Ellen Douglas, Mississippi novelist, dies at 91

(Vickie D. King/CLARION-LEDGER VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS) - Josephine Haxton, who wrote under the pen name Ellen Douglas, set her stories, novels and nonfiction works in Mississippi and dealt candidly with race relations, families and the role of women.

Ellen Douglas, an acclaimed Mississippi-born writer whose novels and short stories illuminated racial relations and the struggles of Southern women, died Nov. 7 at her home in Jackson, Miss. She was 91.

She had congestive heart failure, according to one of her sons, poet Brooks Haxton.

Ms. Douglas, whose real name was Josephine Ayres Haxton, wrote six novels and several collections of short stories and essays.

She chose to write under the pseudonym of Ellen Douglas because, as she noted in a 1998 essay, her first novel was “based very closely on the lives of my two aunts, very private ladies who would take a dim view of having that privacy violated in a book that anybody might buy and read.”

That first novel, “A Family’s Affairs,” made a literary splash when it was published in 1962 and was hailed by the New York Times as one of the year’s five best novels.

The next year, she published an acclaimed book of short stories, “Black Cloud, White Cloud,” which portrayed the lives of once-genteel families and the fraught relations between the races.

“In a pure and limpid prose, with enormous narrative skill, she tells stories about the life she knows,” Times critic Orville Prescott wrote.

“There can be no question about it,” Prescott continued. “Miss Douglas is not just one of the best of our Southern novelists. She is one of the best of our contemporary American novelists.”

Ms. Douglas set many of her works in the fictional town of Homochitto, Miss., including her 1973 novel “Apostles of Light,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The novel examined the lives of elderly people sent to live in a mansion converted into a retirement home.

Her 1979 novel, “The Rock Cried Out,” addressed Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964, with an oblique look at a young activist killed during the civil rights movement.

Her later novels included “A Lifetime Burning” (1982) and “Can’t Quit You, Baby” (1988). Ms. Douglas was perpetually drawn to the past, as she noted in an essay in her 1998 collection, “Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell.”

“As I grow older, the past is an increasing weight in the balance scale of my life, and the present lighter, more ephemeral,” she wrote. “The dust of the present blows away, the past grows more real, heavier.”

Josephine Chamberlain Ayres was born July 12, 1921, in Natchez, Miss., and grew up in Hope, Ark., and Alexandria, La. She spent summers with her grandparents in Natchez and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1942.

Her marriage to Kenneth Haxton ended in divorce. Survivors include three sons, Richard Haxton of Los Angeles, Ayres Haxton of Jackson, Miss., and Brooks Haxton of Syracuse, N.Y.; seven grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.

Ms. Douglas said one of her grandmothers wrote unpublished stories and thatshe began writing in earnest as a girl.

“In my middle teens,” she said in a 1998 interview with the Mississippi Quarterly, “I thought [William] Faulkner was God — and then after I began to write, I began to try to get away from it because it was so pervasive and so crippling.”

Ms. Douglas was writer-in-residence or visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Virginia and the University of Mississippi.

“I know that I put words in the mouths of people who did not speak them,” she wrote in her 1998 essay collection. “I imagine scenes at which I was not present. I know that this is my world and no one else’s — my stories, my history.”