Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Gift of Friendship: Ellen Glasgow and Amélie Rives, Virginia Writers

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Gift of Friendship: Ellen Glasgow and Amélie Rives, Virginia Writers

Article excerpt

In her autobiography published posthumously in 1954, Ellen Glasgow created an indelible image of the literary South and her native Virginia when she asserted that "Southerners did not publish, did not write, did not read. Their appetite for information was Gargantuan but personal; it was either satisfied by oratory or sated by gossip." Thus, Glasgow, a Virginian who in the early twentieth century held a strong claim to inclusion in the literary canon, depicted herself as a pioneer-as a southern woman who never knew that those of her sex could write for publication, yet accomplished that feat in Richmond, where the principal intellectual activity was glorifying the Lost Cause. This view of literary life in the early twentieth-century South in many ways parallels the descriptions of contemporary critics, such as newspaperman H. L. Mencken, who in 1917 while calling Virginia "the most civilized of the southern states," derided the state as having "no art, no literature, no philosophy, no mind or aspiration of her own."1

Although aspects of this faulty vision of southern literature survive in the popular imagination, modern scholars have realized that Virginia early in the twentieth century witnessed a flurry of literary activity. And those writers had begun earlier than 1900. From the 1880s, Amélie Rives from Albemarle County published numerous stories and poems in such prestigious magazines as the Century and Atlantic Monthly as well as fifteen novels and novellas, one of which was a national best seller in 1888. Mary Johnston, who moved to Richmond in 1902, had already written several best sellers, including To Have and to Hold (1900). Richmond native James Branch Cabell graduated from William and Mary in 1898, and after a brief stint as a newspaperman, penned a series of books set in the imaginary country of Poictesme. These writers pursued different themes and genres-Rives wrote Elizabethan tales but also produced stories with contemporary female protagonists, some of whom were from impoverished backgrounds. Johnston in particular chose historical topics, while Cabell worked with experimental narratives mixing verse and literary allusions-but none produced the sentimental Lost Cause fiction commonly attributed to this period. These authors were roughly Glasgow's contemporaries: Rives, born in 1863, was a decade older, Johnston three years older, and Cabell six years younger. Literary scholar Edgar MacDonald argues that these writers had discovered realism before the southern renaissance took hold in the 1920s.2

In distorting the state of southern literary culture to stress her own achievements, Glasgow also gave a misleading picture of the literary companionship available. On the one hand, her autobiography emphasized the importance of friendship: "Two things had never failed me: my gift of friendship and my sense of laughter." Yet, on the other, she mainly mentioned literary female friends acquired after 1920; the autobiography also provided little sense of what her longtime personal friends, Elizabeth Patterson Crutchfield and Caroline Coleman Duke, meant to her, other than as travel companions.3

Glasgow's contradictory remarks about friendship suggest that the subject of social as well as intellectual life for female writers in early twentiethcentury Virginia deserves further exploration. To be sure, scholars have begun to examine this field. Edgar MacDonald provided a snapshot of literary Richmond in the early twentieth century that juxtaposed Glasgow, Rives, Johnston, and Cabell; MacDonald's biography of Cabell also indicated the latter's relationship with Glasgow.4

Though Glasgow biographers have begun to examine her friendships, scholarly opinion remains quite divided about her notions of community. Although E. Stanly Godbold has argued that Glasgow was neurotic, aloof, and vain, Pamela R. Matthews and Susan Goodman have pictured her enriched by a web of relationships and companionship, especially female friendships. …

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