The Descendant, 1897
Phases of an Inferior Planet, 1898
The Voice of the People, 1900
The Battle-Ground, 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
Life and Gabriella, 1916
The Builders, 1919
One Man in His Time, 1922
Barren Ground, 1925
The Romantic Comedians, 1926
They Stooped to Folly, 1929
The Sheltered Life, 1932
Vein of Iron, 1935
In This Our Life, 1941
The Shadowy Third, and Other Stories, 1923
The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow, 1963
The Freeman, and Other Poems, 1902
A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction, 1943
The Woman Within, 1954
Letters of Ellen Glasgow, 1958
By birth and tradition Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow (GLAS-goh) was as deeply involved as John Esten Cooke or Thomas Nelson Page in the historical situation and society of her region. From the beginning, however, her path cut straight across the elegiac romanticism of the plantation school of fiction, a literature that came into being partly to redeem the pride of a defeated people. As an apprentice novelist, Ellen Glasgow was forced to look elsewhere for the lessons of experience.
Ellen Glasgow grew up in a society that had emerged from the Civil War with its principles, if not its property, almost intact. Her mother came from an aristocratic family of the Tidewater; her father, descended from Scots-Irish pioneers who had settled west of the Blue Ridge, was the manager of an ironworks that had manufactured cannon for the Confederacy. Deemed too delicate for formal education, Glasgow found her real teachers–writers and thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Voltaire, Plato, Charles Darwin, and Adam Smith–in the books in her father’s library; no university in the South could have provided a more liberal education at the time. Although the University of Virginia did not admit women, she read for, and passed, the honors examination in political economy. These studies prepared her for lifelong revolt against a code of evasive idealism whose only meaning lay in a backward look toward glory. Although Southern writers of an earlier generation spoke eloquently for the tradition uprooted at Appomattox, their sentiments were too cloying for a young woman who had read literary masterpieces as well as the great scientists and philosophers.
More personally, as she told in her posthumous autobiography, The Woman Within, domestic tensions and the experience of a love doomed to unfulfillment helped to shape a philosophy of life that was essentially tragic, and gave her deeper insight into the gap between appearance and reality. With skepticism as her natural habit, Glasgow wrote with indulgent irony on the final disenchantment of a society caught in the entanglement of its social and moral codes. Few writers have revealed more candidly the influences contributing to their development of a point of view and a literary method. Henry Fielding gave her the model of his comic epic in prose. Leo Tolstoy showed that a writer may remain provincial and yet deal with the universal. Jane Austen provided a depth of critical penetration and an illuminating irony that sets everything in its proper place within a small, conservative society. The novels of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola demonstrated a method for tracing patterns of change through whole social groups.
By the time she was eighteen Glasgow had secretly written and destroyed her first novel. She then began work on The Descendant, although grief and shock at the time of her mother’s death interfered with her writing. The novel was followed a year later by Phases of an Inferior Planet. Both are minor works on a minor theme, the escape of the Virginian to New York. With her next novel, The Voice of the People, Glasgow found a subject more suited to her method and style. The story follows Nick Burr, who climbs from the poverty and misery of a poor dirt-farmer’s family to become governor of Virginia. This was the first of her novels written, as she said later, out of her determination to write of the South not sentimentally, as a stricken province or a lost, romantic legend, but as part of the larger human world.
In the Virginia edition of her works, for which she wrote the series of critical prefaces later reprinted in A Certain Measure, Glasgow divided her best novels into three groups. The first of these is a cycle designed as a social history of the Commonwealth, beginning with a picture of plantation society and the war years in The Battle-Ground and ending, in Virginia and Life and Gabriella, with ironic studies of woman’s place in the traditional code of gentility. In her novels of the Reconstruction period–The Deliverance, The Voice of the People, and The Romance of a Plain Man–Glasgow tells of the rise of the new middle class, the sturdy, honest, hard-working Scots-Irish families who have given the South a backbone running like a “vein of iron” beneath surface pleasantries of custom and tradition. Closely associated with these “Novels of the Commonwealth” are her three “Novels of the Country.” The Miller of Old Church, rich in its atmosphere of the Virginia countryside, sustains much of its action in a pastoral mood, but without sentimentality or the limitations of local color quaintness. Always at her best in her portrayal of women, Glasgow created her best character in Dorinda Oakley of Barren Ground, in which the plot, characterization, and mood combine to make this story of rural change one of the wisest and most compelling of modern American novels. Vein of Iron presents another notable heroine, Ada Fincastle, in a novel that spans the course of Virginia history from a grandmother’s memories of the mountain frontier to the Depression years of the 1930’s.
The “Novels of the City” are three brilliant comedies of manners that relate Glasgow’s fiction not only to the history of her state but also to the history of literature. Her skepticism and wit have full play in The Romantic Comedians, a novel dissecting the heart and mind of the traditionally gallant Southern gentleman, and in They Stooped to Folly, slyly malicious in its picture of a “perfect” marriage set against a background of changing moral standards. The Sheltered Life presents the last act in a long drama of sentimentality and sham. Her last novel, In This Our Life, is closer to the social histories than the comedies of manners. The most pessimistic of her novels, it brings Glasgow’s study of Virginia society to the summer of 1939. In the story of the Timberlake family she shows on a domestic level and against an urban background a world falling apart in loneliness, cruelty, and fear. The novel’s mood of deep despair is scarcely leavened by the bright quality of her wit.
Glasgow’s fiction is of one piece, a prescription of the “blood and irony” that she recommended for the South in 1925. After years of “benevolent neglect” many honors came to her toward the end of her career. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1938, she was awarded the Howells Medal in 1940 and in the same year the Saturday Review of Literature plaque for distinguished service to American letters. She received the Southern Authors’ Prize in 1941, and In This Our Life was named for the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.