Glasgow, Ellen (1873–1945)

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Glasgow, Ellen (1873–1945)

American author . Born Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow in Richmond, Virginia, on April 22, 1873; died in Richmond, Virginia, on November 21, 1945; fourth daughter and eighth of ten children of Francis Thomas Glasgow (a managing director of Tredegar Iron Works) and Anne Jane (Gholson) Glasgow; educated at home; never married; no children.

Selected works:

The Descendant (1897); Phases of an Inferior Planet (1898); The Voice of the People (1900); The Battle-Ground (1902); The Freeman, and Other Poems (1902); The Deliverance (1904); The Wheel of Life (1906); The Ancient Law (1908); The Romance of a Plain Man (1909); The Miller of Old Church (1911); Virginia (1913); Life and Gabriella (1916); The Builders (with H.W. Anderson, 1919); One Man in His Time (1922); The Shadowy Third, and Other Stories (1923); Barren Ground (1925); The Romantic Comedians (1926); They Stooped to Folly (1929); The Old Dominion Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow (8 vols. 1929–33); The Sheltered Life (1932); Vein of Iron (1935); The Virginia Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow (12 vols., 1938); In This Our Life (1941); A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction (1943); The Woman Within (1954); Letters of Ellen Glasgow (ed. B. Rouse, 1958); The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow (ed. R. K. Meeker, 1963); Beyond Defeat: An Epilogue to an Era (ed. L.Y. Gore, 1966).

The eighth of ten children, Ellen Glasgow was born in 1873 in Richmond, and raised in a wealthy and socially prominent Virginia family. In her autobiography The Woman Within, she described an emotionally confusing childhood overseen by a tyrannical, philandering father and a long-suffering mother with whom she strongly identified. Excused from school because of fragile health, Glasgow educated herself by reading from her father's extensive library of classics. As she entered her teens, her reading encompassed the works of the 19th-century historians and social philosophers, including the British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose books made a particularly lasting impression. At age 17, Glasgow refused a debut into society and set to work on her first novel which she later destroyed. Her second novel, The Descendant, published anonymously in 1897, was embraced by advocates of the new realism in American literature, as were the two novels that followed, Phases of an Inferior Planet (1900) and The Wheel of Life (1906). In these early works, set in New York and populated by uprooted southerners, Glasgow explored the problems of the struggling woman artist.

With The Voice of the People (1900), about the Civil War, Glasgow embarked on a series of books about Virginia, which included The Battleground (1902), The Deliverance (1904), Virginia (1913), Barren Ground (1925), Vein of Iron (1935), and In This Our Life (1941), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize. These works explore the social and political history of Virginia from 1850 and represent a break with the sentimental tradition of Southern fiction, what Glasgow called "evasive idealism." She won genuine critical success with Barren Ground, a grimly tragic tale set in rural Virginia, which she felt would make or break her reputation as a writer. Many consider it her best work.

In three comedies of manners, The Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932), Glasgow put forth her own ambivalent feelings about the decline of Southern aristocracy in the face of encroaching industrialization. Called an "ironic tragedian" by Henry Seidel Canby, Glasgow was a masterful satirist, particularly in her portrayal of Southern women and their relations to Southern men. "The realism which engages this author," writes Emily Clark , "is the penetration of shams, a perpetual rebellion against hypocrisy."

Glasgow never married, although as a young woman she had an intense love affair with a married man, "Gerald B," who died in 1905. She also had an enduring relationship with Henry Watkins Anderson, a successful Richmond lawyer and unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 1921, to whom she was once engaged. (Glasgow collaborated with Anderson on the 1919 political novel The Builders, for which he also served as a model for the story's hero.)

After the suicide of her brother in 1909 and the death of her beloved sister Cary Glasgow in 1911, Ellen exiled herself in New York for a period but returned to Richmond in 1916. Except for travel abroad and summer respites in Massachusetts or Maine, she lived and worked most of her life in a century-old Greek Revival house in the heart of Richmond. "We live," she once said, "where we are born." For many years, she shared her home with her secretary, nurse, and housekeeper, Anne Virginia Bennett , and her adored dogs. (Glasgow loved animals and helped found the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) One of her greatest burdens was her deafness, which came on in adolescence and worsened with age, isolating her and causing bouts of depression. Although she described her life as a "long tragedy," compensated only by her literary pursuits, friends recalled her as charming, with a ready smile and a gift for witty conversation.

Often compared to Edith Wharton and Willa Cather , Glasgow was generally recognized during her time as one of America's foremost novelists. In 1932, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and, in 1940, received the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1941, she was given the Southern Authors Award and, in 1942, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for In This Our Life.

Toward the end of her career, Glasgow became disillusioned with modern urban life and grew increasingly nostalgic for the lost agrarian society. Notes Marcelle Thiebaux in American Women Writers: "As she grew older she found it difficult to cast aside the values she had once lightheartedly satirized. She saw the modern world as 'distraught, chaotic, grotesque, … an age of cruelty without more indignation, of catastrophe without courage.'" In December 1939, after completing the first draft of In This Our Life, Glasgow suffered a severe heart attack. Confined to bed for months afterward, she finished the novel with the help of her friend and fellow novelist James Branch Cabell. Through sheer determination, she continued to write, publishing her only nonfiction, A Certain Measure (a collection of critical essays), two years before her death in 1945. Her autobiography The Woman Within and her final novel Beyond Defeat were both published posthumously.


Glasgow, Ellen. The Woman Within. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1954.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

suggested reading:

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

Wagner, Linda W. Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention. University of Texas Press, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts