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Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, 1873-1945
The Voice of the People
New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1900.

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.

The Voice of the People (1900), Glasgow's first novel in her Virginia series, seeks to illustrate the class tensions erupting during the South's Reconstruction from 1867-1877. Specifically, Glasgow is interested in Virginia politics and the steady rise to power of the rural lower class. Opening in the fictional town of Kingsborough, Virginia (modeled after Williamsburg), the novel follows the struggle and ascension of Nicholas Burr, the son of a working-class farmer whose intellect and ambition eventually lead him to the governorship of Virginia. With the encouragement of Judge Bassett, a member of the upper class who is impressed by Burr's aspirations, Burr early on eschews the path accorded him by his inferior social position. Instead, he attends school at a young age and studies law in his spare time while helping his father and stepmother with their ailing farm. Later, as governor of Virginia, Burr is deemed "The Man with a Conscience" as he strives to represent Virginia without bowing to angling politicians or the wealthy, believing that he has the support of the masses. Yet in an ironic twist, Burr dies at the hands of the very people he represents as he unsuccessfully attempts to stop a lynch mob in Kingsborough.

The romantic idealism that propels Burr also fails him with his life's love, Eugenia Battle. The aristocratic Battles own land that borders on the Burr's, and Eugenia and Nicholas fall in love during their youth despite their disparate social stations. Although they privately pledged their love to each other, they part ways when Eugenia wrongly accuses Nicholas of seducing a lower-class woman. The true culprit is her brother, who refuses to admit his guilt. Nicholas swears never to forgive Eugenia's error in misjudging him. Though Nicholas goes on to achieve political greatness, he never recovers from forsaking her and leads a solitary life thereafter.

Glasgow's interest in the southern class system goes beyond Nicholas and Eugenia; she creates class representatives in each of her minor characters as well. While Judge Bassett represents the portion of the old aristocracy that has learned to look beyond class, General Battle refuses to acknowledge Nicholas Burr as anything but a farmer, and remains a bastion of the antebellum hierarchy. The widow Mrs. Dudley Webb clings to her aristocratic roots even as she struggles for a living, and she too scorns Nicholas's attempts to rise about his social station.

Though Voice of the People is fictional, it has several historically accurate elements. Glasgow prided herself on her research, and tailored Kingsborough closely to resemble Williamsburg. Her descriptions of Richmond's social and political scenes are based on her own experience, and the Democratic Convention that appears in the novel was modeled after one she attended in Roanoke in 1897. Glasgow would continue to address class conflict and women's postwar social roles in her successive novels about Virginia.

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

Works Consulted: Cooper, Frederic Taber, "Representative American Storytellers: Ellen Glasgow," The Bookman 29 (August 1909): 613-618, accessed 7 July 2004 <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CooGlas.html>; Francisco, Edward and 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; Godshalk, William Leigh, Introduction, The Voice of the People by Ellen Glasgow, New Haven, CT: College & University Press, 1972; 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; Wagner (Wagner-Martin), Linda W., Ellen Glasgow: Beyond Convention, Austin: University of Texas, 1982.

Armistead Lemon

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