Authors: Elizabeth Madox Roberts

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and poet

Author Works

Long Fiction:

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 Fiction:

The Haunted Mirror, 1932

Not by Strange Gods, 1941

Poetry:

In the Great Steep’s Garden, 1915

Under the Tree, 1922, 1930

Song in the Meadow, 1940

Biography

Among the writers who have given new perspectives to southern life and character in fiction, Elizabeth Madox Roberts is notable for her sympathetic portrayal of humanity and the poetic qualities of her style. To the folk materials of her region she added the techniques of the modern novel of sensibility. As a result the final effect of her writing is quite different from anything found in the older local colorists whose stories demonstrate an art based on pictures of the quaint and strange enclosing sentimental or melodramatic plots. Local in her choice of setting but never provincial in outlook, she transformed her Kentucky background into a landscape of the imagination and the spirit, filling it with living figures realistically and regionally true to its manners and its climate but recognizable as part of the greater human world as well.{$I[AN]9810001427}{$I[A]Roberts, Elizabeth Madox}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Roberts, Elizabeth Madox}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Roberts, Elizabeth Madox}{$I[tim]1881;Roberts, Elizabeth Madox}

Elizabeth Madox Roberts

(National Archives)

Elizabeth Madox Roberts was born in Perryville, October 30, 1881, in the Pigeon River country that her family had settled generations before. Among her earliest recollections were a grandmother’s stories of ancestors who came over Boone’s Trace in the 1770’s; thus the history of Kentucky became for her a personal account of family tradition. Ill during much of her early life, she lived for several years in the Colorado Rockies after her graduation from high school. In the Great Steep’s Garden, an uneven but promising first book of poems, appeared in 1915. Two years later she entered the University of Chicago, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1921; she later received a doctorate in English from the school. During her undergraduate days she was a member of a literary group that included Glenway Wescott and Yvor Winters, and she wrote poetry and prose, winning the McLaughlin Prize for essay writing and the Fisk Prize for a group of poems that, expanded, became Under the Tree, published in 1922.

Roberts came to the writing of fiction after several false starts during the years of her literary apprenticeship in New York. One novel had been started but abandoned in despair and another was left unfinished when she began The Time of Man, which brought her critical recognition and fame in 1926. Working on her second novel during a stay in California, she wrote day after day in her Santa Monica apartment, watched from her windows the rolling surf of the Pacific, and grew eager to return to Kentucky. Perhaps that is why the limits of the state expand to become a satirical symbol of American civilization in her third novel, Jingling in the Wind, rewritten from an unfinished version preceding The Time of Man. When these books appeared, however, Roberts had already returned to Kentucky to make her permanent home in Springfield. In her life as in her books, she made a segment of the Kentucky landscape her measure of the larger world.

This was a child’s world in Under the Tree, a poetic anthology of childhood impressions. The same world, however, has grown vast and strangely cruel to Ellen Chesser in The Time of Man as she scrawls her name with fingertip upon empty air and ponders the mystery of her identity. Among her people, pioneering impulses have dwindled to the restlessness of the tenant farmer; her life is a series of removals through a tragic cycle of love, desertion, marriage, and the beginning of another pilgrimage when her children have begun to repeat in legend fashion the story of her earlier migrations. A work of poetic realism, the novel is as timeless as a pastoral or a folk ballad, and seemingly as effortless in design. Darkness of the spirit hangs over My Heart and My Flesh, in which the aristocratic, futile world of Theodosia Bell dissolves in hunger, madness, and the emotional shock of murder. Jingling in the Wind, a less successful effort, brings Voltaire’s Candide (1759) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) into Kentucky, and attempts a travesty on the Babbitts, professional optimists and brisk salesmen of industrial civilization skewered by Sinclair Lewis in his 1922 novel. The Great Meadow, a re-creation of the historic past, is a prose monument to the pioneer; in the story of Diony Hall, her heroine, Roberts tried to catch the spirit and even the accents of her grandmother’s tales of the settlement of Kentucky.

A Buried Treasure is an old morality story retold, presenting the situation that arises when a pot of hidden gold brings unexpected wealth to those who do not know what to do with it. The short stories of The Haunted Mirror represent further crystallization of experience, a compression of inarticulate lives into moments of significance and perception: an awakening to life in “The Sacrifice of the Maidens,” the terror of love in “The Scarecrow,” the candid spectacle of death in “Death at Bearwallow,” the tragedy of violence in “Record at Oak Hill.” He Sent Forth a Raven, set against the first two decades of the twentieth century, dramatizes in mystic and poetic fashion the conflict between the outer realities of the world and the darker passions of the human spirit.

The cloudy mysticism that critics and readers found puzzling in He Sent Forth a Raven does not appear in her last novel, Black Is My Truelove’s Hair. As simple in outline as the folk song from which its title was taken, it is saved from thematic bareness by Roberts’s richly colored landscapes and her sensitive perceptions of her characters. The novel is a prose ballad of love betrayed, but it is a ballad with a happy ending, and it is written in prose that sings.

Elizabeth Madox Roberts never forgot that she was a poet before she became a novelist. From time to time, in the intervals between books, her poems appeared in various magazines. In 1940 the best of these were printed in Song in the Meadow, a collection of lyrics in which she spoke in her own persona as a poet. Not by Strange Gods, a second book of short stories, was her last published work. Afflicted with Hodgkin’s disease, she died of anemia in Orlando, Florida, on March 13, 1941.

BibliographyCampbell, Harry Modean, and Ruel E. Foster. Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. This biographical/critical study includes a chapter on the short stories that focuses on the symbolism in several of her stories, particularly “The Scarecrow,” “The Sacrifice of the Maidens,” and “The Haunted Palace.” Also discusses analogies to music in Roberts’s stories, particularly her use of musical devices in “The Shepherd’s Interval.”Hall, Wade. “Place in the Short Fiction of Elizabeth Madox Roberts.” The Kentucky Review 6 (Fall/Winter, 1986): 3-16. Discusses the ways that place affects Roberts’s short fiction: in the speech of her characters, in the creative relationship between character and place, and as the landscape of one’s life. Argues that in Roberts’s short fiction place has a bearing on who characters are, how they behave, what happens in the stories, and how they are structured and written.McDowell, Frederick P. W. Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963. In this basic introduction to Roberts’s life and work, McDowell argues that her best short stories are the earliest ones, which resemble the novels in their expression of significant moments in the psychological life of their characters. Provides brief discussions of such stories as “On the Mountainside,” “The Sacrifice of the Maidens,” and “The Betrothed.”Rovit, Earl H. Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960. Rovit discusses Roberts’s presentation of heroic characters engaged in epic struggles against the forces of nature; discusses her critical neglect and her role in American literature and provides a thorough analysis of her style.Simpson, Lewis P. “The Sexuality of History.” The Southern Review 20 (October, 1984): 785-802. In this special issue of memoirs, reminiscences, and essays on Roberts, Simpson discusses her as a particularly modern writer whose struggle to repudiate the philosophy of idealism is the major thematic motive of her work; compares her to William Faulkner in their awareness of the inwardness of history.Spivey, Herman E. “The Mind and Creative Habits of Elizabeth Madox Roberts.” In All These To Teach, edited by Robert A. Bryan, Alton C. Morris, A. A. Murphree, and Aubrey L. Williams. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965. 237-248. Argues that although Roberts’s achievements were greater than realized by her contemporaries, her handicaps as an artist were more than she was able to overcome. Claims that Roberts is too much concerned with man in general and too little with individual man, that there is too little external action in her work, and that her unmastered technical experiments prevent reader understanding.Tate, Linda. “Elizabeth Madox Roberts: A Bibliographical Essay.” Resources for American Literary Study 18 (1992): 22-43. A summary and critique of previous criticism of Roberts’s work. Concludes that she lacks a definitive biography; argues that her role in the Southern Renaissance has not been sufficiently explored; claims that the highest untapped appeal of her work is feminist criticism.Tate, Linda. A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Discusses Roberts’s novels as background for a study of later writers.
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