Roberts, Elizabeth Madox (1881–1941)

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Roberts, Elizabeth Madox (1881–1941)

American novelist and poet. Born in Perryville, Kentucky, on October 30, 1881; died in Orlando, Florida, on March 13, 1941; daughter of Simpson Roberts and Mary Elizabeth (Brent) Roberts; graduated from high school in Covington, Kentucky, 1900; attended the State College (later the University) of Kentucky; University of Chicago, Ph.B., 1921; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

(poetry) In the Great Steep's Garden (1915), Under the Tree (1922); (novels) 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), Black is My Truelove's Hair (1938); (short-story collections) The Haunted Mirror (1932), Not by Strange Gods (1941).

Elizabeth Madox Roberts was born on October 30, 1881, and grew up in Springfield, Kentucky. Her education began early while listening to her father narrate Greek and Roman myths, as well as stories from Kentucky history. She graduated from high school in Covington, Kentucky, and for a time attended the State College of Kentucky (later the University of Kentucky), but left without graduating due either to problems with her health or her finances. She then taught school in her hometown and nearby villages for ten years. Roberts' teaching experiences in the rural areas of Kentucky expanded her knowledge of country speech and folk ballads, a valuable asset in her later writings.

In 1910, a visit with relatives in the mountains of Colorado inspired Roberts to write seven poems, which were published with photographs of mountain flowers in the book In the Great Steep's Garden (1915). A mutual acquaintance at the University of Kentucky put her in touch with University of Chicago professor Robert Morss Lovett, who persuaded her to attend the University of Chicago. Roberts earned a philosophy degree there in 1921 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That same year, she won the Fiske Prize from the University of Chicago for poems later published in Under the Tree (1922).

After graduation, Roberts returned to Kentucky and focused primarily on writing novels. However, she did not wholly abandon poetry, infusing her fiction with vivid symbolism and a narrative style much like that of her contemporary Virginia Woolf , whose free-floating prose abandoned realism in order to better convey the interior life of the characters. Using her familiarity with the state and people of Kentucky, Roberts closely linked her writing to them. Kentucky women pioneers are the focus of some of her most prominent novels. Their search for self necessitates a struggle against nature and fate that reflects Roberts' early education in mythology.

Her first novel, The Time of Man (1926), reworked The Odyssey into the epic story of a pioneer woman's life, and was translated into several languages. Her more somber second novel, My Heart and My Flesh (1927), made use of the scandals and people of her hometown of Springfield to explore the theme of rebirth which would appear in other novels. Her 1928 novel Jingling in the Wind expressed Roberts' opinion on the follies of society through a combination of satire, comedy and fantasy. She returned to the historical novel genre for her fourth book The Great Meadow (1930). The heroine in the story is Diony Hall, a strong, imaginative woman who is the archetypal protagonist of Roberts' writing. Some critics claim that this story about a pioneer woman's settling in middle Kentucky is one of the greatest American historical novels.

Roberts was also a gifted short-story writer, as demonstrated in the volumes The Haunted Mirror (1932) and Not by Strange Gods (1941). She won the O. Henry short story award in 1930. Her poetry continued to receive recognition as well, winning the John Reed Memorial Prize of Poetry in 1928 and the Poetry Society of South Carolina's prize in 1931.

In the mid-1930s, Roberts' health problems worsened, and she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1936. To alleviate her suffering, she began to spend her winters in Florida. Despite her illness, Roberts continued to write. Her last novel, Black Is My Truelove's Hair (1938), managed to reflect the serenity of her earlier writings even though she was aware that her death was near. Roberts died in Orlando, Florida, of anemia, at age 55, and was buried in Springfield, Kentucky.


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Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Brenda Kubic , freelance writer, Chesterfield, Michigan