Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature >> Document Menu >> Summary

Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, 1873-1945, W. F. Baer, and W. Granville Smith (Walter Granville), b. 1870
The Battle-Ground
New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902.

Summary

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Ellen Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1873 to Francis Thomas Glasgow and Anne Jane Gholson Glasgow. Her parents claimed two distinct regional heritages within Virginia society, which contributed significantly to Ellen's exploration of regional differences in her literary work. Francis Glasgow, descended from the hardy Scotch-Irish who settled the Shenandoah Valley, was raised in Rockbridge County and graduated from Washington and Lee College. He eventually rose to managing director at Richmond's renowned Tredegar Iron Works, the largest supplier of ordnance and munitions during the Civil War. He worked there tirelessly until his retirement in 1912 at the age of eighty-two. Ellen's mother, Anne Glasgow, descended from the Tidewater landed gentry and signified to Ellen the more gracious and cultivated side of her ancestry. Throughout her life, Ellen associated herself with her mother and manifested a strong resentment for her father. Francis Glasgow's severe Calvinist manner, domineering household presence, and adulterous tendencies led Ellen to accuse him of lacking all compassion. Anne Glasgow, who had survived ten childbirths and a war, fell prone to depression and nervous exhaustion. Anne died in 1893, leaving the twenty-year-old Ellen devastated and further at odds with her father.

Even before her mother's death, Ellen Glasgow followed an atypical path for someone of her class in Richmond society. Because of her difficulty adjusting to the social experience of school, she was not formally educated. Yet she immersed herself in books at home as a means of nurturing her intellect while avoiding the agony of social pressures. By age seventeen she had refused her debut into Richmond society, and instead completed her first full-length novel, which was later published under the title The Descendants in 1897. Though Ellen would eventually find intellectual companionship, including friendships with writers such as James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken, and Allen Tate, her happiness was mitigated by her struggle with deafness and the early deaths of her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, as well as the 1905 death of a lover she referred to as "Gerald B." Glasgow never married, though she was engaged and romantically involved with different men throughout her life. She was a prolific writer, publishing twenty-four novels during her lifetime. For In This Our Life (1941) she received the 1942 Pulitzer Prize. Ellen Glasgow wrote up until her death on November 21, 1945 in Richmond at the age of seventy-two.

Designating Virginia society as the subject for most of her writing, Ellen Glasgow eschewed the ranks of fellow writers who sentimentalized the South or were guarded in their depictions of its problems. Instead, she chose to write a social history of Virginia through her novels that directly engaged contemporary issues of race, class, and gender. Her first three novels of the twentieth century, Voice of the People (1900), The Battle-Ground (1902), and The Deliverance (1904), together create a history of Virginia beginning with the Civil War and continuing up to the turn of the century.

Glasgow's second novel in the Virginia series, The Battle-Ground (1902), is a carefully researched historical romance illustrating the height of Virginia plantation life in the years before the Civil War, as well as the eventual demise of that lifestyle through the war years until the spring of 1865. Well-received by contemporary critics and readers alike, the novel centers on two aristocratic Virginia families, the Amblers and the Lightfoots. The two families stand divided over the issue of slavery and Virginia's loyalty to the Union even as both continue amassing their fortunes through slave labor. The stubborn yet benevolent Major Lightfoot yearns for Virginia's secession, accepting without question the right to own slaves. His younger neighbor, Peyton Ambler, a former Virginia governor, foresees the destruction civil war would bring to the country, and favors the abolitionist perspective to the chagrin of Major Lightfoot. However, when war becomes imminent, Ambler remains true to his native state and enlists as a colonel.

Glasgow's main interest throughout The Battle-Ground is defining the Virginia gentleman, a romantic ideal that necessarily evolves with the changes brought about by the Civil War. Though Major Lightfoot and Governor Ambler appear to represent the old order of Virginia gentlemen, Glasgow suggests that postwar society will require something more than a plantation owner who treats his slaves kindly. She posits that the new Virginia gentleman, manifested in the younger generation, must be able to see beyond the boundaries of class.

Indeed, The Battle-Ground directly confronts the issue of class through the growing friendship between Dan Montjoy, Major Lightfoot's grandson, and Pinetop, a poor Virginia mountaineer, as they fight side by side in the Confederate army. Dan Montjoy enters the war with preconceived notions about who can and cannot be considered a Virginia gentleman. Before the battle begins he expresses frustration at being outranked by a man who "wasn't fit to black his boots," and proceeds to knock him down while ignoring his orders (228). However, class difference is soon rendered obsolete by the violence and misery of war. Despite their distinct backgrounds, Dan and Pinetop bond as they struggle to survive on the battleground. Understandably, plowing the mountainside has made Pinetop more fit to weather the war years of starvation and exhaustion, and he generously shares with Dan what little he has in the way of food, shelter, and conversation. Dan's unflagging wit and humor buoy Pinetop's spirits, but it is his sincere effort to teach Pinetop how to read that solidifies the friendship.

Glasgow reveals her sympathy for lower class whites as she describes Dan's grappling with the degradation Pinetop has suffered as a result of class hierarchy. He acknowledges that until learning of Pinetop's illiteracy, he had only considered the oppression blacks had suffered through slavery. It had not, until now, occurred to him that by championing the plantation system he had unwittingly participated in the oppression of Virginia's lower class whites as well. Thus for Dan, the definition of a gentleman is utterly changed by his friendship with Pinetop. He leaves the battleground with the knowledge that too many Virginia gentlemen like Pinetop have been constrained by the artificial barriers of class.

Throughout the novel Glasgow positions her male characters as a means of defining virtuous and gentlemanly traits, yet she also suggests that her readers compare Peyton Ambler's daughters, Virginia and Betty. Virginia represents the ideal southern belle: a soft-spoken, luminous beauty who is kind but fragile. She does not outlast the war, dying of fever as the Union and Confederate armies swarm around Richmond. Her sister Betty, by contrast, represents a side of Virginia aristocracy that can adapt to change and survive the war's severe hardships. At the novel's end, Betty oversees both the Ambler and Lightfoot farms while also offering support to everyone around her, including to her love, Dan Montjoy, who has returned broken and embittered from his soldier's career. Yet if he is injured in body and spirit, at least he has been delivered of the evasive idealism that brought the southern aristocracy to its knees.

Though Glasgow challenges the constraints of class hierarchy, she does little to challenge the "plantation myth." In her novel the enslaved African Americans are depicted largely as loyal and happy, with little personal interest in the war. Indeed, at the war's end, former slaves rally around the Lightfoots and Amblers to resurrect the lifestyle that lies in ruins around them. The broadest portrait she offers of an African American character is that of Big Abel, who unfailingly follows his master, Dan Montjoy, from the University of Virginia to the war front. Yet even on the battleground, a space in the novel that works to level social distinctions, Abel retains the role of servant. Though he is one of the few characters to remain a figure of strength at the novel's end, his devotion to Dan outweighs any desire he may have for freedom. He refuses to leave his ailing master even as Dan insists that Abel is finally free to go.

The Battle-Ground was illustrated by W. F. Baer and Walter Granville-Smith. Though little is known of Baer, Granville-Smith (1870-1938) pursued a successful career as both an illustrator and a painter. Born in Granville, New York, he studied at the Art Students League of New York and abroad, where he developed a style that has been characterized as both "humorous and light-hearted" (Reed 76). He published numerous illustrations in Ladies Home Journal and The Century. His paintings, which ultimately took priority over his illustration work, have been exhibited at the Smithsonian, the Fort Worth Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art.

See also the entry for Ellen Glasgow from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Francisco, Edward, Robert Vaughn and Linda Francisco, eds., The South in Perspective: An Anthology of Southern Literature, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001; Goodman, Susan, Introduction, The Battle-Ground by Ellen Glasgow, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000; Goodman, Susan, Ellen Glasgow: A Biography, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998; James, Edward T., ed., et al., Notable American Women, 1607-1950, vol 3, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1971; Martine, James J., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists, 1910-1945, vol 9, Detroit: Gale Research, 1981; Reed, Walt, The Illustrator in America: 1860-2000, New York: The Society of Illustrators, 2001; Wagner (Wagner-Martin), Linda W., Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention, Austin: University of Texas, 1982.

Armistead Lemon

Document menu