Genesis & Apocalypse
of the "Old South" Myth:
Two Virginia Writers at the Turn of the Century
Part II: Ellen Glasgow's Feminist
Approach to the Old South
The Deliverance: A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields
(A. L. Burt,
At the start of the twentieth century, the South
largely had succumbed to the industrialization and
urbanization that swept the nation in the forty-five
years since the end of the Civil
War. Plenty of people remained, however, who remembered
the plantation days and harbored nostalgia for the
way things were before the conflict. Southern writers
such as Thomas
Nelson Page had created an idealized picture of
the Old South, particularly Old Virginia. This
myth featured an aristocracy of ladies and gentlemen
who ruled society by a code of honor, as well as their
This plantation literature had for decades glorified
the South and perpetuated the “moonlight and magnolias” stereotype,
which was true only for the upper class, if at all.
As the nineteenth century ended, writers such as
Ellen Glasgow began a literary revolution against
the romantic treatment of Southern life.
Page, Glasgow was born of Virginia aristocracy. Because
her mother, a descendent of the Tidewater landed gentry, instilled in Glasgow a fondness for the Old South, she did not completely reject the myth that Page and his contemporaries created.
However, her father,
who as manager of an
ironworks was immersed
in the New South's
impressed a practical
liberalism upon her.
Furthermore, the oppression
of her gender created
a distaste for the
outmoded code of Southern
chivalry and patriarchal
authority–over not only
women but also men
of lower classes.
Biographers and literary
Glasgow's early works
inability to resolve
this inner conflict
between nostalgia and
rebellion, but they
praise her later works
and insightful treatment
of southern history
and culture. Overall,
novels, short stories,
and poetry present
a history of
since 1850, stressing
the changing social
order in terms of the
emergence of both a
dominant middle class
Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow was born on 22 April 1873, the ninth of Francis Thomas and Anne Jane Gholson Glasgow's ten children. Although she traveled the world, the Greek Revival structure at One Main Street in Richmond was her home throughout most of her life and where she wrote most of her novels.
Phases of an Inferior Planet
(Harper and Brothers, 1898)
Poor health prevented Glasgow from attending
school, but she read voraciously, particularly on
the subjects of philosophy, social and political
and European and British literature. She developed
an analytical mind, which coupled with her strong
will to foster a spirit of rebellion against both
the southern aristocratic order and conventional
modes of feminine conduct. The loss of her hearing,
which began in 1889, only strengthened her resolve.
rebellion first manifest itself through her refusal
to make her social debut in Richmond–a custom
expected of Victorian ladies–and rejection
of her Scot-Calvinist
father's religious customs. She
although she was engaged twice, and she carried
on a lengthy affair with a married man. Recent biographers
have questioned her sexual preference,
citing her correspondence with other women,
discussion of female friendships in her autobiography,
and in-depth analysis of her fictional female characters
as evidence of possible homosexuality.
Glasgow's radicalism became apparent to the reading
public when her first novel was published in 1897.
been writing since she was a child, composing her
first poem at the age of seven. By 1890, she had
completed 400 pages of a novel called Sharp Realities,
but she destroyed it after a traumatic session with
a New York publisher.
The Voice of the People
(Doubleday, Page and Co., 1900)
By then she had begun writing The Descendant, which would be her first published work. She destroyed part of that manuscript after her mother died in 1893. The following year, her brother-in-law and intellectual mentor, George McCormack, died as well. It was not until the distress caused by those two deaths passed that she returned to her novel, completing it in 1895.
Published when Glasgow was twenty-four years
old, The Descendant features an emancipated
heroine who seeks passion rather than marriage.
Although it was published anonymously, the novel's
authorship became well known the following year,
of an Inferior Planet, 1898) announced on
its title page, “by Ellen Glasgow,
author of The Descendant.”
In 1900, Glasgow published her first novel
dealing with Virginia history. The
Voice of the People examines the steady
rise to power of the rural lower class, following
the struggles and successes of a farmer who becomes
(Doubleday, Page and Co.,
Many of Glasgow's ensuing works continued the
theme of how the Civil War affected Virginia
society. Like Page, Glasgow focused on the decline
of plantation aristocracy. Rather than lamenting
the fall of the upper class and looking to the
past for comfort, however, Glasgow expressed
hope for the future. She also emphasized the
coinciding rise of the lower classes and their
adoption of aristocratic ideals.
Interspersed among her novels on Virginia history
were two other series. Two of her most recognized
works were part of a trilogy in which the central
characters were women attempting to surmount
the traditional southern
female domesticity and dependence. The
first of Glasgow's feminist novels, Virginia (1913)
follows the life of Virginia Pendleton, who at
first conforms to traditional gender roles but
is forced to adapt when her situation changes.
Although considered part of the women's trilogy,
many biographers and literary scholars consider Barren
Ground (1925) to be a break from Glasgow's
earlier fifteen novels and the mark of her arrival
at artistic maturity. It is a semi-autobiographical
novel detailing thirty years in the life of Virginia
farm girl Dorinda Oakley, who embodies Glasgow
's own conflict between Old South nostalgia and
New South realism. Although Oakley fights for
her independence, she harbors a deep connection
to the land. Barren Ground also reflects
the early twentieth-century debate between farming
as a business built on technological change and
farming as a traditional way of life, supporting
the view of industrialized agriculture as a positive
The Romantic Comedians
(Doubleday, Page and Co.,
Glasgow 's Queensborough trilogy followed her trio
of feminist novels. Considered “comedies of manners,” The
Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped
to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932)
depict a clash of generations in urban Virginia.
The Queensborough novels also deal with feminist
but Glasgow uses comic and satiric irony
to explore the relationships between strong-willed
women and men who maintain patriarchal stereotypes.
This trilogy's final installment, The Sheltered
Life (1932), is
considered by many to be Glasgow's finest novel.
It follows the destructive relationships of two
who struggle to preserve old social traditions
in the face of modern changes.
Glasgow returned to the theme of postbellum rural
Virginians' struggle for survival in Vein
of Iron (1935).
She considered it to be her best novel and did not
feel it got the recognition it deserved. She won
Prize, however, for her next (and final)
novel, In This Our Life (1941). The
novel, which traces
the decline of an aristocratic Virginia family, was
made into a film starring Bette
1942. Interestingly, In This Our Life also
featured two actresses from the quintessential romantic
with the Wind: Olivia
de Havilland and Hattie
(Country Life Press,
The last book Glasgow published before her death was A Certain Measure (1943), a collection of the prefaces from several of her novels. She succumbed to heart disease in her Richmond home on 21 November 1945 and was buried in the city's Hollywood
Glasgow's autobiography, The Woman Within (1954),
was published posthumously. Collections of her work
continued to appear for decades after her death,
and the presses at the University
of Virginia and The University
of Alabama reprinted several of her classic novels
in the 1990s and 2000.
In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, Glasgow
received honorary degrees from Duke
University and University
of Richmond, was elected to the American
Academy of Arts and Letters, and presided over
the Southern Writers Conference at the University of
Virginia. Five of her books were best sellers. Her
lasting popularity provides evidence that by the end
of World War II, nostalgia for the Old South finally
and readers welcomed a complex, critical look at southern
Return to Thomas Nelson Page:
Literature of the Lost Cause
Glasgow Bibliography (hyperlinked
titles available full-text)
The Ancient Law
(A. L. Burt, 1908)
They Stooped to Folly
(Literary Guild, 1929)
the PBO database for books by Ellen Glasgow
Old South Literature
Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online
The Old South in Children's
Books, K-5 lesson plan: Word
document or PDF
Southern Writers and the
Old South Myth, 6-12 lesson plan: Word
document or PDF
Book List, handout: Excel
document or PDF
Guidelines for Book Report,
document or PDF
Brantley, Will. Feminine
Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, Hellman,
Porter, and Hurston. Jackson: University Press of
Godbold, Jr., E. Stanley. Ellen
Glasgow and the Woman Within. Baton Rouge: Louisana
State University Press, 1972.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Ellen
Glasgow: Centennial Essays. Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 1976.
Jessup, Josephine Lurie.
The Faith of Our Feminists: A Study in the Novels of
Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Willa
Cather. New York: R. R. Smith, 1950.
R. Ellen Glasgow and a Woman's Traditions.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Elizabeth G. The Social Situation of Women in
the Novels of Ellen Glasgow. Hicksville, NY: Exposition,
Raper, Julius R. From
the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1980.
Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
Saunders, Catherine E.
Writing the Margins: Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow,
and the Literary Tradition of the Ruined
Woman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Scura, Dorothy M., ed. Ellen
Glasgow: The Contemporary Reviews (American Critical
Archives Series, No. 3). New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Dunaway and George C. Longest, eds. Regarding Ellen
Glasgow: Essays for Contemporary Readers. Richmond:
Library of Virginia, 2001.
Wagner, Linda. Ellen
Glasgow: Beyond Convention. Austin: University of Texas Press,
Related Online Resources
Becoming a New Virginia,
The Story of Virginia: An American Experience, Virginia
Contemporary Review of Phases
of an Inferior Planet (Atlantic Monthy, February
Century in Print, American Memory, Library of Congress,
Glasgow, Biography, Documenting the American South, University
of North Carolina, http://docsouth.unc.edu/glasgowbattle/bio.html
Glasgow, Classroom Issues and Strategies, Georgetown
and Rivals: James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, Virginia
Commonwealth University, http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/friends1.html
Rise of Realism, 1860-1914, An Outline of American Literature,
From Revolution to Reconstruction, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/LIT/chap5.htm
The South, Language of the
Land: Journeys into Literary America, Library of Congress