Ellen Glasgow: A Biography

Article excerpt

Ellen Glasgow: A Biography. By SUSAN GOODMAN. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. xii, 308 pp. $34.95.

SUSAN GOODMAN, professor of English literature at the University of Delaware, has produced a decent if not completely satisfying biography of the notable twentiethcentury Virginia novelist Ellen Glasgow.

Glasgow was born in 1873 to wealth and power. Although her mother's people were poor FFVs, her father built a fortune associated with Richmond's great Tredegar Iron Works. She published her first novel, The Descendant, in her early twenties, and in the nearly fifty years intervening before her death in 1945, she produced twenty more novels, a collection of poems, short stories, and literary criticism. She achieved both critical acclaim and popular success, and by the First World War, critics considered her the most important writer in the American South. Along with Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, she belongs within the triad of the most important women writers of her generation. She still belongs with Cather and Wharton, but her star has declined notably compared to the other two. Except for Barren Ground, which might stand up against Cather, Glasgow's work is seldom read now but by academics and cognoscenti. Although Susan Goodman maintains that Glasgow "deserves better" (p. 256), this biography fails to sustain that judgment altogether.

On the one hand, the biographer justifies reading Glasgow on the volume of the novelist's work and her astonishing commitment to her craft. "An almost singular case in American letters, she began early and wrote until the end, getting better all the while," Goodman notes (p. 256). On the other, even Goodman herself admits problems with Glasgow's work. It is true. Glasgow's work is peculiar. If art, to be truly great, must aim for the transcendent and universal, Glasgow's is sharply hedged by both time and place, indeed by the confines of the family mansion at One West Main in Richmond, where she lived for nearly sixty years. Glasgow's plots tend to be conventional, her characters wooden, and her literary technique overbearing. Reluctant to let her characters speak for themselves, she seemed to use her fiction for instruction. Not unlike the work of Lillian Smith, a slightly later product of regional culture, Glasgow's prose tends toward the preachy and didactic. Just so, her fiction generally manifests more concern with, say, sociology, sociological theory, or even theory in general than with the traditional concerns of art and beauty or even plain old storytelling.

If Glasgow is a great or important writer, then, Goodman fails to illuminate that greatness, other than the assertion about the commitment to her craft. As a consequence, as purely literary biography this work fails to work exactly right. At the same time, Goodman scants other possible sources of meaning for Glasgow's life. She might have used a psychological model.

She does not, despite what must have been a tremendous temptation, given Glasgow's vague illnesses, her fascination with psychology, and her specific self-analysis. Glasgow's childhood nurse offered a great clue that Goodman did not develop. Miss Ellen was "born without a skin," she testified (p. …