A Family’s Affairs, 1962
Where the Dreams Cross, 1968
Apostles of Light, 1973
The Rock Cried Out, 1979
A Lifetime Burning, 1982
Can’t Quit You Baby, 1988
Black Cloud, White Cloud, 1963, revised 1989
Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell, 1998
Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentleman,” 1969
Conversations with Ellen Douglas, 2000 (Panthea Reid, editor)
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
The Magic Carpet, and Other Tales, 1987
Ellen Douglas is one of the most important Southern novelists of the post-World War II era. Although she graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1942, her writing career did not begin until two decades later. In the years following the publication of her first novel, A Family’s Affairs, she produced a number of highly acclaimed novels and one collection of short fiction. Born Josephine Ayres in Natchez, Mississippi, she spent her childhood in Arkansas and Louisiana, visiting her parents’ families in Natchez during summer vacations. For many years she resided in Greenville, Mississippi, and her work reflects her residence in the literary center of the Mississippi Delta.
Douglas was always interested in writing, but she postponed pursuing a career until her three sons were old enough to be enrolled in school. After that she began to work on the short stories that eventually became parts of her first novel. Douglas has said that she wrote one of these pieces because of a bet. Whatever the origin, the pieces, including at least one written before her marriage to Kenneth Haxton in 1945, became a strong work of fiction that won a Houghton Mifflin-Esquire Fellowship Award and the praise of The New York Times critic Orville Prescott, who called it one of the five best novels of 1962. Succeeding works likewise earned high praise from reviewers and critics, and her third novel, Apostles of Light, was nominated for a National Book Award. In addition, Douglas has been the recipient of various fellowships, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her success as a writer led to a part-time career as a teacher of creative writing at both Northeast Louisiana University and the University of Mississippi.
The titles of Douglas’s first two works of fiction provide a good indication of her subject matter and themes. A Family’s Affairs deals with the life and death of the matriarch of a Mississippi family. In addition to providing details about several generations of the Anderson family and their interactions with one another, the novel tells much about life in the small town of Homochitto, one of two fictional towns that figure prominently in Douglas’s fiction. Significantly, the novel is concerned with the roles assigned and assumed by the female members of the Anderson clan as they seek to find their places in a rapidly changing society. Black Cloud, White Cloud, Douglas’s first volume of short fiction, contains two short stories and two novellas. Her second novel of “short stories” contains four anecdotes from Douglas’s family history, presented with all the rumor, conjecture, editorializing, and lies that accumulate around family stories. All four works deal, in one way or another, with the problem of racial relations.
In the novels that follow Douglas’s first two books, the author probes the twin (and intertwined) questions of relationships within a family and between blacks and whites. Although these two themes underlie all her work, Douglas varies the intensity of her focus from book to book. For example, Where the Dreams Cross and A Lifetime Burning explore family relationships but do not stress the question of race. Apostles of Light, set in a nursing home, deals with a family’s dilemma when faced with providing care for aging family members. On the other hand, The Rock Cried Out, while dealing with the question of family, also probes deeply into the troubled past of race relations in Mississippi. Set in the late 1970’s, the novel is essentially an examination of racial strife during the long, hot summer of 1964. Can’t Quit You Baby also looks back from its setting in the 1960’s to an earlier period of southern history to chronicle the life of a white woman and her black servant. In all of her works female characters play a prominent role, and Douglas seems intent on allowing her female characters to probe their inner selves while at the same time testing the restraints and limits society tries to impose on their activities and aspirations.
Douglas’s writing is characterized by her interest in and sensitivity to family ties, racial relations, and the roles of black and white females in modern southern society, and her fiction is attuned to the restlessness and seeming rootlessness of late twentieth century American life. Her characters question their participation in orderly but empty social conventions. They strive to find an authentic place and role for themselves, and although their successes are rare and individual, their rare moments of connection offer hope and the possibility of individual redemption.
In her later novels, and particularly in The Rock Cried Out and Can’t Quit You Baby, Douglas enlarges her canvas to integrate a thematic opposition between the industrialized-urbanized northern United States and the agrarian-rural south. Likely derived from her knowledge of the Vanderbilt-based Fugitives and Agrarians, Douglas in Can’t Quit You Baby juxtaposes “the ruined, the smoking city” of New York with the beautiful, flower-filled yard of the primary black character, appropriately nicknamed “Tweet.” In The Rock Cried Out the main character has escaped from the “gigantic roaring nothing” of a Boston factory to the relative peace of a Mississippi tree farm. By such contrasts Douglas suggests that, despite the problematic familial and black/white relationships dramatized in her works, the South still remains the best hope for fully meaningful, naturally balanced human life in the United States.