When Ellen Glasgow (1873–1945) did not win the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for The Sheltered Life (1932), writers and reviewers from all over the country decried the committee’s “criminal idiocy.” For years, they complained, the jury had overlooked her finely drawn landscapes of the borderline separating the old and new Souths. Nearly another decade had to pass before Glasgow opened the telegram announcing her award for In This Our Life (1941). Only the response of her friends, she told Van Wyck Brooks, saved her from feeling that it was not “too little and too late.”
History has, in fact, proved unkind to Ellen Glasgow. Less famous than Margaret Mitchell, less studied than Gertrude Stein, less canonized than William Faulkner, she has yet to enjoy the resurgence of attention accorded to many writers of her generation. Although questions of literary reputation in the United States have always been complicated by such issues as gender and class, race and politics, or regional and cultural allegiances, the reasons for Glasgow’s neglect remain baffling. As early as 1951, for example, just six years after Glasgow’s death, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s announcement that she intended to write her biography prompted the rejoinder: “Why write the life of some obscure person?” Pamela R. Matthews’s meticulously researched and engaging study, Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions, addresses questions of Glasgow’s stature from biographical and feminist perspectives and marks an important stage in the reassessment of a major American writer.
Matthews interprets Glasgow’s novels as a response to the intellectual and political discussion about women’s “place” at the turn-of-the-century. [End Page 145] Individual chapters trace the development and contradictions in Glasgow’s thinking about women’s relationships to one another and to society at large. Centering on the connections between life and fiction, Matthews asks for a “re-viewing” of Glasgow, one that will free the image of “Miss Ellen”—promoted by contemporary reviewers of her work—from patronizing or class-bound stereotypes of the Southern lady. Here Glasgow is a complex and driven woman struggling to define herself among competing social and literary traditions, too often at odds with the very traditions—those which Matthews argues are women’s traditions—that she would have found “comforting and comfortable.”
While Glasgow herself felt that her novels comprised a “social history” of Virginia that chronicled “the rise of the middle class as the dominant force in Southern democracy,” Matthews argues how inadequate and misleading that description has often been. Her insightful readings—which range from the ghost stories to occasional pieces, from well-known novels like Virginia (1913) and Barren Ground (1925) to those largely unknown, such as The Wheel of Life (1908) and One Man in His Time (1922)—reveal the scope of Glasgow’s talent and imagination. If Matthews shows how Glasgow negotiated fictional conventions to tell her covert stories of women’s friendships, which had their counterparts in life, she also demonstrates how Glasgow rewrote and re-viewed what she called her “dubious identity” in a modernist world.
Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions is, above all, a generous book. Matthews chooses to concentrate on Glasgow’s moments of wisdom without denying her spots of blindness. She also makes the reader aware of Matthew’s attitudes toward “such subjects as women’s traditions and women’s community” to allow Glasgow, as much as possible, her unique voice. Paying tribute to other scholars whose work has enriched Glasgow studies, Matthews demonstrates that the author’s journey from Barren Ground through They Stooped to Folly to The Sheltered Life “is one from celebration of female connection, to recognition of its new meanings, to anger that she must capitulate to those interpretations.” Glasgow herself liked to believe that without acceding to the whims of others or the exigencies of society she came, at last, to a kind of “seasonable-accord.”
Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions, which builds on Linda [End Page 146] Wagner-Martin’s 1982 feminist study (Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention), extends...