American Literature Ellen Glasgow
Catherine Rainwater
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0051


Ellen Glasgow (b. 1873–d. 1945) was born in Richmond, Virginia. She enjoyed a career spanning nearly half a century as the author of poetry, short stories, novels, and nonfiction. The majority of her nineteen novels are set in Virginia, where she grew up as the ninth of ten children born to a severe, Calvinist father and a mild-mannered, Episcopalian mother who died when Ellen was twenty. A variety of emotional and intellectual conflicts traceable back to childhood trauma, especially the untimely loss of her mother, are reflected in her writing. At twenty Glasgow also began to suffer from hearing loss; from then on increasing deafness interfered with her social life. As a young child Glasgow refused to attend school owing to shyness, but she became impressively self-educated and was a voluminous reader. Her first novel, The Descendant (1897), examines political and philosophical issues that engaged her throughout her life. Although she wrote about the South, she objected vigorously to being labeled a regionalist. Repeatedly, she sought recognition as a modernist, and indeed her works explore epistemological questions concerning personal identity, history, and artistic expression from a markedly 20th-century perspective. Among writers she most admired were Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy. With Hardy she shared a great compassion for animals that is reflected in her fiction. For twenty years she served as president of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her best-known novels are Virginia (1913), Barren Ground (1925), The Sheltered Life (1932), and Vein of Iron (1935). She also published a collection of poems, a volume of short stories, an autobiography (The Woman Within, 1954), a book of literary critical statements, and miscellaneous nonfiction pieces in newspapers and magazines. Glasgow traveled widely throughout her life, but she always returned to her family home at 1 West Main, where she did most of her writing. Her house—restored and maintained to appear as it did when she lived there—is open to visitors in Richmond. Founded in Richmond in 1974, the Ellen Glasgow Society has maintained steady membership that includes both academics and a lay readership.

General Overviews

Despite the steady critical attention that Glasgow’s work has received throughout more than a century, few book-length studies of her work exist. McDowell 1960, Raper 1971, Raper 1980, Wagner-Martin 1982, and Matthews 1994 have exerted the most influence, and even the four oldest of these books remain useful. Ekman 1979, Santas 1965, and Rouse 1962 are especially useful to readers interested in the changing critical views of Glasgow over time. Several times, including after the 1940s, after the 1960s, and again after the 1980s, her reputation has been revised by newer critical perspectives than those that prevailed in her own day. However, considering the length and significance of Glasgow’s career and despite efforts of many prominent scholars over many years to foster critical attention to her works, the lack of comprehensive studies is conspicuous and puzzling. This relative neglect is most likely the result of the regionalist label that continues to define her, even though a consistent thread in Glasgow scholarship demonstrates the many ways her work transcends narrow categorization.

  • Ekman, Barbro. The End of a Legend: Ellen Glasgow’s History of Southern Women. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia 37. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1979.

    A study of biographical details drawn from Glasgow’s letters and nonfiction writings that are reflected in her portraits of the aristocratic southern females in her novels.

  • Matthews, Pamela R. Ellen Glasgow and a Woman’s Traditions. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

    Perceptive, psychoanalytic feminist readings of Glasgow’s novels, short fiction, and autobiography in the context of the important female friendships that sustained her. Glasgow came to appreciate her own female friendships in more depth as she grew older, a fact revealed in the female friendships depicted in her narratives.

  • McDowell, Frederick P. W. Ellen Glasgow and the Ironic Art of Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

    First full-length critical study of Glasgow’s work. Emphasizes the aesthetic merits of Glasgow’s work and makes the earliest powerful case against southern and regional labels. Sees Glasgow as a transitional figure between the romantic, local color era and the era of naturalism and realism. Glasgow’s uniqueness lies in her detached, ironic view of the human condition.

  • Raper, Julius Rowan. Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow. Southern Literary Studies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

    A study of eight of Glasgow’s early novels in the context of turn-of-the-century concerns, particularly Darwinism, a subject that interested Glasgow and that she employed in her critiques of southern ideology. Also develops biographical and psychological perspectives on her early writings.

  • Raper, Julius Rowan. From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow, 1916–1945. Southern Literary Studies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

    A groundbreaking and still very useful study of Glasgow’s later fiction. A psychological approach focused on Glasgow’s reading that shaped her responses to compelling ontological questions. Her reading also helped her develop the narrative strategies of her mature works that address the inner workings of human consciousness.

  • Rouse, Blair. Ellen Glasgow. Twayne’s United States Authors 26. New York: Twayne, 1962.

    An introductory discussion designed for undergraduate students. Reviews biographical details, summarizes Glasgow’s ideas about her own work and fiction writing in general, discusses the themes of her novels, and surveys Glasgow’s critical reception as well as her place in American letters as it was understood before the 1960s. Dated but still useful.

  • Santas, Joan Foster. Ellen Glasgow’s American Dream. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965.

    Biographical criticism considering the political and social views of the author as reflected in her Queenborough Trilogy: The Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932). Considers how these novels examine the declining power and influence of Richmond’s elite.

  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

    Argues persuasively that Glasgow is far more than a regional writer. From a carefully considered feminist perspective, Glasgow crafts female narrators and characters who significantly challenge the male-dominated status quo. Contends that in content, narrative manner, and style Glasgow’s work deserves recognition as major American literature.

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