Authors: Ellen Gilchrist

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, 1981

Victory over Japan: A Book of Stories, 1984

Drunk with Love: A Book of Stories, 1986

Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle: A Book of Stories, 1989

The Age of Miracles: Stories, 1995

Rhoda: A Life in Stories, 1995

The Courts of Love: Stories, 1996 (pb. in England as Nora Jane and Company)

Flights of Angels: Stories, 1998

The Cabal, and Other Stories, 2000

Collected Stories, 2000

I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy, and Other Stories, 2002

Long Fiction:

The Annunciation, 1983

The Anna Papers, 1988

I Cannot Get You Close Enough: Three Novellas, 1990 (includes Winter, De Havilland Hand, and A Summer in Maine)

Net of Jewels, 1992

Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love, 1994

Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior, 1994


The Land Surveyor’s Daughter, 1979

Riding Out the Tropical Depression: Selected Poems, 1986


Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist, 1987


The Season of Dreams, 1968


Ellen Louise Gilchrist (GIHL-krihst) is one of the most prolific and widely read contemporary southern writers. Her stories “Rich” and “Summer, an Elegy” (from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams) received a Pushcart Prize, and Victory over Japan won an American Book Award. The experiences of Gilchrist’s strong-willed heroines resemble her own rather turbulent life. Gilchrist and her older brother Dooley spent much of their childhood at their maternal grandparents’ plantation in Issaquena County, Mississippi. Later, not unlike Gilchrist’s central, recurring character Rhoda Manning, her father, an engineer and one-time professional baseball player, traveled across the country with his family in pursuit of assignments. Gilchrist grew up in several small southern and midwestern towns, the places of her stories. Her contributions for National Public Radio (1984-1985), collected in Falling Through Space, are a tribute to these early years and to her coming-of-age as a writer. In this work, Gilchrist divulges that her favorite character, Rhoda, and Rhoda’s brother, Dudley, who are featured in many stories and in the novel Net of Jewels, were closely modeled on her own experience.{$I[AN]9810001882}{$I[A]Gilchrist, Ellen}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Gilchrist, Ellen}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gilchrist, Ellen}{$I[tim]1935;Gilchrist, Ellen}

Gilchrist’s schooling was characterized more by voracious reading than by regular school attendance. At the age of nineteen she eloped. Gilchrist married and divorced three more times; the third time she remarried her first husband, who was also the father of her three sons. After her first divorce, she went back to school. In 1967, while at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, she took creative writing classes from Eudora Welty.

Gilchrist did not embark on a professional writing career until the age of forty, partly because she regards the solitary act of writing as being incompatible with romantic happiness and family life. In her younger days she was too preoccupied with raising a family to submit to the lonely rigors of writing. While living in New Orleans, the setting of many stories, where she mingled with wealthy, tennis-playing people, Gilchrist wrote poetry. Later she attended courses of the writer James Whitehead at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Gilchrist’s first published collection of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, was an immediate success. Critics praised its wry humor and authentic depiction of childhood and adolescent sensibilities. Gilchrist describes the sexual awakening and the tragic theatrical events of girlhood against a backdrop of strained marriages and southern summers. Gilchrist’s predominantly female protagonists show a remarkable keenness and curiosity in sexual matters. They appear simultaneously terrible and endearing, fragile and omnipotent, drawn as they are with Gilchrist’s often equivocal tone.

In Victory over Japan and Flights of Angels Gilchrist introduces or revisits several characters whose stories she weaves into an elaborate tapestry of voices in her subsequent work. In a tradition that includes William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and J. D. Salinger, Gilchrist has created a body of work with its own set of familiar recurring protagonists, most notably the Manning, Weiss, and Hand clans (featured in Net of Jewels, I Cannot Get You Close Enough, and Starcarbon). Rhoda again figures prominently, as do Nora Jane Whittington and the aristocratic but troubled Crystal Manning, who is seen through the eyes of her loyal black maid, Traceleen. Gilchrist’s women are driven by impulse and a constant, sometimes desperate search for love; consequently they often succumb to alcohol, drugs, or sheer boredom.

Aside from Rhoda, a writer and journalist, who is the most fully rendered of Gilchrist’s heroines, several others, too, are eccentric alter egos of the author. Amanda McCamey (in The Annunciation), raised on a Mississippi plantation, marries for money, divorces, and embraces her new life as a translator in the artistic community of a university town. Anna Hand (in The Anna Papers), a headstrong novelist, commits suicide after being diagnosed with breast cancer and facing loneliness in the wake of two failed marriages, many affairs, and six miscarriages. Drunk with Love tellingly explores the colorful world of rambunctious Gilchrist heroines haunted by love and its often disastrous consequences. Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, along with some well-rendered childhood stories, provides alternate endings to The Annunciation. The Age of Miracles is a continuation of Gilchrist’s passionate sagas involving a now middle-aged Rhoda, a teen-age Nora Jane, Crystal, and several new characters. Anabasis, set in ancient Greece and at first glance a departure in Gilchrist’s work, tells the story of a strong female, the orphaned slave Aurelia.

In her writing Gilchrist creates a mysterious rapport between people–not just lovers–who exhibit an enduring ability to connect across barriers of time, age, social constraints, or racial differences. In spite of smoldering tensions, erupting sometimes into full-fledged wars between spouses, siblings, or parents and adolescents, Gilchrist’s outlook radiates optimism. There are bonds that endure, that will not permit a revocation of all that is shared; this principle is best embodied in Rhoda’s tempestuous relationship with her domineering father. Although much of Gilchrist’s fiction teems with shocking events, the bulk of her work is life-affirming and embraces existence as “a wild burgeoning process.”

BibliographyAllen, Kimberly G. Review of I Cannot Get You Close Enough, by Ellen Gilchrist. Library Journal 115 (September 15, 1990): 98-99. Praises the work’s complex structure, which Allen describes as confusing but effective. Useful in its examination of the novellas’ overlapping chronology.Bauer, Margaret Donovan. “Ellen Gilchrist’s Women Who Would Be Queens (and Those Who Would Dethrone Them). The Mississippi Quarterly, 55, no. 1 (Winter 2001/2002): 117-131. Discusses Gilchrist’s portrayal of women, emphasizing her depiction of the 1950’s Southern debutante.Bauer, Margaret Donovan. The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. An excellent book-length study of Gilchrist’s works and prevalent themes. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Gilchrist, Ellen. Interview by Wendy Smith. Publishers Weekly 239 (March 2, 1992): 46-47. The interviewer claims that in her novels, Gilchrist creates an extended family that could no longer be comfortably handled in the short-story form. Discusses characters such as Rhoda Manning, Anna Hand, and others who reappear in Gilchrist’s fiction.Hoffman, Roy. Review of Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, by Ellen Gilchrist. The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1989, 13. Analyzes the work as a conclusion to The Annunciation; gives particular attention to “Mexico” and to the title story. The themes of the meeting of East and West in that story seem to suggest new directions that Hoffman believes Gilchrist’s fiction is about to take.McCay, Mary A. Ellen Gilchrist. New York: Twayne, 1997. Examines Gilchrist’s life and her works, with a chapter on the short stories. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Seabrook, John. Review of Victory over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist. The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1984, p. 38. This balanced review offers a brief analysis of the stories’ major characteristics, praising Gilchrist’s prose style and dialogue but faulting the weakness of her character analysis. Seabrook likes her humor but finds the behavior of her characters baffling.Shapiro, Harriet. “Southerner Ellen Gilchrist Is the Book World’s Belle.” People Weekly 23 (February 11, 1985): 75. A brief biographical sketch written when Gilchrist won the American Book Award for her collection Victory over Japan; notes that her stories focus on independent “southern belles.”Thompson, Jeanie, and Anita Miller Garner. “The Miracle of Realism: The Bid for Self-Knowledge in the Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. A useful close analysis of Gilchrist’s early work. The authors see her treatment of women as essentially traditional, despite her interest in unconventional central characters. The essay gives most attention to The Annunciation, but it also discusses “Rich,” “The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society,” and “Revenge.” The authors look particularly at Gilchrist’s fondness for central characters who are simultaneously charming and awful.
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