Ellen Glasgow, Henry Anderson, and 'The Romantic Comedians.'(Special Issue: Ellen Glasgow)

By Scura, Dorothy M. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Ellen Glasgow, Henry Anderson, and 'The Romantic Comedians.'(Special Issue: Ellen Glasgow)


Scura, Dorothy M., The Mississippi Quarterly


Ellen Glasgow's most significant relationship with a man outside her family was with Henry Watkins Anderson. It lasted longer than any other, from 1916 to her death. She confesses in The Woman Within that Barren Ground came out of the Anderson relationship, and critics have written about his influence on The Builders and One man in His Time. Less attention has been paid, however, to the role Anderson played in the composition of The Romantic Comedians.(1)

The evidence that survives to tell the story of the relationship with Anderson includes Glasgow's autobiography; the draft of that work with deleted passages that are still readable; Anderson's many letters to Glasgow; one letter of Laura Anderson, Henry's mother, to Glasgow which confirms their 1917 engagement, a fact Glasgow mentions in her book but that none of Anderson's friends or Anderson himself ever would confirm; and the preliminary notes Glasgow made for her 1926 novel, The Romantic Comedians.(2)

The most obvious element of Glasgow's account of the relationship with Anderson as told in The Woman Within is the angry tone of the tale. She prefaces the story with statements that she is telling the "unqualified truth" in this autobiography and vouches for its "intellectual and emotional veracity."(3) The dates and outline of the Anderson story are accurate and support her claim of veracity. She calls the relationship "a comedy of errors" (p. 214), but her account suggests otherwise. Analysis of the material actually reveals that she says many positive things about Anderson that are lost in the account. He has "outstanding ability and tireless energy," "forthright spirit," "commendable zeal," "unusual intellectual endowment," "a constitution of iron," "vitality," "animation," "buoyancy," "lighthearted strength," and "extraordinary ability and a sound historical judgment" (pp. 219-220, 225-228). Significantly, too, she reports responding in the beginning of the relationship to "his mere physical presence" (p. 226). In summary, she explains, "There was warmth, substance, solidarity," in the relationship (p. 227).

Had she simply said all of these things, the reader would not be so puzzled by the relationship, but she undercuts her positive comments in various ways. She repeats gossip about Anderson, using unnamed voices as a kind of chorus throughout the account. She suspects envy of Anderson in the criticism--of his social climbing, of his kicking away the rungs of the ladder he has ascended, of his not recognizing a former landlady in the street. Then, she undercuts this petty gossip by explaining, in the case of the unrecognized landlady, for example, that Anderson is "painfully nearsighted" (p. 219). She repeats other remarks she terms malicious about his affected British accent, "his slightly pompous manner and his too punctilious way of living," "his English clothes, his valet, his footmen in plum-colored livery" (pp. 219-220). She quotes a Richmonder who calls Anderson "a pluperfect snob," but counters that he "was not incapable of perception"; "He was, on the contrary, made of sensitive fiber" (p. 221). She agrees that, although he "used people," "he used them less for selfishness than for self-improvement, a different, and not an ignoble pursuit" (p. 221). This method of recounting unattributed gossip and then faintheartedly denying the content of the gossip is repeated with the results that Anderson does not emerge as "sensitive" and vital but as the caricature he has become in Glasgow studies.

Portions of the text deleted by Glasgow are revealing. In one she admits the importance of the relationship: "I was forty [actually forty-two or forty-three] now, and, as Balzac has wisely observed, the last love, not the first, means most in a woman's life" (p. 178). After explaining that the First World War "shattered" (in the manuscript) and "destroyed" (in the book) the "cloudless harmony" of their relationship, Glasgow adds in the manuscript that "After that, there was feeling, there was even ecstasy, but never again was there harmony" (p. …

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