The American South has produced many great writers but perhaps none like Ellen Glasgow. This Pulitzer Prize-winning author (1873-1945) wrote 19 novels, a book of poetry and a collection of short stories. But more importantly, she helped change attitudes towards female writers during an era when only men were expected to be intellectual or philosophical.
Her writing portrayed the social changes being felt in the South but interested readers and critics far beyond Dixie. Biographers and academics have been compelled to examine Glasgow’s influence on literature and society at regular intervals since her death.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Glasgow was educated at home and enhanced her own knowledge by immersing herself in philosophy, social and political theory, and European and British literature. She was involved with the suffrage movement to a minor extent but ultimately it was her writing that was to push forward women’s rights.
Glasgow's first novel, The Descendant, was written in secret and published anonymously in 1897. She had struggled to complete the book after her mother and brother-in-law died. The Descendant features an emancipated heroine who seeks passion rather than marriage.
Glasgow’s second novel, Phases of an Inferior Planet, was published under her actual name in 1898 and the book also revealed her to be the author of The Descendant. The novel describes a marriage falling apart.
Her next novel, The Voice of People examined poor-white farmers and the world of politics. The hero rises above his station and falls in love with a higher class girl.
Her fourth novel, The Battle-Ground depicted the American South before and during the Civil War and was acclaimed for its realism. Another novel, The Deliverance, followed in 1904 and by this time she was a well known name on the literary scene. The Ancient Law, published in 1908, portrayed white factory workers in the Virginia textile industry and looked at the effects of industrial capitalism.
By now her books were concentrating on the traditional roles for men and women in society. The classic expectations of Southern women clashed with the movement for female rights and advancement. Her writing explored how women could be independent – for instance, in Virginia (1913) a southern woman is abandoned by her husband.
Barren Ground (1925), The Sheltered Life (1932) and Vein of Iron (1935) also explore female independence. In 1941, she published In This Our Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel the following year. The novel portrayed racial discrimination in the South. The movie version starred Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.
Her autobiography, The Woman Within, was published nine years after her death. There are several biographies about Glasgow, including one by the acclaimed novelist, essayist and historian Louis Auchincloss.
Considering that Glasgow wrote about changes in the American South and helped force changes, her profile remains remarkably low. Books signed by Glasgow are becoming increasingly rare although many of her first editions are highly affordable.