end of every month.
After 1918 I left Chicago and we wrote from time to time. When Elizabeth wrote to me, she didn't write about literature a great deal; she wrote in a personal way. She looked upon me, I think, as much younger than she, although I was not as young as she thought. She called me Billy: "You're like a little boy," she said. That may seem strange now with my gray hair and all, but she thought I looked like a little boy, and she said, "I'm going to call you Billy." So she wrote letters to Billy, but not very much about literature; they were more personal letters. One of the last ones came when I went back to the university in 1922. She was pretty well away from Chicago most of the time, and I don't remember seeing her then. I think it was strange; she was at Maurice's house, and I don't remember seeing her there, although I was one of his best friends and was frequently at his home.
But I went back and found the Poetry Club was quite a different place. New people were there—a long list of them, including George Dillon, who was a strong power in the Poetry Club. (Later he became an editor of Poetry.) The Club got to doing different things. We rented halls and sold tickets and had people like Sandburg and Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay to give readings in Mandel Hall. We entertained our guests; that was quite an active part of our club.
I don't remember seeing Elizabeth for quite a long time, although I had letters from her. The last one I got told me about building a new brick house. "It has to be large because there are a lot of us." And she said, "Come and see us sometime." So one spring vacation when I was driving south, as I sometimes did during spring vacation, we got rather near there. Kathleen Foster (whom Glenway Wescott said was the most beautiful woman he ever knew) had become my sister-in-law and was with me. I said, "Why don't we go and see Elizabeth?" So we began looking at maps and finding out where we were and where she was. And we finally found the house; the red brick house turned out to be an addition to the old house.
So we went to the door, rather timidly, to find a woman we had never seen before. We said we were friends of Elizabeth and could we see her? She didn't seem quite sure. She looked at us a little suspiciously and went off for awhile and came back and said, "Yes, Elizabeth would like to see you." She took us through the house, then up to Elizabeth's room. Elizabeth was looking very frail, very pale, but very beautiful. She had a lovely dressing gown on and a shawl about her shoulders. She greeted us very warmly and apparently was very glad to see us. But we didn't stay very long as we didn't want to tire her. And that was the last I ever saw of Elizabeth.
1. Since I prefer it, I quote from a version of "At Morning" in my possession that preceded the published one.—J. L.
Linda Tate (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Tate, Linda. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Bibliographical Essay." Resources for American Literary Study 18, no. 1 (1992): 25-43.
[In the following essay, Tate surveys Roberts's body of work, providing biographical and critical commentary.]
Until 1960, the best bibliographical information on Roberts was to be found in Edward Wagenknecht's Cavalcade of the American Novel (New York: Henry Holt, 1952), which provides a brief overview of criticism on Roberts to that date. In the 1960s, two bibliographies appeared which were more helpful: the selected bibliographies at the end of Earl H. Rovit's Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1960) and Frederick P. W. McDowell's Elizabeth Madox Roberts (New York: Twayne, 1963). Rovit's bibliography covers secondary sources and is restricted to only the most important critical works on Roberts to 1960. In general, Rovit provides useful annotations for the seventeen pieces he includes. The bibliography at the end of McDowell's book is a bit more helpful than Rovit's published bibliography, as it includes a complete listing of published primary sources, as well as a slightly more extensive listing of secondary sources, also with clear annotations. Rovit's unpublished dissertation (Boston Univ., 1957) provides the most exhaustive listing of early sources pertaining to Roberts.
Less complete bibliographies include Rovit's entry on Roberts in Louis D. Rubin, Jr.'s A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969); Blake Nevius's annotated entry on Roberts in his The American Novel: Sinclair Lewis to the Present (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970); and Anne Rowe's brief essay and bibliography on Roberts in Lina Mainiero's American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present in Four Volumes, Volume 3 (New York: Ungar, 1981). The Dictionary of Literary Biography includes two essays on Roberts, one by Alison D. Goeller, which provides a good overview of Roberts's career with particular attention to the fiction (Vol. 9, part 2, American Novelists, 1910-1945 ), and the other by Rowe, which focuses primarily on Under the Tree and Song of the Meadow (Vol. 54, American Poets, 1880-1945 ). The Rowe essay is particularly interesting since it is illustrated with pictures of the original dust jackets for The Time of Man, My Heart and My Flesh, The Great Meadow, and The Haunted Mirror. One problem with all of these bibliographies is that they tend to cite the same contemporary reviews over and over again, despite the fact that some of those reviews are not particularly useful to the scholar today.
Most recently, William H. Slavick has written a twelve-page essay on Roberts for Fifty Southern Writers after 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (ed. Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987). The essay provides a brief overview of Roberts's biography, major themes, and criticism on her work. While the discussion of criticism is necessarily brief, it is especially useful for information on dissertations and master's theses focusing on Roberts. For quick and comprehensive reference, Slavick's bibliography is an indispensable and long overdue research tool.
All of Roberts's novels were originally published by Viking Press: The Time of Man (1926), My Heart and My Flesh (1927), Jingling in the Wind (1928), The Great Meadow (1930), A Buried Treasure (1931), He Sent Forth a Raven (1935), and Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938). Her short story collections were also brought out by Viking. The Haunted Mirror (1932) includes "On the Mountainside," "The Sacrifice of the Maidens," "Record at Oak Hill," "The Scarecrow," "Children of the Earth," "Death at Bearwallow," and "The Shepherd's Interval." Not by Strange Gods (1941) contains "The Haunted Palace," "I Love My Bonny Bride," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Holy Morning," "The Betrothed," and "Love by the Highway." Of the poetry collections only one, Song of the Meadow (1940), was originally published by Viking. In The Great Steep's Garden, a tourist volume with photographs by Kenneth Hartley, was published by Goudy-Simmons Publishing Company in 1915 in Colorado Springs, and the original 1922 edition of Under the Tree was brought out by B. W. Huebsch in New York. Viking printed an enlarged edition of Under the Tree in 1930.
Of Roberts's dozen works, only half are currently in print. Black Is My Truelove's Hair, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick, was published by Arno Press (New York) in 1977 as part of its Rediscovered Fiction by American Women Series. AMS Press (New York) has published reprints of The Great Meadow (1930), The Haunted Mirror (1978), and Not by Strange Gods (1979). The University Press of Kentucky reissued The Time of Man in 1982 with introductions by Slavick and Robert Penn Warren and Under the Tree in 1985 with an afterword by Slavick. (Slavick reported in a note to American Literature [March 1983] that the printer omitted from page viii, line 16, of his introduction a crucial sentence in Warren's quote: "It is easy to say that she had only one masterpiece.") In the fall of 1981, the Kentucky Poetry Review printed a special issue of 38 previously unpublished Roberts poems, collected and edited by Slavick. I Touched White Clover, as the issue was called, also includes a drawing done by Roberts, a Roberts essay, "On Poetry," and an essay on Roberts's poetry by Slavick. Many poems, however, remain uncollected and some unpublished.
More of Roberts's work needs to be made available to the new generation of readers and critics interested in her. Considering the substantial amount of commentary which My Heart and My Flesh and He Sent Forth a Raven have generated, one would hope to see reprint editions of these important works available again.
III. Manuscripts and Letters
Roberts's letters, manuscripts, and other papers, known as the Roberts Collection, were given to the Library of Congress in 1943 by the writer's brother, Ivor S. Roberts. Allen Tate's "The Elizabeth Madox Roberts Papers" (Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, October/November/December 1943) and Slavick's "Taken with a Long-Handled Spoon: The Roberts Papers and Letters" (Southern Review, Fall 1984) provide excellent overviews of the collection's contents. Although many of Roberts's family and friends destroyed correspondence and other papers, a good deal of material remains extant. The Library of Congress collection consists of approximately ten boxes of material, with a total of about 500 items. There are no restrictions for use. In addition to the Library of Congress collection, the Filson Club (Louisville, Kentucky) has a sizeable collection of Roberts papers, and St. Catharine College (St. Catharine, Kentucky) has some of her papers and part of her book collection as well. Much of her correspondence with literary friends and associates also remains in existence. Selected portions of these letters were published in Pearl Andelson Sherry's "Symbolism in the Letters of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" and Janet Lewis's "Letters from the Little Country: The Summers of 1919 and 1920" (Southern Review, Fall 1984). Slavick is currently editing one-volume editions of Roberts's letters and papers.
There is no full-length biography of Roberts. Three book-length critical works include some biographical material, Harry Modean Campbell and Ruel E. Foster giving the most extensive background on her life in Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1956). However, Campbell and Foster base their biography of Roberts largely on personal reminiscences and anecdotes, as do others who have published "biographical" information. Such works include Glenway Wescott's "A Personal Note" (originally published in Bookman [March 1930] and reprinted as the featured piece in the Viking Press's reprint of previously published reviews, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Personal Note [New York, 1930]) and several of the pieces in the 1984 Southern Review, such as Janet Lewis's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A Memoir," Maurice Lesemann's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Reminiscence," and Gladys Campbell's "Remembering Elizabeth."
These personal accounts cast, at best, only a partial light on Roberts as a writer. Roberts critics need more information about several key periods in the author's life. As Slavick points out in his 1984 essay on the papers and letters, "A biography that accounted adequately for the two decades before her matriculation at the University of Chicago at the age of thirty-six … and for the last decade of her life" would "prompt a greater interest in the author." Woodbridge Spears's 1953 University of Kentucky dissertation, "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Biographical and Critical Study," provides a good beginning for such a biography, but it remains unpublished.
Although she had achieved a small degree of success with the 1922 publication of Under the Tree, Elizabeth Madox Roberts did not become a writer of significant reputation until 1926, when her first novel, The Time of Man, was published. An immediate success, it was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was later translated into German, Swedish, Spanish, and Dano-Norwegian. Reviews from around the country and abroad were enthusiastic. In a letter to Roberts, Sherwood Anderson wrote: "My love of the book is beyond expression.… Noone in America is doing such writing" (qtd. in Slavick, Introduction to the 1982 edition of The Time of Man ). Ford Madox Ford called it "the most beautiful individual piece of writing that has yet come out of America" ("The English Novel: From the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad: Part One," Bookman, December 1928). In his 1963 Saturday Review article (which later became the preface to the 1963 and 1982 editions of the book), Robert Penn Warren notes, "By 1930, with the appearance of The Great Meadow, the fourth novel, it was impossible to discuss American fiction without reference to Elizabeth Madox Roberts." While most critics agreed on the value of The Time of Man, disagreement over Roberts's work increased as her career continued. The 1935 publication of He Sent Forth a Raven in particular caused her critical and commercial reputation to take a sharp turn for the worse. Despite his belief in her "genius," for example, her most prominent early critic, J. Donald Adams, felt she had artistic weaknesses that were keeping her from attaining her full potential. Most notable of these weaknesses, he said, was "a too great turning inward" ("Elizabeth Madox Roberts," Virginia Quarterly Review, January 1936). Such an evaluation of her work was standard.
Since her death in 1941, treatment of Roberts's work has been sporadic at best. The decade after her death spawned little critical attention to her work. The late 1950s and 1960s saw a marked return of interest in Roberts, as three books on her work appeared, The Time of Man was reprinted, and more critical articles focusing on her were published. Critical attention to Roberts in the 1970s was scarce. Currently, the academic world is experiencing another return of interest in Roberts's work. Several of her books have been reprinted, a centenary conference on Roberts has been held, a special issue of Southern Review has been devoted largely to her, and a Roberts newsletter is slated to begin publication in the early 1990s.
Early responses to Roberts's work came, of course, in the form of reviews and, as with any popular author, there were quite a few of them. For one reason or another, bibliographers have pointed to the same reviews again and again, most notably Kenneth Burke's "A Decade of American Fiction" (Bookman, August 1929), J. D. Robins's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Canadian Forum, November 1930), and Dorothea Brande's "Four Novels" (Bookman, December 1932). Two nearly identical books were published by the Viking Press in 1930 and 1938. The 1930 version, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Personal Note, includes the Bookman essay by Glenway Wescott and reprinted reviews by Robert Morss Lovett, Edward Garnett, Mary Ross, Allan Nevins, Carl Van Doren, and Louis Untermeyer. The 1938 book, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: An Appraisal, contains the same reviews but replaces Wescott's essay with the 1936 Adams article and an interview by Rosamond Milner (previously published as "An Interview with Elizabeth Madox Roberts," Louisville Courier-Journal, 24 February 1929). Other frequently cited non-scholarly pieces include Rena Niles's "She Writes the Way She Weaves" (Louisville Courier-Journal, 8 January 1939) and Amy Loveman's Roberts obituary in Saturday Review (22 March 1941). The newspaper pieces by Milner and Niles provide interesting information about Roberts's childhood and early love of writing, her own commentary on some of her novels, and her thoughts on other writers, including James Joyce. Loveman's obituary is brief but represents the standard view of Roberts at the time: The Time of Man is "a volume of distinction," but her later work "became more and more tenuous."
Other reviews which are rarely, if ever, cited also provide interesting insights into Roberts's stature during her lifetime. Joseph Wood Krutch ("The Peasants," Saturday Review, 28 August 1926), for example, compares Roberts to Polish novelist Ladislas Reymont and appears to be the first to note the "poetic" nature of Roberts's prose. Howard Baker treats He Sent Forth a Raven in "Some Notes on New Fiction" (Southern Review, July 1935), but, while he notes Roberts's "lyricism" and ability to record "sense perceptions," he is otherwise very critical of her work. In her review of Black Is My Truelove's Hair (Saturday Review, 15 October 1938), Gladys Graham (later Gladys Graham Bates) looks at Roberts's past work, tracing two trends in her novels: "the one outward toward the natural and the general, the other inward toward the subjective and the mystical." Another interesting review by Graham Bates compares Eudora Welty's first book, a collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green, and Roberts's Not by Strange Gods (Saturday Review, 22 November 1941) and finds both of them to have a "high quality of individual beauty and a deep concern with how man makes his attempted peace with the world." Clifton Fadiman, writing for the New Yorker, also reviewed Black Is My Truelove's Hair (15 October 1938) and Not by Strange Gods (29 March 1941). Although he notes that the novel has its "own peculiar charm," he says that it is "confusing" and "more wayward" and "certainly more obscure" than earlier novels. While he sees little of value in Not by Strange Gods, he notes that Roberts's "was a beautiful, broken talent." Despite the fact that her later novels might not survive the test of time, Fadiman feels, The Time of Man will "be widely read years from now."
Although there are a number of articles and books on Roberts's work, the most frequent critical attention to her is to be found in large literary surveys. Assessments in such works have ranged from blatantly derogatory comments to more appreciative, if brief, treatments of her work. Alfred Kazin, for example, represents the condescending treatment Roberts sometimes receives, as he briefly refers to her "preciosity" and "craftsmanship," in the sense that she was all craft and no substance (On Native Grounds [New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942]). Likewise, John M. Bradbury, comparing Roberts to her contemporary Caroline Miller, describes both writers as offering "unhappy, harshly poetic" pictures of rural life, with "a feeling for the land, for the minutiae of responsible housewifery, and for the pangs and joys of a girl's growth into the burdens of womanhood and motherhood" (Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920-1960 [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1963]). More appreciative comments have come from Grant C. Knight (American Literature and Culture [New York: R. Long and R. R. Smith, 1932]), Granville Hicks (The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War [New York: Macmillan, 1933]), Frederick J. Hoffman (The Modern Novel in America: 1900-1950 [Chicago: Regnery, 1951]), Willard Thorp (American Writing in the Twentieth Century [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960]), and Joseph M. Flora ("Fiction in the 1920s: Some New Voices," in The History of Southern Literature, ed. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., et al. [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1985]). Discussions of Roberts in these works tend to be brief and to provide a general and complimentary overview of her career.
Roberts has also been included in specialized literary studies. In The Southern Poor-White from Lubberland to Tobacco Road (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1939), Shields McIlwaine looks at Roberts as one of the first writers, along with Edith Summers Kelley, "to bring alive the mind and body of the poor-white woman." Almost forty years later, Sylvia Jenkins Cook picked up where McIlwaine had left off, in her book, From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1977), treating Roberts in much the same vein that McIlwaine had. Both Ernest F. Leisy (The American Historical Novel [Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1950]) and Nicholas J. Karolides (The Pioneer in the American Novel, 1900-1950 [Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1967]) briefly discuss The Great Meadow, which Leisy considers to be "one of the finest historical novels of our time."
Although Roberts has most frequently found a place in literary surveys, substantial criticism devoted solely to her does exist. Early criticism of this kind includes J. Donald Adams's work on Roberts; F. Lamar Janney's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Sewanee Review, October/December 1937); Donald Davidson's "An Analysis of Elizabeth Madox Roberts's A Buried Treasure " (Creative Reading, December 1931); Mark Van Doren's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: Her Mind and Style" (English Journal, September 1932, later collected in The Private Reader [New York: Henry Holt, 1942]); and Alexander M. Buchan's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Southwest Review, July 1940).
Adams is the most prominent Roberts critic of this early period. In addition to writing an introduction to the 1935 Modern Library Edition of The Time of Man and another to Campbell and Foster's book on Roberts, Adams published "Elizabeth Madox Roberts" in 1936 and included her in his 1944 literary survey, The Shape of Books to Come (New York: Viking Press). The article represents the fullest articulation of Adams's opinion of Roberts. He points to her as "a writer of genius, one who at her best has written scenes which stand with the finest in the history of fiction." Sounding a refrain which almost all later critics pick up, Adams writes, "I think that this occasional mastery of hers has not yet received its due recognition, and I think too that her work as a path-breaker in the art of fiction has not yet been fully understood." But, Adams cautions, her shortcomings have not been "adequately discussed" either.
Stepping back a bit from his consideration of Roberts's work, Adams assesses the current state of the novel, which he argues needs to go in a new direction. Turning back to Roberts, Adams sees her as a writer who can lead the literary world in this new direction. He particularly commends her ability to infuse direct realism with a sense of poetry. Taking critics to task for their "invalid criticism" of Roberts, Adams claims that My Heart and My Flesh approaches Dostoevsky in its "psychological intensity." He also calls attention to her "realization of characters," "economy and depth," and "symphonic structure"; her style, which is "extraordinarily perceptive, rich in the power of suggestion, and sustained by subtle and very beautiful rhythms"; and the social and spiritual value of her art. Despite such praise, Adams also sees particular weaknesses in her later novels such as He Sent Forth a Raven, referring to its "obscurity," "amorphous quality," and its "vaporish and clouded" writing. Adams calls particular attention to Roberts's "too great turning inward" and her style which, he says, is increasingly "indirect and tenuous." In The Shape of Books to Come, Adams again praises her social and spiritual values, noting her "courage" as opposed to the pessimism of her male contemporaries and calling her a "champion of the human spirit." Indeed, although he points to her as an "interesting experimenter in the matter of [the novel's] form," his final evaluation of her is that her "approach to life" is what is most "fruitful and significant" about her work.
Janney also employs a similar tactic in his Sewanee Review article, which consists primarily of explications and summaries of each of Roberts's novels to 1937. Although he is critical of He Sent Forth a Raven, calling it "incoherent" and "tenuous," other evaluative comments are infrequent. Like Adams, Janney assesses current literature, which he finds has a "gloomy vision of a dehumanized world," and compares Roberts's work to that of her contemporaries, particularly naturalists and social novelists. Given his biases, it is not surprising that he finds her work to be superior. For example, in discussing The Time of Man and the Pigeon River country it depicts, Janney writes, "Had the naturalists or the so-called realists explored the same locale, they would have found squalor, poverty, apathy and blatant evidences of a malign social organism; but few traces of beauty, and no eagerly responding hearts." Urging Roberts to leave behind "all controversial issues of the urgent present" (which she had treated in He Sent Forth a Raven ), Janney claims that, "Because Miss Roberts' interest lies in … deeper channels her novels point the way … out of the present slough of despond into the clearer atmosphere of art."
Davidson's article, focusing on one of Roberts's lesser known novels, A Buried Treasure, also depends heavily on explication. Like many of his contemporaries, Davidson places high value on Roberts's work: "No American novelist of the younger group can show a more consistent performance, at a high level of distinction, than Elizabeth Madox Roberts" and, later, "I do not think there is a finer spirit writing today.…"The first, rather lengthy, portion of the article (five pages) is pure plot summary but, as he points out, that's not necessarily an easy task when confronted with a Roberts novel since "action nearly always counts for less than reflection and perception." Other portions of the essay focus on the roles of each of the novel's main characters and on categorizing Roberts's work. Unlike most other critics (then and now), Davidson sees Roberts as a modernist, though "a modernist of a far subtler school," noting particularly her symbolism and her tendency to move the novel "beyond its capacity as a form" into the realm of poetry. A Buried Treasure, Davidson conjectures, may have "no special meaning, but only a pervasive meaning which lies in its total content and pattern, in its whole effect." Davidson's mention of Roberts's affinities with Joyce, Woolf, and Proust further underscore her position as a modernist.
Van Doren and Buchan focus on Roberts's style, probably the most frequently noted aspect of her work. Van Doren, much like Adams and Janney, links the success of her style to the "moral character" behind it. He describes Roberts's style as one of "monotony" and goes on to say that "Her books murmur." Also, Van Doren categorizes her and her characters as "epistemologists," by which he means those who study "the source and method of knowledge." Buchan's article is more thorough than Van Doren's in its consideration of style and, indeed, is the most careful of the Roberts studies of the period. Noting that her style has been called "poetic," "rhythmic," "shimmering," and "evocative," as well as "unreal" and "artificial," Buchan pinpoints what he feels is the primary failure of previous critics and readers: their "completely vague appreciation of 'poetic style.'" Dissecting Roberts's prose to show how it works, Buchan seeks to demonstrate the "care with which Miss Roberts picks her words and merges them for the effect she wishes to produce." Buchan particularly emphasizes the role of the reader in "grasping" each image "as an experience in itself." Buchan also delineates four effects of Roberts's style, using her own phrases to describe them: "1) an agreeable 'monotony'; 2) a 'fluid speech,' which, as she terms it elsewhere, is 'half-rhymed experience'; 3) a break in this fluid speech, brought about by a 'few hard, tender sayings'; 4) the use of words to 'heighten reality,' and to dig down to the 'roots of human life.'"
If many of the early critics provide only a general treatment of Roberts's work, those in the late 1940s and early 1950s give her only a cursory one. In this period, almost no critical attention is devoted directly to her; rather, she becomes a brief item in literary surveys, three of which have already been noted (Kazin, Hoffman, and Leisy). Three other critics who provide slightly longer accounts of her work during this period are Grant C. Knight ("Bluegrass and Laurel: The Varieties of Kentucky Fiction," Saturday Review, 6 January 1945); Edward Wagenknecht ("The Inner Vision: Elizabeth Madox Roberts," Cavalcade of the American Novel); and H. Blair Rouse ("Time and Place in Southern Fiction," Hopkins Review, Fall 1952, later reprinted in Southern Renaissance: The Literature of the Modern South, ed. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and Robert D. Jacobs [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1953]).
Although Knight's avowed purpose is to give a survey of Kentucky literature, he focuses primarily on Roberts. Calling Jingling in the Wind and He Sent Forth a Raven "as original as anything a Kentucky writer has issued," he notes that Roberts "could turn at times from the concrete to the abstract and examine the posy of personality apart from the soil at its roots." Knight is a precursor of later critics who point to the "modern despair" of some of Roberts's characters. Despite Roberts's "excitability" (apparently meant in a positive sense) and her deep "reaches of insight," Knight argues, she still manages to lose sight of her readers: "She did not realize that the antiphonies of her dialogue became to some readers a tiring mannerism."
Wagenknecht also has both praise and blame for Roberts. In A Buried Treasure, her performance is "a brilliant one," he writes, while The Time of Man has "poetic sensitiveness and keen humanity." He rates The Great Meadow particularly high, calling it her "most completely wrought and thoroughly satisfying novel," and is particularly ahead of his time in evaluating My Heart and My Flesh, noting that it "anticipated the interest in abnormal mental states that was to mark the fiction of the 1940's" and that "its experimentation in form … recalled Melville." Wagenknecht also makes a departure from other Roberts critics since he sees He Sent Forth a Raven as one of her most important novels and discusses it more fully than the others. Among Roberts's weaker qualities, Wagenknecht says that Jingling in the Wind "does not seem to make a wholly unified impression" and, similarly, that in A Buried Treasure all the parts are not organically related. The central concern of Black Is My Truelove's Hair is "too trifling," and My Heart and My Flesh, while having the good qualities mentioned above, handles the topic of miscegenation "so obliquely that the impression of horror is softened and dulled." Turning to an assessment of her style, Wagenknecht notes that "her 'poetic' insight and method were at once her greatest gift as a novelist and her sharpest limitation."
Rouse assumes the anti-naturalist reaction of earlier critics of Roberts, noting that her lower-class characters "possess a rounded reality, an individuality and an appeal to the understanding of the reader, which are largely lacking when such people are portrayed as though they existed only as statistical items or subjects for raw anecdotes." Like many other critics, Rouse praises Roberts's combination of poetry and realism. Notably, he is one of the few critics to find fault with The Time of Man, whose final chapters, he argues, give a "suggestion of haste, of a hurry to finish the story."
Until this time, no book-length studies on Roberts had been done, but Harry Campbell and Ruel E. Foster were to change that. In addition to their 1956 book, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist, each of them wrote more specialized articles on her, as well. Campbell's articles, "A Revaluation of Elizabeth Madox Roberts' The Time of Man and The Great Meadow " (Shenandoah, Summer 1954) and "The Poetic Prose of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Southwest Review, Autumn 1954), are incorporated into the book, while Foster's "An Undiscovered Source for Elizabeth Madox Roberts' 'On the Mountainside'" (West Virginia University Philological Papers, June 1966) provides new analysis linking Roberts's story to Horace Kephart's book, Our Southern Highlanders (1922). While these articles are interesting, the most important contribution of Campbell and Foster to Roberts criticism is their book, which marked a return of interest in Roberts's work. They begin by noting the "critical neglect" of Roberts's work, stating that "it is high time to begin making amends for this neglect of Miss Roberts." And, like later critics, Campbell and Foster hope to attain for Roberts a place in the American literary canon, asserting, "we hope that our book will convince others … that Miss Roberts belongs among the seven or eight best craftsmen in modern American fiction, and that her The Time of Man and The Great Meadow will almost certainly endure as major American novels."
Despite its significance as the first major discussion of Roberts's work, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist presents a myriad of problems. A significant portion of the book recounts personal reminiscences, which, while interesting, do not seem appropriate for a critical biography. The book is also full of ecstatic overevaluations of her work. While Campbell and Foster provide the most comprehensive analysis of Roberts's work ever undertaken, they are slow to criticize her. Such lack of discrimination makes it difficult for a reader to respond to much of their commentary. In discussing Jingling in the Wind and He Sent Forth a Raven, which any reader can see they clearly do not like, they write, "We have spoken of the defects in realism that keep these two allegorical novels from being major works of Miss Roberts, but it should be kept in mind that this is a weakness only in physical realism.…If these two allegorical novels, then, appear somewhat fragile physically, they are nevertheless strong and moving in the realm of spirit." Thus, even when discussing the two works they like least, their strongest words are "defects" and "somewhat fragile," and they are quick to qualify these problems.
While the book is comprehensive in its treatment of all her work except the very early In the Great Steep's Garden, and, while it provides a good basic analysis of her philosophy and style, the explications of individual works are sometimes superficial and, at times, not particularly illuminating. Campbell and Foster rely too much on biography to explain Roberts's relationships to her characters or to rationalize a particular work's failure. One instance of this tendency is their seeming apology for My Heart and My Flesh : "Her health was bad at this time, which may account for the somber tone of the book." While Campbell and Foster categorize Roberts as a symbolist and detail carefully her use of archetypal patterns, particularly that of death and rebirth, they explicitly reject Jungian psychology and archetypal criticism, as exemplified by the work of Maud Bodkin. Finally, Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist lacks much-needed documentary support, except for quotations from letters; it has no bibliography or index. Later critics have also found problems with the book: Rovit argues that the book is "too subjective and romanticized," McDowell says that Campbell and Foster "are conventional in their judgments," and Louis Auchincloss remarks that the book is "deeply perceptive if perhaps overlaudatory." Portions of the study, particularly the first three chapters which cover Roberts's biography, philosophy, and style, are helpful. Their comparison of Roberts to D. H. Lawrence, for example, might merit further consideration.
A more important and careful book on Roberts was to appear in 1960. Earl Rovit began preparing for his book by writing several articles on Roberts in the late 1950s. "Recurrent Symbols in the Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Boston University Studies in English, Spring 1956) is a particularly insightful essay. Picking up where Van Doren had left off, Rovit examines "the epistemological processes which form the 'substructure' of [Roberts's] works." Specifically, he focuses on two particular "symbol-clusters," as he calls them, as a means of showing how Roberts's characters engage themselves in acts of self-creation. Spinning, which Roberts uses to show her characters in the "process of thought and realization," is the first symbol-cluster Rovit discusses, and this includes the "image of the spider and web, the making of thread out of flax, sewing, patching quilts, and weaving garments." Thus, the "natural action of spinning or weaving becomes a symbol of experiential process" and represents "the individual's constant discovery and creation of himself." The second symbol-cluster Rovit analyzes is the pattern of tears and "triumphant reconciliations." Tears symbolize "the moments of recognition of agonizing disharmony," while the reconciliations, or acts of love, represent a "corresponding re-harmony." Rovit traces the use of these symbol-clusters in all of the novels, emphasizing the application of this idea to a better understanding of He Sent Forth a Raven.
From this rather general discussion, which takes all the novels as a body of work, Rovit turned to a closer examination of the operation of symbols, patterns, and myths in what he sees as two of Roberts's most important novels. Thorough studies, "The Great Meadow : Genesis and Exodus" (Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1958) and "He Sent Forth a Raven : The Curse and Covenant" (Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1959) were later incorporated into his book in slightly revised versions. In the first article, Rovit argues that The Great Meadow includes two major movements: "the cumulative self-expression of Diony as she imposes order on the world within her, and the westward march of the colonies creating order and civilization in the untamed wilderness." Rovit moves carefully through each chapter, providing solid evidence for his reading of the novel as the fusion of these two themes. His only complaint is one sounded by many readers: the final episode, in which Diony must choose between her two husbands, "has a note of contrived artificiality which mars the otherwise intense harmonious development of the novel." Aside from citing this flaw, Rovit rates the novel highly, making a convincing case for it as Roberts's "best."
In the later article, Rovit again attempts to place a rank on the work at hand, arguing that He Sent Forth a Raven is "one of the finest achievements in modern American letters." Such a claim represents a major departure from mainstream Roberts criticism, but Rovit's article is a strong one and worth consideration. A provocative analysis of a novel that other critics have called "baffling," "puzzling," and "obscure," the article is particularly insightful in its discussion of the novel's heroine, Jocelle. Rovit notes that its major theme is "man in passionate defiance against the immutable laws of nature" and does not see it as a "satire" as Campbell and Foster do. Despite this much-needed move to a more careful consideration of the novel, Rovit's discussion of Stoner Drake's story and the role of the more minor characters needs further elaboration. A final article by Rovit, "Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941): Kentucky Novelist," written for the Filson Club History Quarterly (October 1959), provides a general overview of Roberts's work and repeats much of his other material.
Rovit's Herald to Chaos (1960), which resulted from these articles and other research, including his dissertation, is the best of the three critical books on Roberts. In addition to dealing with each of the seven novels, Rovit also provides a substantial consideration of her style and takes up the question of her critical neglect. He also provides a bibliography and index. In his discussion of the individual works, Rovit examines Roberts's use of the epic, corresponding cyclical processes, and rhythmic devices. "Her main effort," he writes, "is devoted to the presentation of a 'heroic' character, engaged in the epic struggle for life against the fatal forces of nature." In addition to tracing perceptively the structural elements of the novels, Rovit provides a thorough analysis of her style. While he sees many of the same elements in Roberts's work that Campbell and Foster do, his analyses of the novels are more careful, more substantial, more convincing, and more discriminating than theirs. In his concluding chapter, he examines Roberts's critical neglect and calls for a reassessment of her work. In particular, he focuses on the tradition of the American novel and seeks to find in it a place for Roberts. He also persuasively connects her work to that of Emily Dickinson, whom Roberts herself listed as a primary influence (along with Shakespeare, Hardy, Synge, and Hopkins). Rovit closes his book by calling, as some other critics do, for a greater response from the reader: "But whatever the reasons for her current neglect, I feel that for the reader who will allow himself to be sensitized by Miss Roberts' poetic prose techniques, for the reader, above all, who will submit his time and patience to the creative experience of evaluating his own 'out-lying spaces'—for such a reader, there is a mine of quality in all of Miss Roberts' novels.…"
A third book-length study, McDowell's Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1963), was published as part of the Twayne's United States Authors Series. Like many of the Twayne volumes, it provides standard, straightforward explications for those texts included. McDowell's book also contains a useful chronology of Roberts's life, a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources, careful documentation, particularly of biographical information, and an accurate index, but it is restrictive in its treatment of Roberts's work, giving rather superficial analyses of the poetry and short stories and almost no discussion of Jingling in the Wind. Like Rovit, McDowell attempts to see Roberts in relation to other important American writers, such as Melville, Hawthorne, and the later Henry James, looking particularly at her "preoccupation with the inner life and with the implications of actual experience." He also argues persuasively for artistic connections between Virginia Woolf and Roberts, noting that both authors were "fascinated by the inner lives of [their] heroines." McDowell is more careful in his judgments of Roberts's work than Campbell and Foster are, stating that her "poetic impulses" were best fulfilled in her novels rather than in her poetry, which lacks "incisiveness and originality." Likewise, her short stories "are only incidentally interesting and significant." McDowell also exhibits a considered awareness of previous Roberts criticism, disagreeing for the most part with Rovit's assessment of He Sent Forth a Raven.
Following the publication of these book-length studies of Roberts, the academic community saw a marked resurgence of interest in Roberts's work. Robert Penn Warren's important Saturday Review article, "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: Life Is from Within," appeared on 9 March 1963. This influential essay attempts to describe the reasons why The Time of Man has been neglected. Like other Roberts critics, Warren starts by reviewing Roberts's past critical reception and then provides a brief, but perceptive, analysis of The Time of Man, looking particularly at the theme of "telling" in the novel. Warren posits the question: "If The Time of Man —or My Heart and My Flesh for that matter—is as good as I think it is, how did it happen to disappear so soon, almost without a bubble to mark the spot?" He goes on to cite three primary reasons for this neglect. First, after a writer dies, a "reassessment," or as Warren puts it, a "cutting-down-to-size," of the writer's works takes place. That this was the case with Roberts has been shown, as the decade after her death found her relegated to the corners of large literary surveys. Second, Roberts's later work "declined in critical and popular esteem" and, Warren implies, in fact. Finally, due to the socialist "agenda of the 1930s," The Time of Man "fell out of fashion." Hoping that the critical community is moving away from such rigid political requirements, Warren is confident that "we can recover The Time of Man. "
Louis Auchincloss also has examined Roberts's work carefully, including a chapter on her in his Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Writers (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1965). Like the other critics of this period, Auchincloss opens his chapter with the idea of critical reassessment, asking the intriguing question, "If Emily Brontë had survived the publication of Wuthering Heights to write a series of obscure and ponderous allegorical novels, would her reputation be as splendid as it is today?" Auchincloss goes on to predict that Roberts's name will be "permanently in the front rank of American novelists." Among the novels he praises are The Time of Man, with the "extraordinary sense" it conveys of "Ellen as an almost unseparated part of living things," and Black Is My Truelove's Hair, a "rich, ordered, beautiful, symphonic piece of writing which gives a fine satisfaction to the careful reader." Other works, according to Auchincloss, are unfortunately characterized by "solemn hymning to the land," "remoteness from others," and "enchantment with self."
A number of other pieces on Roberts appeared during the rest of the decade: Herman E. Spivey's "The Mind and Creative Habits of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (All These to Teach: Essays in Honor of C. A. Robertson, ed. Robert A. Bryan, et al. [Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 1965]); John J. Murphy's "Elizabeth Madox Roberts and the Civilizing Consciousness" (Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, April 1966); Jo R. Smith's "New Troy in the Bluegrass: Vergilian Metaphor and The Great Meadow " (Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1969); and Mary Niles's "Social Development in the Poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Markham Review, September 1969). These articles tend to be more focused than those written in previous decades, and they provide new and perceptive ways of looking at Roberts's work. Spivey, for example, deals primarily with the composition of My Heart and My Flesh, comparing it also to The Time of Man, which he terms a story of "addition," while My Heart and My Flesh is one of "subtraction." In an interesting conclusion to his rather short piece, Spivey cites six reasons for Roberts's critical neglect: she became too removed and solitary; her works began to include "too little external action and possibly too little internal tension, especially physical tension" and, hence, "The reader misses the appeal of overt, urgent struggle"; her works are not violent when violence was the norm; the backgrounds of her novels are not sketched fully enough; her poetic style was not appreciated in an era in which Hemingway's staccato and Faulkner's "rhetorical exuberance and vehemence" prevailed; and her "unmastered technical experiments … hindered public understanding."
Murphy discusses The Great Meadow and The Time of Man and, while the two halves of his article are not well integrated, they do present intriguing ideas. In the first half, Murphy argues that The Great Meadow was written in the tradition of Cooper's The Spy and that the Roberts novel is a "successful integration of fact and fiction." In the second half of the essay, Murphy examines Roberts's use of a unique kind of stream-of-consciousness in The Time of Man, looking particularly at "the ordering of conscious states through rhythms and patterns; the attempt to grasp such states by contrast with opposite states; the attempt to grasp such states through analysis and symbols." Murphy's analysis in this section of the article is especially insightful, as he looks at Roberts's unique achievement: "It is in the fugal patterning of various streams of consciousness, rather than in [the] direct ordering of dialogue as it penetrates the ear, that Elizabeth Madox Roberts demonstrates most sophistication as a stream of consciousness writer."
Smith also focuses on The Great Meadow, but her interest is not in tracing the development of Diony's consciousness, as it is for Murphy and other critics, but, rather, in exploring Roberts's use of the Vergilian Aeneas myth to structure the novel. Smith notes that Roberts uses "the same pattern followed by John Peale Bishop, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and other writers of the Southern Renaissance," as she emphasizes "man's desire to transplant and to establish his inherited culture in a new country, to perpetuate 'past things.'" Smith carefully and persuasively argues that the Aeneas myth was uppermost in Roberts's mind, pointing to her emphasis in the novel on Diony's name and its mythic connection, thus providing a useful framework for looking at the novel.
While Murphy and Smith look at Roberts's fiction, Niles looks at one element in Roberts's verse, that of the movement from the "merely sensory poetry" of Under the Tree to the more social poetry of Song of the Meadow. Avowedly providing only a "cursory look" at this issue, Niles surveys the poetry in light of the thematic concerns of The Time of Man, The Great Meadow, My Heart and My Flesh, and He Sent Forth a Raven. While Niles presents some provocative ideas, they are rather sketchy and merit more detailed, thorough attention.
In the 1970s, Roberts all but disappeared from the critical map. Only three pieces on her during this period are worth mention: William Jay Smith's "A Tent of Green," in his The Streaks of the Tulip: Selected Criticism (New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1972); Richard Gray's "Womanchild in a Promised Land: Elizabeth Madox Roberts" in his 1977 book The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press); and Wade Tyree's "Time's Own River: The Three Major Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" (Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1977). Smith's essay, originally published in 1962, provides a good introduction to Under the Tree, a volume which, while it "has no weight … yet looms large." Smith does an admirable job of analyzing how the poetry works from a child's point of view, looking particularly at its syntax and recurrent grammatical constructions. The language is "simple almost to the point of flatness," the rhymes "direct and unforced," the "manner … straightforward and unadorned," all suggesting "a sensitive intelligent child … trying to communicate her own experience and to understand that experience in the process of communication."
Gray turns his attention to the novels, which he seems to take seriously, but his assessments of particular works vary depending on how well they fit his thesis that Southern works exhibit a "tension between rural myth … and rural reality." He praises The Time of Man because Ellen helps to illustrate this tension. Later novels, however, are "conscious fiction," according to Gray, and the world Roberts offers us in these novels "is clearly a fake one." The Great Meadow, which Gray calls "a kind of moral exemplum," is particularly objectionable because it fails "to include the harsher details of wilderness life, or to acknowledge that it is a legendary version of life which is being portrayed rather than a factual one."
Tyree begins his article as many critics before him by justifying his attention to Roberts, then focuses on three underlying themes of her novels: the search for self; ties to the soil; and the cyclical nature of life and the corresponding metaphysical implications. While he deals primarily with The Time of Man, The Great Meadow, and My Heart and My Flesh, Tyree's comments on the latter are the most interesting, since it has usually not received close attention. He argues that such should not be the case, as the novel provides a "fascinating link" between Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson and Faulkner's The Bear in its "powerful treatment of the evils of miscegenation." Tyree calls My Heart and My Flesh "a psychological and tortured Faulknerian work with a shocking subject delineated in gothic horror." He also notes that it is structurally flawed. Other weaknesses in Roberts's work that Tyree points to are her unbelievable male characters and her tendency to turn inward and see only what is inside herself.
Despite the relative inactivity of Roberts's criticism in the 1970s, the 1980s saw a marked resurgence in attention to her work. The Southern Review's special Fall 1984 issue, almost all of which was devoted to Roberts, includes a number of interesting critical articles: Lewis Simpson's "Introduction: Recovering Elizabeth Madox Roberts" and "The Sexuality of History" and Victor A. Kramer's "Through Language to Self: Ellen's Journey in The Time of Man. " Three other articles have appeared since then: Anne McBride's "The Poetry of Space in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's The Time of Man " (Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1985); Linda Tate's "'Against the Chaos of the World': Language and Consciousness in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's The Time of Man " (Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1987); and Steve Bernstein's "'A Design, All Finished and Set Apart': Comprehension, Composition, and Closure in The Time of Man " (Kentucky Review, January 1990).
Though all of these articles represent advances in Roberts criticism, Simpson's articles, particularly "The Sexuality of History," are the most substantial of the group. "Introduction" provides a good summary of the activities of the Roberts critical community in the early 1980s and also addresses the question of her reputation. While Simpson does not expect Roberts to "take on a classic quality" nor to become especially "relevant to the later twentieth-century literary mind," he does believe that her work merits "an adequate scholarly and literary recovery." He also calls for the reprinting of My Heart and My Flesh, Jingling in the Wind, The Great Meadow, and He Sent Forth a Raven.
"The Sexuality of History" is the most substantial piece of Roberts criticism to date, as Simpson focuses particularly on the impact of Berkeleian philosophy on Roberts's work and on her use of artist-figure heroines. Simpson sees Roberts as an especially modern writer, comparing her frequently to Faulkner; both writers, he says, "experienced the peculiarly modern sense of the inwardness of history; each felt the weight of the intimate, afflicting burden of the historicism of the modern consciousness." Simpson then provides a solid discussion of Berkeleian philosophy and its impact on American literature, noting that, "More than has been recognized … her novels suggest a long struggle to repudiate Berkeley's influence." He writes, "this effort [to repudiate] may even be said to constitute the major thematic motive of her work: this motive is the possibility, seldom made overt but constantly implied, of transcending the pathetic, if not the tragic, constraint of the modern subjectivity of history on the imagination of the literary artist." Having set up the philosophical foundation from which Roberts was working, Simpson then takes these ideas and applies them to The Time of Man, My Heart and My Flesh, The Great Meadow, and He Sent Forth a Raven, and briefly to Jingling in the Wind. He sees the heroines of these novels as "figures of the artist" and, "to an appreciable degree, surrogates of the author.… In each instance the heroine represents the mind—the consciousness—of the artist figure as the crux of the relation between self and history. Each artist figure, moreover, represents the model of history in the consciousness of the feminine artist." Finally, Simpson examines these themes both in terms of the sexuality in the novels ("Identifying self with the imperatives of sexuality," he writes, "mind's search for the meaning of sexual behavior encloses the self in history with finality") and in terms of the Aphrodite myths in Jingling in the Wind, My Heart and My Flesh, and He Sent Forth a Raven and the Dione myth in The Great Meadow.
Kramer, in another interesting article, takes as his subject the issue of language in The Time of Man and briefly in My Heart and My Flesh. He is the first critic to look closely at Ellen's use of and response to language rather than simply at Roberts's use of language; that is, her style. His primary thesis is that "Ellen often acquires her fuller awareness through her fascination with language, and at the same time her avid interest in language leads the reader to an awareness of what is happening to her." Kramer also looks at Ellen's attempts to find life rhythms through language: her "observation of the natural rhythms of daily life, which always include language, allows her to move forward on her own spiritual journey."
McBride, Tate, and Bernstein deal with similar concerns in their articles on The Time of Man, all three examining the development of Ellen's psyche. McBride focuses on Ellen's interaction with her surroundings, particularly the houses in which she lives, Tate looks at Ellen's use of language as a means of psychological growth, and Bernstein looks at acts of reading and writing as they reflect Ellen's mental development. McBride bases her article on the works of French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, specifically The Poetics of Space. McBride's thesis that Ellen "lives … in three homes before her marriage to Jasper Kent, and [that] these simple homes, particularly her own bedroom in each house, firmly establish the wholesome pattern of Ellen's interior development" is well developed and carefully argued. McBride looks at the Chesser family's tenant homes as they "reflect and nurture young Ellen's spirit" and shows how Ellen "comes to intuitive understandings through her contact with them." Anticipating charges of an anachronistic reading of Bachelard into Roberts, McBride notes that Roberts foreshadowed Bachelard and that she "understood the prime importance of the house for early spiritual nourishment." Moreover, she argues that, "As protective spaces, these houses also have corresponding implications for the creative activity of the artist." That is, Roberts herself was struggling to bring order out of chaos in her composing process in an attempt to "convey her sense of the importance of any individual's development through an imaginative ordering of his or her surroundings."
Tate is concerned with many of the same issues, but her focus is on language and its role in developing consciousness. She argues that "Ellen Chesser grows psychologically through linguistic experiences which give her an increasing sense of being a distinct and separate individual." Hence, one of Roberts's large concerns in The Time of Man is "the operation of language—the tool which we use to achieve a union between the psychological and the physical—as a means of ordering a chaotic world." Tate supports her argument by tracing Ellen's early interactions with language, both informal and formal; the importance of names; male/female communication; and, finally, language as a key component in Ellen's moments of self-affirmation and discovery.
Bernstein bases his argument on recent narrative theory, particularly that of Philip Stevick (The Chapter in Fiction: Theories of Narrative Division ) and Marianna Torgovnick (Closure in the Novel ). He shows how the frequent acts of reading (comprehension) and writing (composition), particularly as they occur at the ends of chapters, work to "dramatize and thematize a process of growth which culminates on the novel's final page and then redounds upon several earlier closural episodes." Bernstein also raises interesting questions about Roberts's ties to High Modernism and her role as a formal innovator.
In addition to recent articles, Roberts's critical reputation is being enhanced by the efforts of William H. Slavick. He has organized two Roberts conferences, the "Elizabeth Madox Roberts Centenerary Conference" held 30-31 October 1981, and "The Time of Man Revisited" held 23 October 1982. Both took place at St. Catharine College in St. Catharine, Kentucky. He has also produced "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: An Interview with Janet Lewis" (1984). This documentary focuses on Under the Tree and is available in video format through the Kentucky Humanities Council, from Kentucky Educational Television (KET, 600 Cooper Drive, Lexington, KY 40502), and through Slavick at the University of Southern Maine. (Another documentary, produced and directed by Gale A. Worth under the auspices of KET, "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: Weaver of Words" , is available in video format through KET and from Slavick.) Slavick has also written critical material accompanying two reprints of her work and contributed to the special Southern Review issue. In addition to starting a Roberts newsletter in the near future, Slavick also plans to publish a volume of her letters, with a volume of papers and a collection of reprinted essays to follow. Because the earlier revival in the 1960s of Roberts's work seems to have failed in part due to the lack of necessary research tools, Slavick's role in providing such tools is clearly essential.
As critics turn increasingly serious attention to Roberts's work, several concerns are of paramount importance. Roberts critics still lack a definitive biography. Such a biography would be difficult to put together since much of the personal material concerning Roberts has been burned and since many of her friends are now dead. In addition, while Roberts's work has been somewhat well served in the past by appreciative critics, the assessment these critics gave has been hampered by the fact that the rest of the critical community was unfamiliar with her work. This fact resulted in two "necessities" for Roberts critics: they had to "defend" their attention to Roberts (indeed, a large number of pieces on Roberts—both articles and books—begin with a review of her critical neglect and a call for reassessment of her work, accompanied by a justification of such reassessment); and they had to provide a general overview of Roberts's work—that is, they had to introduce her to their fellow critics—before they could get to the point where they were free to analyze her work in more detail. That many of them never get to that point is not surprising considering what an uphill battle it has been just to "defend" attention to Roberts and to introduce her work.
One would hope that since critics in the 1980s, particularly persistent and determined scholars like Slavick, established the groundwork for a reemergence of Roberts's work, future critics will be able to continue the most recent trend of analysis focused on deeper issues in Roberts's work. That there is a wealth of topics for future criticism is not a question. In particular, Roberts's work seems particularly fertile for archetypal, psychological, stylistic, and even Marxist criticism. Roberts's role in the development of the Southern Renaissance has been hardly explored, and her connections to various authors need to be more fully examined—whether as having been influenced by them (Hopkins, Dickinson, and Hardy), having been contemporaries of them with similar concerns (Lawrence, Woolf, Synge, and, of particular potential importance, High Modernists such as Joyce and Eliot), or having influenced them (later Southern Renaissance and women writers). Although substantial work has been devoted to the better-known novels, such as The Time of Man and The Great Meadow, other works, particularly My Heart and My Flesh and He Sent Forth a Raven, need much closer and more extended attention. In addition, her poetry and short stories, which are usually mentioned in asides, deserve closer study.
Other worthwhile issues include: the publishing history of Roberts's works, examining especially the economic and political forces at work; canon formation theory and what it can tell us about why Roberts's work has been largely forgotten; and the impact of Roberts's "regionalism" on her acceptance (or non-acceptance) into serious literary circles. The area for which Roberts's work seems to have the highest untapped appeal is that of feminist criticism. To date, although Smith, Niles, McBride, and Tate have written articles on Roberts's work (quite a small number of female critics as it is), none has taken a particularly feminist approach in her analysis. Simpson takes up these questions to some extent in "The Sexuality of History," but his primary concern is not one of feminist criticism. It is indeed surprising that Roberts has not been "rediscovered" by feminist scholars and that she is not usually included in the new revisionist anthologies, such as Gilbert and Gubar's Norton collection of women's writing. While on the surface it might seem that Roberts is arguing that women accept their lot in life, particularly if a critic reads only The Time of Man, her concern is much more complex than such a superficial reading would indicate.
If we, the critical community, take Roberts on her own terms and take these terms seriously, perhaps we will discover, as Roberts wrote of one of her characters in the "puzzling" and "obscure" He Sent Forth a Raven :
He was outside, he supposed, but, he cried out suddenly, "I ought not to have been. They'll see it after awhile. I was inside. I was at the very heart of the age, at the beginning of what's to come after."
Suzanne Disheroon Green (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Green, Suzanne Disheroon. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941)." In American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Laurie Champion, pp. 302-6. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Green details Roberts's life, major literary themes, and critical reception, providing a full bibliography of Roberts's works and a list of critical essays on her writing.]
Elizabeth Madox Roberts is best known for her poetry and her first novel, The Time of Man. Roberts was born on October 30, 1881, in Perryville, Kentucky, near the site of a pivotal Civil War battle. Her father, Simpson Roberts, was a descendant of the pioneer Abram Roberts who entered Kentucky from the Southern Piedmont area through Boone's Trace during the eighteenth century. Her mother's family also came from pioneer stock, tracing their roots to David Garvin, a six-month bond-slave who served time to repay his passage as a stowaway.
Simpson Roberts was intermittently a scholar, schoolmaster, surveyor, farmer, and civil engineer, who also served as a Confederate soldier under General Bragg beginning in 1863. On December 26, 1878, he wed Mary Elizabeth Brent. Brent was the granddaughter of a Union officer who defected to the Southern cause after being wounded at Shiloh and discharged from the Northern army.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts, the second of eight children, was raised in a family of somewhat divided loyalties in a state with similar identity issues: She was "closely identified … with the two most colorful aspects of Kentucky history" (McDowell 21)—the Civil War and the Westward Expansion. She spent most of her life in Springfield, Kentucky, and the region provided the basis for much of her fiction.
Roberts enrolled at the State College of Kentucky (now University of Kentucky) in 1900, but the ill health that she battled for much of her life forced her to withdraw. For the next decade, she taught in both public and private schools. Teaching also taxed her fragile health, and as a result, in 1910, she moved to Colorado to live with her sister so that she might recover from her respiratory illness. During this period, she wrote her first published work, a volume of poetry titled In the Great Steep's Garden (1915) (Goeller 310-11).
In 1917, Roberts enrolled at the University of Chicago and began to study writing seriously. She became a member, and later president of, the University Poetry Club, where she became acquainted with Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry Magazine, and this acquaintance led to the publication of several of Roberts's poems. She also met other poets whose work was featured in Poetry, including Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg.
After completing her degree in 1921, Roberts returned to Springfield and began writing. She produced seven novels, two collections of short fiction, and three volumes of poetry. In 1931, Roberts began suffering from a skin disease that slowed her productivity as a writer but that led her to take up weaving, an "activity that she often likened to writing, seeing parallels between the colors of yarn and the words of a story" (Groeller 312). She continued to write until the time of her death. Roberts succumbed to Hodgkin's disease in 1941 at the age of fifty-nine.
Major Works and Themes
Although Roberts concentrated much of her attention on the novel form, she has largely been remembered as a poet. Her first volume of poetry, In the Great Steep's Garden, was intended to attract the attention of tourists, as it described the foliage of Colorado in majestic detail. Two additional volumes of poetry, Under the Tree and Song in the Meadow, are intended for a youthful audience, and these volumes have been compared with works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.Song in the Meadow is composed of ballads, sonnets, and free verse inspired by Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins (Groeller 312).
Despite the popularity of her poetry, Roberts was simultaneously identified with the emerging southern and western regional literatures, in large part because of the focus of her novels. Roberts's first novel, The Time of Man, was also her most successful with both critical and popular audiences. In this work, the protagonist, Ellen Chesser, embarks on an introspective journey in which she seeks a sense of her self and her sexuality—a journey that critics have often compared to that of Odysseus. Unlike many of her contemporary literary counterparts, she becomes aware of and accepts her sexuality because she grows up "in harmony with the natural world." However, the harshness of the subsistence farming that provides her family's meager living "thwarts any desire to develop autonomy" (Harrison 29).
In The Great Meadow, her other critical and popular success, Roberts creates a female western hero in the context of a historical romance. The story of Diony Hall, the novel follows her progress as she immigrates to Kentucky from her home in tidewater Virginia. Her movement "parallels the westward march of the American colonists. At once an archetype of the American pioneer who longs for adventure, and yet needs beauty and order in her life, Diony sees herself constantly on the edge of civilization, embodying the tension between her mother's mountain spirit and her father's aristocratic sensibility" (Groeller 312). The Great Meadow demonstrates Roberts's tendency to find mythic patterns in the pioneer experience.
Roberts's other novels include Jingling in the Wind, a satiric piece; A Buried Treasure, based on a true story; He Sent Forth a Raven, an "ambitious but uneven novel" about an aristocratic Southern "misanthrope"; and Black Is My Truelove's Hair, which shows Roberts's "continuing interest in both rural Kentucky and the life of the mind" (Groeller 312). Her interest in Kentucky is further reflected in her short fiction collections, Not by Strange Gods and The Haunted Mirror.
Roberts's fiction is best described as representing a cultural shift from iconoclasm to the question of old messages and old ways—a questioning that led to an appreciation of the writers of the Southern Renaissance.
Roberts's first work to receive critical acclaim is her novel The Time of Man. Chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection in 1926, The Time of Man was one of three novels by southern writers to achieve such a level of success. Of all the novels appearing during this year, only a total of nine received this popular recognition.
The Time of Man and The Great Meadow were Roberts's most successful works, as they coincided with "the waves of fashion" in the literary community (Bryant 5). Her novels are unique for their time, making use of realism, lyrical prose, and literary allusion to explore her greatest subject, the Kentucky pioneer. She has been linked with William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe as part of a "new generation of authors [who] rose to take their places in the Southern literary landscape" (Bryant 5). For example, My Heart and My Flesh has been called a precursor to Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! Roberts, along with Faulkner, Wolfe, and the Agrarian "men's club" (Donaldson 507) have been credited with the rise of the Southern Renaissance.
The bulk of Roberts's papers are housed at the Library of Congress (LOC). The LOC Collection holds manuscripts, galleys and page proofs, correspondence, notes and drafts from works in progress, and a variety of marginalia. Other papers and portions of Roberts's library are held by the Filson Club (Louisville, Kentucky) and St. Catharine College (St. Catharine, Kentucky). The remainder of extant correspondence—"virtually all with literary friends and associates" including Harriet Monroe and Allen Tate—is housed in private collections. Despite the substantial extant papers, however, a full-length biographical study has not appeared. This is due in part to Roberts's own reluctance to publicize her personal life. Accordingly, many of her letters to family members and other literary friends were destroyed, presumably at the author's request. She considered her workshop and its (results) her "private domain" and warned potential intruders accordingly: "My Relation to my Notebook is that of a Guinea-hen to her nest. If you put your Hand into the Guinea-hen's nest She will never return to it. Eggs must be taken, if at all, with a long-handled spoon" (Slavick 754).
Works by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
In the Great Steep's Garden. Colorado Springs: Gowdy, 1915. (Poems)
Under the Tree. New York: Huebsch, 1922. (Children's poems)
The Time of Man. New York: Viking, 1926. (Novel)
My Heart and My Flesh. New York: Viking, 1927. (Novel)
Jingling in the Wind. New York: Viking, 1928. (Novel)
The Great Meadow. New York: Viking, 1930. (Novel)
A Buried Treasure. New York: Viking, 1931. (Novel)
The Haunted Mirror. New York: Viking, 1932. (Short stories)
He Sent Forth a Raven. New York: Viking, 1935. (Novel)
Black Is My Truelove's Hair. New York: Viking, 1938. (Novel)
Song in the Meadow. New York: Viking, 1940. (Children's poems)
Not by Strange Gods. New York: Viking, 1941. (Short stories)
Studies of Elizabeth Madox Roberts
Bernstein, Stephen. "Comprehension, Composition, and Closure in Elizabeth Madox Roberts' The Time of Man." Kentucky Review 10.1 (1990): 21-37.
Bryant, J. A. Jr. Twentieth-Century Southern Literature. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Campbell, Gladys. "Remembering Elizabeth." Southern Review 20 (1984): 821-28.
Campbell, Harry Modean, and Ruel E. Foster. Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
Donaldson, Susan V. "Gender, Race, and Allen Tate's Profession of Letters in the South." Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts. Ed. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. 492-518.
Foster, Ruel E. "An Undiscovered Source for Elizabeth Madox Roberts' 'On the Mountainside.'" West Virginia University Philological Papers 15 (1966): 57-61.
Goeller, Allison D. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." American Novelists, 1910-1945. Part 2: Fitzgerald-Rölvaag. Ed. James J. Martine. Detroit: Gale, 1981. Vol. 9 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. 310-13.
Hall, Wade. "Place in the Short Fiction of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Kentucky Review 6.3 (1986): 3-16.
Harrison, Elizabeth Jane. Female Pastoral: Women Writers Re-Visioning the American South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Joyner, Nancy Carol. "The Poetics of the House in Appalachian Fiction." The Poetics of Appalachian Space. Ed. Parks Lanier, Jr. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 10-27.
Kramer, Victor A. "Through Language to Self: Ellen's Journey in The Time of Man." Southern Review 20 (1984): 774-84.
Lesemann, Maurice. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Reminiscence." Southern Review 20 (1984): 817-20.
Lewis, Janet. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A Memoir." Southern Review 20 (1984): 803-16.
——. "Letters from the Little Country: The Summers of 1919 and 1920." Southern Review 20 (1984): 829-35.
McBride, Anne K. "The Poetry of Space in Elizabeth Madox Roberts' The Time of Man." Southern Literary Journal 18.1 (1985): 61-72.
McDowell, Frederick P. W. Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: Twayne Press, 1963.
Mellard, James. "The Fiction of Social Commitment." The History of Southern Literature. Ed. Louis D. Rubin, Blydlen Jackson, Rayburn S. Moore, Lewis P. Simpson, and Thomas Daniel Young. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. 351-62.
Murphy, John J. "Coming of Age and Domesticating Space in the Wilderness: Roberts's The Great Meadow and Cather's Shadows on the Rock." Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 33.3 (1989): 26-31.
Niles, Mary. "Social Development in the Poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Markham Review 2.1 (1969): 16-20.
Seltzer, Sandra. "Some Similarities between Three Heroines: Tess d'Urberville, Ellen Chesser, and Kristin Lavransdatter." Kentucky Folklore Record 24 (1978): 84-102.
Sherry, Pearl Andelson. "Symbolism in the Letters of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Southern Review 20 (1984): 824-28.
Simpson, Lewis P. "Introduction: Recovering Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Southern Review 20 (1984): 749-51.
——. "The Sexuality of History." Southern Review 20 (1984): 758-802.
Slavick, William H. "Taken with a Long-Handled Spoon: The Roberts Papers and Letters." Southern Review 20 (1984): 752-73.
Smith, Jo R. "New Troy in the Bluegrass: Vergilian Metaphor and The Great Meadow." Mississippi Quarterly 22 (1969): 39-46.
Spivey, Herman E. "The Mind and Creative Habits of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." All These to Teach: Essays in Honor of C. A. Robertson. Ed. Robert A. Bryan, Alton C. Morris, A. A. Murphree, and Aubrey L. Williams. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965. 237-48.
Tate, Linda. "Against the Chaos of the World: Language and Consciousness in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's The Time of Man." Mississippi Quarterly 41 (1987): 95-111.
——. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Bibliographical Essay." Resources for American Literary Study 18 (1992): 22-43.
Tyree, Wade. "Time's Own River: The Three Major Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Michigan Quarterly Review 16 (1977): 33-46.
Warren, Robert Penn. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts: Life Is from Within." Saturday Review 9 Mar. 1963: 20-21, 38.
UNDER THE TREE (1922)
Yvor Winters (review date April 1923)
SOURCE: Winters, Yvor. Review of Under the Tree, by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Poetry 22, no. 1 (April 1923): 43-8.
[In the following review, Winters praises Roberts's subtle verse in Under the Tree and asserts that the collection will appeal to both young and adult audiences.]
Miss Roberts has endeavored to present in verse [in Under the Tree ] the psychological and spiritual life of a child between the ages, I should say, of about five and ten or eleven. As she appears to have succeeded to a remarkable degree, it is interesting to examine her methods. Her child being self-conscious, analytical, she has chosen to let the child be her own psychologist, and so writes of the experiences recorded from the standpoint of childhood, and not from the standpoint of the adult. This involves a simplification of diction and technique, which bounds her work narrowly, but which she has nevertheless handled in a masterly fashion.
The earliest impressions recorded are of minute observations, sometimes subtle, often very simple, but almost entirely detached from any emotion whatever. They are simply the first stirrings of an hypermetaphysical mind, which focusses with equal interest upon an optical illusion involving an apparent jerking of the sky or upon the wriggling of a pretty Sunday school teacher's tongue. Or it turns upon itself, the child's home, from the top of hill, perhaps, with the acute disinterest of a little hill god who has all but found Nirvana:
The church steeple looked very tall and thin,
And I found the house that we live in.
I saw it under the poplar tree,
And I bent my head and tried to see
Our house when the rain is over it,
And how it looks when the lamps are lit.
I saw the swing from up on the hill,
The ropes were hanging very still.
And over and over I tried to see
Some of us walking under the tree;
And the children playing everywhere,
And how it looks when I am there.
As the child develops, various emotions become involved in these observations—pleasure, fear, etc. The fear of the imagined, as in "Strange Tree," of less definitely perceived but more actual terrors, as in "A Child Asleep." And finally—and almost incidentally—appears a more conscious pleasure in beauty for its own sake.
Miss Roberts' art consists most often in juxtaposing simple physical details of a landscape or situation in such a way that they act upon and limit each other definitely and minutely, without being at any point similar or parts of each other. They are simply carefully ordered parts of a whole, and bear in every case an intimate relationship to the sound movement. The lines already quoted serve as an excellent example of this. Occasionally she lets a rhythm that has already been used in this manner carry over its emotion as a sort of superimposed comment upon lines, the content of which is too far removed from the physical to fuse with sound—as in certain lines of "In Maryland," which I quote intact. It is, of course, an important part of an old art, at least as old as the ballade, but it is here turned to other uses:
When it was Grandmother Barbara's day,
We lived on a hill, and down below,
Beyond the pasture and the trees,
A river used to go.
The river was very wide and blue
And deep; and my! it was a sight
To see the ships go up and down,
And all the sails were white.
And Grandmother Barbara used to wait
Beside the window or the door.
She never was too tired of it
To watch the river any more.
And we could hardly see across;
And the water was blue, as blue as the sky;
And all day long and all day long
We watched the little ships go by.
The poignancy of the poem, the identification of the child with the young grandmother, the distilled nostalgia, scarcely require comment.
Miss Roberts has used other devices, but less consistently, and in a limited discussion there is scarcely room to take them up. This may serve as a key to her method, however.
The fact that the child has been, in this book, her own psychologist, is apt to make it, other questions aside, a very popular book with children. But whether or not it ever does acquire this deserved popularity, it is too fine a piece of work to be ignored by the sophisticated adult, whether now or in the future.
Louis Untermeyer (review date 1930)
SOURCE: Untermeyer, Louis. Review of Under the Tree, by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. In Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Personal Note, pp. 26-7. New York, N.Y.: The Viking Press, 1930.
[In the following review, Untermeyer argues that Under the Tree "mirrors the child's world" without adopting a condescending or patronizing tone.]
Most verses that attempt to record childhood are written by well-meaning and thoroughly mature adults, either in that tone of talking-down which, instead of being childlike, is merely a distortion of childishness, or on a note of highly exaggerated spontaneity and elaborate ingenuousness which fails to conceal sophistication. Occasionally one finds a volume which mirrors the child's world, in which the speech is straightforward without being shrill or mincing, whose simplicity is neither starched nor beribboned. Such a volume is Elizabeth Madox Roberts's Under the Tree.
Miss Roberts's vision is clear as it is candid, and her communication is equally direct. She reproduces not only the quality of childhood but its very colors. Her verse is graceful where grace commands the expression, but her unforced naïveté allows her to be gauche whenever awkwardness is natural. Poems like "The Rabbit," "The Picnic," "Mumps" and others of the same delightful genre will be fascinating to children for their quaint, partly fantastic but chiefly matter-of-fact inflection; and to the mature craftsman, for the admirable economy with which Miss Roberts has selected her sharp and illuminating details. In the first four lines of a tiny poem she gives us unerringly a child's consciousness—and a life-size portrait.
On Sunday morning, then he comes
To church, and everybody smells
The blacking and the toilet soap
And camphor balls from Mr. Wells.
In the half-dozen more obviously poetic pictures, Miss Roberts's charm does not diminish. Particularly in poems such as "Christmas Morning" and "The Hens" is an unusual delicacy; the words, with the light of early wonder shining behind them, are almost transparent.
The night was coming very fast;
It reached the gate as I ran past.
The pigeons had gone to the tower of the church
And all the hens were on their perch,
Up in the barn, and I thought I heard
A piece of little purring word.
I stopped inside, waiting and staying,
To try to hear what the hens were saying.
They were asking something, that was plain,
Asking it over and over again.
One of them moved and turned around,
Her feathers made a ruffled sound,
A ruffled sound, like a bushful of birds,
And she said her little asking words.
She pushed her head close into her wing;
But nothing answered anything.
This is the quiet conclusion of a modest and exceptionally happy first volume. Few American lyricists have made so successful a debut.
William Jay Smith (review date April 1962)
SOURCE: Smith, William Jay. "A Tent of Green: The Poetry of Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Horn Book Magazine 38 (April 1962): 137-40.
[In the following review, Smith lauds Roberts's verse in Under the Tree, complimenting the volume for ably reproducing "the speech of a sensitive intelligent child who seems to be trying to communicate her own experience and to understand that experience in the process of communication."]
A writer must be rarely gifted to remember and to love the child that he was and to communicate that memory and affection convincingly to both young and old. We do not want adults to be children—and there is nothing more painful than to watch the writers of some children's books trying to be—but we do welcome the artist who can remember exactly, without coyness, depreciation, or self-indulgence, what he was like as a child and what he saw with a child's eyes. In England Walter de la Mare was such a one; in America we are fortunate to have had another in this century, a mature and distinguished novelist who set down in verse the early years of her life with the candor and directness characteristic of great art. I refer to Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941), whose volume of poems Under the Tree (Viking) is an appropriate answer to those editors and critics who look disparagingly on anything "slight" This book has no weight, and yet it looms large. It has the frailty of a leaf, but the strength of the tree for which it speaks. In the poem "On the Hill," Miss Roberts describes a girl who has gone with her brothers to pick strawberries; she pauses for a moment on a high place to look out over the town, on her own house, on the poplar tree beside it; and she says:
And over and over I tried to see
Some of us walking under the tree
And the children playing everywhere,
And how it looks when I am there
With a spirited imaginative recall she tells us throughout the book exactly how it was: the town and the people in it, the church, the woods around, the fields and streams. Elizabeth Madox Roberts, who grew up in the Kentucky mountains, was interested in the speech of Kentucky people, in its peculiar rhythms and archaic charm. And coming from a region somewhat between North and South, East and West, she seems in these poems to draw, with the quiet assurance of American humor, on the experiences of us all.
Under the Tree, originally published in 1922, has been reprinted many times since. It is now available in an enlarged edition, published by the Viking Press and fittingly illustrated with woodcuts by F. D. Bedford. Having won the respect of parents and teachers and the affection of children, the book is assured of a long life; and while certain of the poems may be found in many anthologies of children's literature, the volume should be read in its entirety.
The fifty-nine poems in Under the Tree are written for the most part in quatrains and couplets. The language from beginning to end is simple almost to the point of flatness; the rhymes are everywhere direct and unforced. Everything is presented in the speech of a sensitive intelligent child who seems to be trying to communicate her own experience and to understand that experience in the process of communication. The manner is straightforward and unadorned; often the lines seem to fall away in the stanzas; shorter at times than strict meter would allow, they suggest a child pausing and reaching out for words, as in "Strange Tree" :
It looked at me with all its limbs;
It looked at me with all its bark.
The yellow wrinkles on its sides
Were bent and dark.
or taken aback by the very shimmer of mystery, as in "Firefly" :
A little light is going by,
Is going up to see the sky,
A little light with wings.
I never could have thought of it,
To have a little bug all lit
And made to go on wings.
The child in these poems appears to be rushing ahead to tell of things of major importance to herself whether they interest the adult listener or not:
And it was Sunday everywhere,
And Father pinned a rose on me
And said he guessed he'd better take
Me down to see Miss Kate-Marie.
And when I went it all turned out
To be a Sunday school, and there
Miss Kate-Marie was very good
And let me stand beside her chair.
The many lines beginning with "And" give the sense not only of the child's intentness but also the breathlessness of her speech. They give further the impression of things continuing as they do in the world of the young—event following close upon event, object heaped on object. Connections for the child, as Miss Roberts was quick to realize, are more frequently marked by "and" than by "but" or "because." A crescent moon is sighted above a tree:
And Dick said, "Look what I have found!"
And when we saw we danced around,
And made our feet just tip the ground.
The opening words of each line make the reader feel that the children's feet are indeed already in the air, the curve of their delighted bodies following the curve of the moon.
Youthful stress on distinction as well as continuity is wittily and neatly presented in "The People" :
The ants are walking under the ground,
And the pigeons are flying over the steeple,
And in between are the people.
Some of the poems in this book have the air of being about nothing at all, so slight is the subject: the child weeps because there are so many stars in the sky or pauses in the rain under a snowball bush; she enumerates the things seen in her pillow at night or composes a tune to accompany the beating of her heart:
The men are sailing home from Troy,
And all the lamps are lit.
The men are sailing home from Troy,
And all the lamps are lit.
In another poem she listens to the "talking sound" of the water as it asks over and over:
"And do you think? And do you think?"
She does think; and she thinks always with her feelings. It is often said that only in British children's books are children presented as being alone, removed from the world of adults; the heroine of Under the Tree is an exception to the general gregarious character of most American literary children. She is a lonely child, pictured against a vast beautiful landscape, at times gentle and at others terrifying. One is struck by the vision outward from the core of nature in "The Butterbean Tent," which should be quoted in its entirety:
All through the garden I went and went,
And I walked in under the butterbean tent.
The poles leaned up like a good tepee
And made a nice little house for me.
I had a hard brown clod for a seat,
And all outside was a cool green street.
A little green worm and a butterfly
And a cricket-like thing that could hop went by.
Hidden away there were flocks and flocks
Of bugs that could go like little clocks.
Such a good day it was when I spent
A long, long while in the butterbean tent.
The child, sheltered by a tent of green and living things, looks out upon green. It is the presentation of nature renewing itself of innocence giving way fully and beautifully before experience that makes Under the Tree one of the rare children's books that can be read and enjoyed by both parents and children. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, another of the books in that category, we witness, as Alice works her way through problem and puzzle, the development of thought; here we contemplate the growth of feeling.
In a later volume of poems, Song in the Meadow (1940) Elizabeth Madox Roberts explores for adult readers, as she does in her novels, the distant universe of legend and history that lies behind the songs and ballads of her native state. In Under the Tree she brings us that meadow close-up, golden and fresh in miniature, alive with the sights and sounds of things observed and perfectly remembered. In it she succeeded in accomplishing what she had hoped to in art—"to bring the physical world before the mind with a greater closeness, a richer immediacy than before, so that the mind rushes out to the very edges of sense," And the result is, as she said it would be, that the mind then "turns about and sees itself mirrored within itself."
Kathleen D. Whalin (review date April 1986)
SOURCE: Whalin, Kathleen D. Review of Under the Tree, by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. School Library Journal 32, no. 8 (April 1986): 92.
Gr 3 Up—Librarians should welcome this new edition of Under the Tree, Roberts' cycle of children's poems whose 1922 and 1930 editions are now out of print. Each of the 59 poems speaks in a clear, child's voice about the people, animals and feelings that are part of children's worlds. Each poem rings true, whether about early days when wolves stalked Kentucky ("At night they ran down out of the rocks / And bristled up their trembly fur") or the hens that walked in the farmyard ("One of them moved and turned around, / Her feathers made a ruffled sound,") or musings when looking at the stars ("So many that I think they must / Be sprinkled on the sky like dust"). The language, regardless of subject, is never forced, and the poems are in harmony with what children would observe. Bedford's line drawings that accompany each poem are in balance with the intimate nature of this small masterpiece. Reading the poems and handling the well-designed book makes one feel, to quote Roberts' poem "Firefly," that "A little light is going by, / Is going up to see the sky."
SONG IN THE MEADOW: POEMS (1940)
Paul Goodman (review date October 1940)
SOURCE: Goodman, Paul. Review of Song in the Meadow, by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Poetry 57, no. 1 (October 1940): 43-5.
[In the following review, Goodman offers a mixed assessment of Song in the Meadow.]
Miss Roberts' most characteristic invention [in Song in the Meadow ] is a poem of the following kind (e.g. "Love in the Harvest" ): a combination of an impulsive feeling, somewhat indeterminate in its object—longing, the sense of being haunted—with an objective and even minute picture of agricultural activity. The feeling is given especially in the lilting rhythm, either moderately lilting, as with anapests among iambs, or strongly lilting, breaking down ordinary double-meters into amphimacers and amphibrachs, to the point of song, as
áll thě mén|ăt wórk nŏw||and||áll thě téams|ă-jínglě.
Often (e.g. "A Girl in the Twilight" ), the feeling and the description are merely combined, without intermediate causal or symbolic relation: then the concreteness and busyness of the scene and the random observation of it directly express the happy impulse. There is little dramatic probability or intellectual reflection; in fact the powerful lilt precludes reflection. Sometimes the concrete description is regarded as a natural symbol, as in "Love's Fullness" : "beauty and plenty."
The poet has an explicit theory for this random concreteness:
I give you … any day, for entering
man's time on earth … for cutting aslant his track.
And especially the frequent formula:
build on the eyes or the feet or the hair.
… Start anywhere, anyplace.
Ben, Bob, Jim, Jack, Kate, and Shoat.
Thus is to be caught
The great body of the true,
This "actual," objective, unreflective, environmental symbol is one kind of love,—for Miss Roberts is for the most part a poet of love. It is "happy" love, the development of the emotion present in her poems of childhood.
This then is the "song in the meadow and the song in the mouth."
Against this, however, there is a darker invention. This is a poem (e.g. "The Lovers," "Love Went Riding," "The Ancient Gulf" ) with an emotion of loss and sadness, even a wish for suicide, combined with the following system of images: water, stones, fossil shells, cold season, gaunt trees, fog, drift, the sea, ships, the old. Here the relation of feeling and description is much more intimately symbolical, as for instance the water is where she would drown, or the sea is the reality she will never experience.
I asked her would I ride in a ship,
and would I ever go to sea,
she shook her head and told me, no,
that ships were not for me.
These poems are in tone much more thoughtful, although (or perhaps therefore) without explicit theory. The diction is symbolic, even abstract (cf. "Love Begun" ), rather than minutely real; and the rhythm is earnest and seems to follow the reflection:
Cold lips of stone, and the spent sun
of the dark of the year.
Old seas locked into rock …
Is this to be taken as a feeling of maturity and disillusionment? I think not. It is rather the desire earlier than the children's poems—the archaic love—perhaps the "true love." Fossil relics and forgotten songs. But these require mature reflection to hold before the mind. I think that these can be shown to be the best poems, though not the most characteristic. The conflict between the two kinds of feeling is expressed in "The Lovers" :
I said, I will lie
beneath this tree …
But I loved life
and life loved me.
In still other poems, as "The Lean Year," "Corbin the Cobbler," "Man Intolerant," etc., and the long poems "A Man" and "Conversations beside a Stream," the thought and feeling are impersonal and political—they belong to the secondary environment. Yet they are developed from the first kind described above, with the addition of general ideas, the disillusionment of the depression, and a kind of liberal agrarian traditionalism combining Daniel Boone, Stephen Foster, peace, and democracy. It seems to me that these poems are less integral than the others. The overall rhythm that unifies even the most random of the descriptions is lacking, and there is no intimate mutual probability of the thought, structure, diction, and feeling, but even false emphasis and banality. Indeed, even in such poems as "Love's Fullness" or "Moonlight in Summer," discussed above, the religious reflections introduced at the end are without genuine probability from the preceding incidents and feeling. Besides all these, there are a number of folkepic sketches that seem to me flat; one beautiful little prayer, "Evening Hymn" ; and two long running-on-and-on poems, one about a colloquy of pots and one about Jack the Giant-Killer.
At her best, Miss Roberts is deep in the 40 years of the American Renascence, drawing on both its inspiration of expressing feeling by pictures and feeling and thought by actuality.
Adams, Donald J. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Virginia Quarterly Review 12, no. 1 (January 1936): 80-90.
Offers a positive critical overview of Roberts's novels and examines Roberts's role in contemporary world literature.
Bernstein, Stephen. "Comprehension, Composition, and Closure in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's The Time of Man." Kentucky Review 10, no. 1 (spring 1990): 21-37.
Argues that the structure of The Time of Man mirrors its themes and that earlier criticism of Roberts's work failed to recognize the novel's formal dimension.
Bishop, John Peale. "Spirit and Sense." In The Collected Essays of John Peale Bishop, edited by Edmund Wilson, pp. 313-6. New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.
Presents a generally positive assessment of Song in the Meadow.
Buchan, Alexander M. "Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Southwest Review 25, no. 4 (July 1940): 463-81.
Examines Roberts's use of language in an attempt to account for various critical misunderstandings regarding her work.
Smith, Jo R. "New Troy in the Bluegrass: Vergilian Metaphor and The Great Meadow." Mississippi Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1969): 39-46.
Asserts that an understanding of Virgil's Aeneis is essential to reading The Great Meadow.
Additional coverage of Roberts's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 111, 166; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 54, 102; Literature Resource Center ; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 27, 33; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 68; Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers ; and Writers for Children.
"Roberts, Elizabeth Madox 1881-1941." Children's Literature Review. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/roberts-elizabeth-madox-1881-1941
"Roberts, Elizabeth Madox 1881-1941." Children's Literature Review. . Retrieved November 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/roberts-elizabeth-madox-1881-1941
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