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

 
 

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The Deliverance: A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields
(A. L. Burt, 1904)

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 loyal slaves.

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.

Like 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.

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The Descendant
(Harper, 1900)

However, her father, who as manager of an ironworks was immersed in the New South's industrial economy, 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 scholars criticize Glasgow's early works for their inability to resolve this inner conflict between nostalgia and rebellion, but they praise her later works for their sympathetic and insightful treatment of southern history and culture. Overall, Glasgow's novels, short stories, and poetry present a history of Virginia since 1850, stressing the changing social order in terms of the emergence of both a dominant middle class and independent women.

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.

     
 

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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 theory, 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.

Glasgow's 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 never married, 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. She had 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.

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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, when her second novel (Phases 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 governor.

 
 

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Barren Ground
(Doubleday, Page and Co., 1925)

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 code of 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 force.

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The Romantic Comedians
(Doubleday, Page and Co., 1926)

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 issues, 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 declining Virginia families, 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 the Pulitzer 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 Davis in 1942. Interestingly, In This Our Life also featured two actresses from the quintessential romantic Old South film Gone with the Wind: Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel.

     
 

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The Battle-Ground
(Country Life Press, 1929)

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 Cemetery.

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 was waning, and readers welcomed a complex, critical look at southern history.

Return to Thomas Nelson Page: Literature of the Lost Cause

Ellen Glasgow Bibliography (hyperlinked titles available full-text)

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The Ancient Law
(A. L. Burt, 1908)

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They Stooped to Folly
(Literary Guild, 1929)
 
  The Descendant (1897)
Phases of an Inferior Planet (1898)
The Voice of the People (1900)
The Battle-Ground (1902; reprinted, 2000)
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 (1919)
One Man in His Time (1922)
The Shadowy Third and Other Stories (1923)
Barren Ground (1925)
The Romantic Comedians (1926; reprinted, 1995)
They Stooped to Folly (1929)
The Sheltered Life (1932; reprinted, 1994)
Old Dominion Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow (1929-1933; 8 vols.)
Vein of Iron (1935; reprinted, 1995)
Virginia Edition of the Works of Ellen Glasgow (1938, 12 vols.)
In This Our Life (1941)
A Certain Measure (1943, essays)
The Woman Within (autobiography; 1954; reprinted, 1994)
Letters (1958)
Collected Stories (1963)
Beyond Defeat (memoir; 1966)

 

Search 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 file

Southern Writers and the Old South Myth, 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Book List, handout: Excel document or PDF file

Guidelines for Book Report, handout: Word document or PDF file

Suggested Readings

Brantley, Will. Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, Hellman, Porter, and Hurston. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

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.

Matthews, Pamela R. Ellen Glasgow and a Woman's Traditions. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Myer, Elizabeth G. The Social Situation of Women in the Novels of Ellen Glasgow. Hicksville, NY: Exposition, 1978.

Raper, Julius R. From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916-1945. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

_____________. Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

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.

Taylor, Welford 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, 1982.

Related Online Resources

Becoming a New Virginia, The Story of Virginia: An American Experience, Virginia Historical Society,
http://www.vahistorical.org/sva2003/new_virginia.htm

Contemporary Review of Phases of an Inferior Planet (Atlantic Monthy, February 1899), Nineteenth Century in Print, American Memory, Library of Congress,
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/ncpsbib:@field(DOCID+@lit(ABK2934-0083-44_bib))::

Ellen Glasgow, Biography, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, http://docsouth.unc.edu/glasgowbattle/bio.html

Ellen Glasgow, Classroom Issues and Strategies, Georgetown University,
http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/glasgow.html

Friends and Rivals: James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, Virginia Commonwealth University, http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/friends1.html

The 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 Exhibit, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/land/landsout.html

                       
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