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Ellen Glasgow

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

Like her grey-walled house in the current traffic of downtown Richmond, Ellen Glasgow’s position is isolated in the literary history of the South. It is a piquant circumstance that two distinguished and isolated figures in American letters belong to one of the most gregarious and unliterary of American cities, although the quality of their isolation is utterly different. Miss Glasgow remains always alone as social historian of a region never in its past or present interpreted in any wide social sense. The Old South of Thomas Nelson Page was, as everyone knows, utterly lacking in other than a romantic representation of aristocrats, white and black, while the New South, as all readers of new books know, is usually provincially, however brilliantly, set forth by its writers. South Carolina Negroes, Tennessee hill folk, North Carolina backwoodsmen, now occupy the full light of the new day; an admirable and essential reaction against the aristocratic and sentimental monopoly of the past. These people are as real, and far more numerous than the small, sometimes absurd, but wholly charming group who held the boundaries of a past literature.

While this literature was yet present, however; while Mr. Gilder and Mr. Mabie still ruled the American publishing world with their incredible breed of ladies and gentlemen who wrote; a young Virginia girl in her early twenties disturbed that literary tranquillity with a fresh and disquieting note in “The Descendant,” “The Voice of the People,” and “Phases of an Inferior Planet.” In a small book, rare and little known, “The Freeman and Other Poems,” Ellen Glasgow published a philosophy utterly alien to her race and to the time in which the book appeared. “The freedom of despair,” declared this young girl, from the restraining shelter of an old grey house in Richmond, was the goal which she had attained, a goal at that time not only undesirable but unthinkable. Although despair as an intellectual attitude was not anywhere popular at that period, it was peculiarly alien to Virginia. In a situation which must necessarily create despair if directly faced, a situation lasting through several decades, Virginians had learned to ignore rather than to accept what was unendurable. From 1607 until 1929 the State always with brilliant, recurring exceptions, has been more gracious to men of action than to men of thought, and for active affairs an attitude of despair is unhealthy. When all material circumstances encourage despair a sound instinct of self-preservation prevents the judicious from gazing with too much directness at those circumstances. Therefore the true Virginian viewpoint is neither intellectual, nor aesthetic, nor completely rational. But Ellen Glasgow, whose destiny it was to be the voice of her people, rather than their guide or mentor, must have looked beyond her walled garden when scarcely more than a child, for she published “The Descendant” when she was twenty-two. Her first book, as a matter of fact, was begun when its author was eighteen, and was finished nearly two years before its publication. She has inhabited various phases of intellectual development, and her scientific and biological phase is recorded in “The Descendant.” This period may be known as Ellen Glasgow’s more serious period, and rightly so, since youth is the time for seriousness. Her youth, however, was not unmitigatedly serious, as a portrait of her with a rose in her hair sufficiently proves, in addition to sundry reminiscences of the University of Virginia, where she was quite as well liked as if she had never thought of writing a book. And popularity there, in face of a fact which would be damning even today, was a very public triumph. Simultaneously, with University dances there were University studies, and Ellen Glasgow passed an examination in political economy from Dr. Holmes at the age of eighteen. Like many youthful intellectuals she was briefly engaged by mysticism, with “The Voice of the People,” a Reconstruction story, “The Wheel of Life,” and “The Ancient Law,” as indirect expressions of that interest.

German metaphysics and comparative religion, notably all of the Eastern religions, preoccupied her during her Sturm und Drang period, but failed to dominate her. For a foundation of skepticism underlay always her more superficial engagements. Today that skepticism is more apparent than in the past, being most exhilaratingly manifest in “The Romantic Comedians.” She believes skepticism to be the basis of tolerance, and admits that she has been more influenced by Darwin than by any other one mind. “I have been all things and am now nothing,” is her contemporary ultimatum. “The Battle-Ground,” Miss Glasgow’s one Civil War romance, is the most nearly romantic of all her books. And it is an indubitable and perverse truth that a Civil War story unromantically dealt with would be unrealistic and invalid. The South’s first realist and one of America’s first could not fail to realize that in re-creating America’s last romantic gesture a romantic attitude was the only realistic attitude. In “The Deliverance,” a story of the tobacco fields, the word “Negroes” is distinguished by a capital. This is not insignificant, since the capitalization never became customary until the extraordinary accomplishments of the race within the last few years compelled an acknowledgment of them as a racial entity. Mrs. Blake, of “The Deliverance,” is, I think, the first Southern lady of fiction whom her author dared describe with an “intricate tissue of lies woven around her chair.” It is now a platitude that many ladies of Mrs. Blake’s place and time heard only lies spoken in their presence, but it was a dangerous assertion in 1904. The succeeding books of the shelf of seventeen, which is Ellen Glasgow’s record today, swiftly followed each other, with intervals of only, a year or two. “The Wheel of Life,” a story of Virginians living in New York, where Ellen Glasgow spent several years and, oddly, wrote what I believe to be one of her two best books; “The Ancient Law,” the story of a released gentleman convict in a Virginia tobacco town; “The Romance of a Plain Man,” wherein a poor white marries an aristocrat, another fictional departure, though by no means a departure from life; and “The Miller of Old Church,”—all led to “Virginia,” which appeared in 1913.

Whether or not the general critical evaluation of this novel is as high as that of Miss Glasgow’s later and more widely read novels I do not know. For myself, I know that it is an American classic, a member of a small group of lonely American classics. From its beginning in the lilac-scented twilight of the Eighties to its ending in the hard white light of the Twentieth Century, it is as lovely, as sordid, as heart-touching, as mirth-provoking and as courageous as the past history of the State for which the book’s heroine is named. Virginia owns every quality which made the women of her race and time so strong and so weak; her gallantry, her unselfishness, her stupidity and sweetness, her perfect social surface preserved at any cost, make a character who creates her own story, almost without Miss Glasgow’s assistance. The short conversation between Cyrus Treadwell, successful business man of Dinwiddie, a lazy little town easily recognized as Petersburg, and black Mandy, a former household servant of his, now the family laundress and the mother of a son by him, is horribly truthful in the most literal sense of that phrase. Mandy asks for a slight increase of wages, venturing a reference to her son Jubal, and when brutally dismissed by Cyrus leaves like a beaten animal with no word of protest. This is immediately followed by one of Miss Glasgow’s high ironic moments, when Cyrus says, in answer to an appeal for help from his nephew, of whom he disapproves: “Even if the boy’s a fool, I’m not one to let those of my own blood come to want.” Nor had any Southern writer until 1913 written a sentence like this, in the scene between Cyrus and Mandy: “The acrid odour of her flesh reached Cyrus, but he made no movement to draw away from her.” But part of the distinction that is Miss Glasgow’s derives from the fact that the same book which contains Cyrus Treadwell also contains the Reverend Gabriel Pendleton, Virginia’s father, rector of the church which in fact was probably Old Blandford Parish, who lost his life in defence of a Negro, and whose entire existence was sufficiently gentle, chivalrous, brave and irrational as to fit the definition of a chivalrous person made by another Virginia writer. All Virginians know that Cyrus Treadwell and Mr. Pendleton are equally true.

After “Virginia” came “Life and Gabriella,” the story of a Richmond girl of good family who became a dressmaker rather than put up with an unsatisfactory marriage; “The Builders,” the story, of a trained nurse, in which Virginia politics are viewed from a modern and rationalistic angle; and “One Man in His Time,” the tale of a self-made Governor of Virginia, with the compromising name of Gideon Vetch. Then appeared Ellen Glasgow’s single book of short stories, “The Shadowy Third,” which, with one or two exceptions, are concerned with the dim region outside the fixed charts of known psychology. For the most part laid in Virginia, they are in no sense social documents. In the opinion of the present writer Miss Glasgow again reached her artistic summit in her last two books, “Barren Ground” and “The Romantic Comedians.” Known always as a stylist, since, at the dawn of her career the London Spectator mentioned her as one of the few in America, her manner has attained its ultimate finish in her latest book. This is unusual in the history of authors, whose apex is reached earlier in most cases. There could be no surer proof of the amazing youth and vitality which is Ellen Glasgow than the fact that each book is more or less unexpected. Among her contemporaries a continual ascent is by no means to be taken for granted. “Barren Ground,” considered by as severe a critic of style as Miss Agnes Repplier to be a brilliant accomplishment in manner as well as matter, is laid in what must be Caroline Comity and includes only poor whites. It was a successful experiment, and, perhaps fortunately, Miss Glasgow’s only experiment with a class now everywhere articulate. On the other hand, the class to which Miss Glasgow belongs, and which supplies her usual material, is everywhere inarticulate, more especially in Virginia. Because Miss Glasgow alone in the South speaks for them as surely as Mrs. Wharton, also alone, speaks for the same unhappy group in New York, it would be a pity for her to desert her voiceless tribe. Especially since Miss Glasgow, unlike Mrs. Wharton, deals compassionately, however ironically with them. In this respect there is a sharp difference between Miss Glasgow and the New York novelist with whom the younger Virginian shares so much. They are both, in the old, genuine social sense, not merely in the new, synthetic intellectual sense, sophisticated women; both born in the upper social strata of their States; both women of the world and of society; both completely at home in the identical drawing-rooms in which their characters move; both urbane, ironic, and past-mistresses of the literary methods which they employ. But Mrs. Wharton regards her puppets more heartlessly than any living author, except perhaps the author of “Serena Blandish,” and Ellen Glasgow’s most enduring emotion, stronger in her than either love or hate, is pity. It has remained an unchanged element of her attitude toward life. From her childhood she has suffered vicariously, with a peculiar intensity, from a pity which has ranged widely through the defeated hopes of human beings to the dreadful, humourless suffering of animals. In “The Romantic Comedians,” whose gayety and malice make it Miss Glasgow’s most amusing book, and one hopes, the forerunner of other social satires, a new field for her, there is no single comedian in that pathetic and joyous narrative who does not make a definite appeal to the heart.

All of the Glasgow books together, beginning with “The Battle-Ground,” a Civil War novel of manners, form a complete social history of Virginia since the beginning of the War between the States. They were not, naturally, written in chronological order, since each book represents the author’s mental preoccupation of its own moment. The stream of consciousness method is evident in “The Descendant” and “Phases of an Inferior Planet” before Dorothy Richardson was heard of. In “The Romantic Comedians,” the first of these novels concerned with an intensely modern young girl, Miss Glasgow has accounted for the last moments in sixty-six years of Virginia’s social history, its whites and blacks, aristocrats, middle-class and tenant farmers, the Virginian equivalent of peasants, in Richmond and in the little towns and in the counties.

Ellen Glasgow was privately educated, as school, she says, was a torture to her, and in effect went to school in the old English library of the grey, walled house in Richmond. Her first lessons were from Swift and Sterne. While still a child she read Fielding and Richardson — “Clarissa” in eight volumes! Later, Flaubert and Maupassant, Tolstoi, Dostoievski and the other Russians had their part in her training. Today she gives Tolstoi first place as a novelist, especially in “War and Peace,” and Dostoievski second. Hardy and Proust are securely placed in her secondary admirations, and also Jane Austen, with whom she shares the utter lack of sentimentality which very few males, literary or otherwise, ever achieve. With Jane Austen she shares too an attitude to men notable among women writers. In regard to them she is unillusioned rather than disillusioned, for her view of them is clear-eyed and quite unjaundiced. It is without bitterness, without malice, without prejudice and without glamour. Because of this view, perhaps, sex is neither over-stated nor ignored during the course of these seventeen books. In “Barren Ground” and “The Romantic Comedians,” specifically, it is given its full value. In the last book, indeed, it is treated as the superlative joke which men have always considered it, and that only an enlightened few among even the most unsentimental women have been able to consider it. It may be said here that Miss Glasgow surpassed the jocund view of most of her male readers in her latest work, for many of them wince when “The Romantic Comedians” or Judge Honeywell is mentioned. This, in spite of the circumstance that owing to Miss Glasgow’s never-failing quality of compassion Judge Honeywell is, in the judgment of most intelligent women, a particular gem among elderly gentlemen, and a superior man among average men. In brief, Miss Glasgow likes both men and women, being catholic in Tier tastes and without prejudice. Courage is the quality that of all she most admires, and she is impressed with the courage of Virginia women, even when she is satirical at their expense. She believes that women have more endurance and a more delicate sense of humour than men. Her handling of her characters is that of a thoroughbred, for there is absent from it the caddish quality of many men novelists and the cattish quality of many women novelists.

With style as her central, unvarying aim, Miss Glasgow has evolved a prose close-woven, smooth polished, brilliant and highly epigrammatic. “Continual affliction was a high price to pay for Aunt Harriet’s favour,” said of a lady who was sympathetic only with the sorrows of her friends in “One Man in His Time,” is an example of her economical descriptive method. Second to manner has been her continual engagement with her own sort of realism, which she bas never interpreted as drabness. Her books, like her bouse, her clothes and her food, are full of a candid delight in colour, in softness, in fragrance, in every beauty that the senses know; a delight which includes her affection for the Virginia landscape as well as for Sheraton and Heppel-white interiors, and the warmth of a vase of red lilies or a Chinese panel. The realism which engages this author is the penetration of shams, a perpetual rebellion against hypocrisy. Each book of the seventeen has dealt in its own way with sham. Miss Glasgow takes a deep interest in the movement that has been rather appallingly called the literary renaissance in the South, and believes that the time has come when a section which has always been astoundingly articulate in the matter of the spoken word is also becoming articulate through the written word. The contemporary Southern writers most frequently mentioned by her are DuBose Heyward and Julia Peterkin, and she feels that the South will eventually succeed the Middle West as the background of American novelists.

Ellen Glasgow in her Richmond house never disturbs her frequent guests with the visual impression that she is a modern of moderns; that she spoke a new literary language which streamed like a dash of bitters into the milk and honey of the mellifluous accustomed language of Thomas Nelson Page and James Lane Allen; that she succeeded in getting into print poems concerned with the freedom of despair when Harper’s was controlled by Henry Mills Alden; Scribner’s by Edward Burlingame; The Century by Richard Watson Gilder; The Bookman by, Hamilton Wright Mabie, and most of the elastic reviews of today were unborn. The house in Richmond is a sophisticated Virginia house, but none the less a Virginia house. There is the formal purity of Heppelwhite and Chippendale and Sheraton, which she knows and loves and often writes about. There are a few of the Victorian reminiscences that no well-bred American or English house should be without. “The Burial of Latane” is among them. There are the dull rose backgrounds for the heads of several ancestors done by St.

Memin, with, it is unnecessary to add, beautiful, scornful profiles, since he apparently refused to paint persons who did not possess beautiful, scornful profiles. There are deep, lovely colours from Italy and from the East. There are, in Miss Glasgow’s upstairs study, fifty-one charming china dogs, of Staffordshire, Rockingham, and Chelsea, who vary in size and colour, but are fairly well matched in allure. There are, all over the house and in the garden besides, two white Sealyhams who play, aesthetically, with bright red balls. One of them is named Jeremy, in honour, I suppose, of Mr. Hugh Walpole, one of the numberless guests of the house. I think it was also in his honour that a memorable June party was once arranged in the square grey house with its magnolia trees and excluding high grey walls. There were a great many people about, who seemed considerately to melt into nothingness after supper, when on a darkened porch they listened to a chorus of Virginia Negroes, uneducated labourers all of them, fifty, years away from Harlem, singing their spirituals in the soft, thick blackness of a moonless June garden.

There is, chiefly and pervasively, Ellen Glasgow herself, with autumn leaf colouring, of which her clothes are always beautifully a part, and an autumn air essence as gay, as tonic, as decorative and as youthfully stimulating as October in Virginia.


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