The Voice of the People

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By the time Ellen Glasgow (1873–1945) published The Voice of the People in 1900, she was already something of a cause célèbre. Three years earlier, her anonymously published first novel, the best-selling The Descendant (1897), had one reviewer speculating that its author was Harold Frederic, whose own novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), made the best-seller list for 1896. When a photograph was published revealing that the author of The Descendant was a twenty-two-year-old female Richmonder dressed and coiffed as if for a ball, the surprised reaction alone was almost enough to assure Glasgow a place in American literary history.


Glasgow began her research for The Voice of the People shortly after the appearance of her first novel and in the midst of writing her second, Phases of an Inferior Planet (1898). In Roanoke, Virginia ("Powhatan City" in the novel), in August 1897, Glasgow convinced a doorkeeper to smuggle her into the state Democratic convention, which she apparently observed from backstage. During May 1898, she collected impressions in Williamsburg, Virginia, the model for the novel's fictional Kingsborough. By late September 1898, Glasgow was seriously at work on The Voice of the People and exploring the possibility of serial publication (which did not transpire). Despite interruptions caused by travel and illness, Glasgow had sent the completed novel to Doubleday by February 1900. By mid-April, Glasgow was receiving fan mail from Williamsburg readers listing their return address as "Kingsborough." The novel sold well and enjoyed a brief appearance on the best-seller list. Glasgow's two collected editions, the eight-volume Old Dominion Edition (1929–1933) and the standard twelve-volume Virginia Edition of Works (1938), include The Voice ofthe People with an author's preface. The novel has been out of print since its publication in the Virginia Edition.


Perhaps because of the temporal and topical specificity of the novel's setting in Virginia during Reconstruction, The Voice of the People has had a less brilliant critical career than its initial reception seemed to promise. In her preface to The Battle-Ground (1902), collected with her other prefaces in A Certain Measure (1943), Glasgow places The Voice of the People third chronologically (although first in composition) in her "social history of Virginia," which she describes as "history in the semblance of fiction" (p. 3). Set during the years 1870–1898, the novel's geographical locations—Williamsburg ("Kingsborough") and Richmond, the colonial and modern capitals of Virginia, respectively—simultaneously suggest progress and stasis. The past center of political power gives way to the contemporary one, but entrenched attitudes remain difficult to shed. Exploiting the tension between old ways and new, Glasgow in The Voice of the People gives readers a snapshot of the social stresses produced by gender and race relations, class (im)mobility, political processes, and industrialization. Those same issues are crucial in understanding not only late-nineteenth-century Virginia but ongoing struggles with social and cultural difference, political events and personalities, and global economies.

Expanding industry and commerce in the South (as elsewhere in the United States) in the late decades of the nineteenth century helped to create an increasingly visible middle class that complicated notions of fixed class boundaries and thus also implicitly questioned other social boundaries. The Voice of the People follows the rise of its protagonist, Nicholas (Nick) Burr, from his childhood in a poor farming family to his adulthood as governor of Virginia and potential Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. After his determined march through his formal legal education toward respectability and political success, Burr is no longer the "poor white trash" that Eugenia Battle, the woman he loves, once labeled him. And yet neither is he the aristocratic owner of a family estate, as Eugenia's father is of Battle Hall, nor can he be "one who is not only a judge of man but a Bassett of Virginia" (p. 4), like his mentor Judge Bassett. Glasgow demonstrates the obstacles to class mobility at the same time that she allows her hero to successfully negotiate them. On the eve of his probable election as Democratic senatorial candidate, Burr is killed as he intervenes in a violent lynch mob's attack on a black man. Burr's death ensures the election of the blue-blooded Dudley Webb. The democratic voice of the people, presumably, dies with Burr, as the voices of racist violence and of aristocratic privilege triumph.

The limited possibilities for movement beyond one's narrow social sphere are also evident in the novel's take on romance and domesticity. Nick Burr first wins and then loses Eugenia Battle because her loyalty to family honor outstrips her romantic love; although Glasgow questions women's circumscribed roles, she ultimately upholds the notion that women are fulfilled only through serving men in marriage, childbearing, domestic social obligations, and occasional supportive behind-the-scenes politicking.

Glasgow's novel makes clear her belief that present attitudes, not just of individuals but of localities, are inherited from past assumptions difficult to dispel. By evading the truths of the present time and place, Kingsborough can only persist, not progress, in her view.

A facetious stranger once remarked that Kingsborough dozed through the present to dream of the past and found the future a nightmare. Had he been other than a stranger, he would, perhaps, have added that Kingsborough's proudest boast was that she had been and was not—a distinction giving her preëminence over certain cities whose charters were not received from royal grants. . . . Long ago theirs had been the first part in Virginia, and, as they still believed, theirs had been also the centre of all things. Now the high places were laid low, and the greatness had passed as a trumpet that is blown. Kingsborough persisted still, but it persisted evasively, hovering, as it were, upon the outskirts of modern advancement.

Glasgow, The Voice of the People, pp. 13–15.

The novel's exploration of race relations during Reconstruction has continuing relevance. Two crucial events in the nation's racial history occurred within the time frame of The Voice of the People: the ratification in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited (in theory, at least) discriminatory voting practices, and Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in the form of separate but equal public spaces. The novel begins and ends in Kingsborough, which "dozed through the present to dream of the past and found the future a nightmare" (p. 13). This geographic framework—readers begin and end in the same place—reinforces the resistance to change that helps explain the failure of Reconstruction to realize an equitable society. Structurally, then, with its grounding in historical fact and its realistic setting, Glasgow's novel confronts the contradictions implicit in the title: How can there be only one "voice" when "the people" so obviously do not exist as a unit?

Glasgow acutely perceives the social tensions created in the postwar New South as an aristocratic and agrarian way of life yielded to industrialization, a new middle class emerged, women learned to expect more access to public influence and more avenues to personal fulfillment, and African Americans made their way in a world hostile to social equality. Glasgow's sometimes progressive vision, however, is subject to her own prejudices. The Voice of the People remains marred by a patronizing attitude toward black characters, a powerful identification with the aristocracy, a sense of loss associated with an agrarian past, and a resignation about women's restricted spheres that occasionally turns sentimental, offering paeans to motherhood and domesticity. More troubling, by making Burr a martyr when he and not the black man is killed, the novel ultimately constructs lynching as a problem for white, more than for black, citizens. The disturbing sentence that concludes the penultimate chapter—"And [Burr] died for a damned brute" (p. 442)—situates Burr's heroism in his protection of the legal system, not of the intended victim of a lynch mob. The "brute," so the logic of the passage argues, should die—but only according to the law. What looks like antiracism is, rather, pro–law and order. Glasgow's revision of the line in subsequent editions of the novel, where "a damned brute" becomes "that damned nigger," turns the argument for the justice system back into a baldly racist pronouncement that more overtly supports the logic of differential treatment for citizens based on race. Whether that support is Glasgow's, the speaker's, the community's, or a combination is difficult to decipher. Still, even with its compromised vision—in part because of its compromised vision—The Voice of the People, in reprising a specific history of social change, also exposes the contradictions and ambiguities that make any attempt at social change a volatile project.


As numerous contemporary reviewers of The Voice of the People make clear, her novelty as a young woman author quickly gave way to serious estimates of Glasgow's literary ability. Almost everyone called The Voice of the People the best of her three novels to date. Enthusiastic commentators described it as worthier of the label Great American Novel than any recently published work and as the most realistic portrayal ever of contemporary southern life. One reviewer assigned Glasgow a front row seat in the American school of fiction. Most praised Glasgow's characterization and her descriptions of place. Others applauded her use of dialogue and the power of her prose. A few asked for faster pacing or for less-inflated descriptive passages. Almost everyone pointed to Glasgow's impressive treatment of current social problems. Compared to much southern fiction written at about the same time, such as the work of Mary Johnston (1870–1936) or Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922), which focused on an idealized antebellum past, Glasgow's more realistic treatment in The Voice of the People of the social issues facing her own generation in the post–Reconstruction New South offered an unflinching assessment of southern society. Realism had crossed the Potomac heading north, as one reviewer put it years later.

See alsoDomestic and Sentimental Fiction; New South; Realism; Reconstruction


Primary Works

Glasgow, Ellen. A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1943.

Glasgow, Ellen. Letters of Ellen Glasgow. Edited by Blair Rouse. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1958.

Glasgow, Ellen. The Voice of the People. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1900. Revised and reprinted in 1933 and 1938.

Secondary Works

Godbold, E. Stanly, Jr. Ellen Glasgow and the Woman Within. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Goodman, Susan. Ellen Glasgow: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Kelly, William W. Ellen Glasgow: A Bibliography. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1964. Includes descriptions of editions, compositional histories.

Scura, Dorothy M., ed. Ellen Glasgow: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Reprints contemporary reviews of Glasgow's novels.

Pamela R. Matthews

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The Voice of the People

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