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'Woman Within': An Unlikely Rebel of the Privileged South

Saturday, November 29, 2003; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The court of literary opinion is no more fair or just than the court of public opinion. Writers of limited gifts and accomplishments (Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck) are overpraised and over-rewarded, while others of great gifts and singular accomplishments (William Humphrey, Dawn Powell, Jerome Charyn) are ignored or misunderstood. This of course is true in other endeavors, but somehow it seems especially unjust that writing, the best of which is supposed to stand the ages, so often produces such small recognition for those who do it so well.

My own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers is long; it includes, in addition to those mentioned above, John P. Marquand, Thomas Savage, Roxana Robinson, Harold Frederic, Elizabeth Spencer, John Oliver Killens and, at or very near the top, Ellen Glasgow. Born in 1873 to a genteel and modestly prosperous Richmond family, she published some two dozen books before her death in 1945, 19 of which are novels. For a while during the 1920s and 1930s she enjoyed brisk sales, and in 1942 she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "In This Our Life," but as is all too typical of Pulitzers in fiction, it came too late and was for a relatively minor work. Now only a handful of her novels are in print -- fortunately they include her three best, "Barren Ground," "Vein of Iron" and "The Sheltered Life" -- and her name rarely surfaces in discussions of American literature.

This seems more than a little odd when one considers that feminist critics and academics have made cottage industries out of other writers (Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Orne Jewett) whose accomplishments are far more slender than Glasgow's. She was a relatively privileged white Southerner (though so was Chopin), and her principal metier (though scarcely her only one) was the novel of manners. Literary opinion in this country tends to dismiss the upper classes as irrelevant and to be suspicious of the novel of manners for the same reason. The contemporary with whom Glasgow is often compared, Willa Cather, was victim to neither of these prejudices, which may in some measure explain why her work is still admired while Glasgow's is neglected.

Glasgow (the name gives it all away) was Scottish by ancestry, and proud of it. She was Virginian, too, and proud of that as well, but in this case her pride was tempered by an utter absence of sentimentality. "She began as the most girlish of Southern romantics," Alfred Kazin wrote in "Native Ground," published in 1942, "and later proved the most biting critic of Southern romanticism; she was at once the most traditional in loyalty to Virginia and its most powerful satirist; the most sympathetic historian of the Southern mind in modern times and a consistent satirist of that mind." The neglect now visited upon her could be explained if her work defended the Lost Cause or if her prose was old-fashioned and stilted, but none of that is true; she despised the Old South mythology, and her prose is an absolute joy to read. Her chief subject is the conflict between Ol' Dixie and the rising industrial world, and she was unsparing in her criticism of the South's tendency to sentimentalize itself and its past.

For the reader who doesn't know her work, probably the logical place to start is "Barren Ground" or "The Sheltered Life," but at a time in our literary history when memoir is all the rage, perhaps the place to go is "The Woman Within." Written off and on between 1934 and 1943, it was sealed in Glasgow's safe-deposit box in Richmond, preceded by a note "To My Literary Executors" that read, in part: "This rough draft is the original and only copy of my autobiography. It was written in great suffering of mind and body, and the work is as true to actual experience as I have been able to make the written word. . . . I was writing for my own release of mind and heart; and I have tried to make a completely honest portrayal of an interior world, and of that one world alone."

The manuscript was opened after her death in November 1945 by her literary executors, who seem to have decided almost immediately that it had to be published -- not to make money, since Glasgow had no direct descendants, but because it is "a narrative of quite extraordinary human interest." They meant not "human interest" as in a journalistic sob story, but as an exploration of the inner depths of one human heart and soul to which other humans could connect. Publication was not hasty -- the book appeared in 1954 -- and it has remained in print off and on in the ensuing half-century, now in a paperback from the University of Virginia Press.

This is appropriate, since the manuscript of the memoir, along with the rest of Glasgow's papers, is stored at that university's library, but it is also ironic, since Glasgow was perhaps Virginia's most astringent critic, almost certainly its most astringent native-born critic. She did love Richmond and lived in her parents' house on West Main Street all her adult life, but she saw with utter clarity the "sanctified fallacies" that Richmond and Virginia embraced. To quote Kazin again, Virginia's was "a society living perpetually in the shadow of the Civil War, a society curiously lacking in the sense of time, but oppressively fanatical when dealing with contemporary problems; obsessed by principle, but living on pluck; dedicated to 'culture' and . . . suspicious of ideas other than its own."

Here is how Glasgow herself puts it, in a passage from "The Woman Within" about an apprentice work, "Sharp Realities," that eventually she burned but that pointed her in the direction she was fated to go:

"My revolt from the philosophy of evasive idealism was seeking an outlet. I hated -- I had always hated -- the inherent falseness in much Southern tradition, and 'Sharp Realities' was an indignant departure from the whole sentimental fallacy, not only in the South, but all over America. Those critics who classify me as 'beginning in the local color school' can have read none of my earliest novels. On the contrary, my native impulse, as well as my later theories of the novel as a mirror of life, sprang directly from my dislike for what I called 'little vessels of experience.' Never, at any time, have little ways and means of thinking made a particular appeal to me. If I prefer fine workmanship and delicate embroideries of style, I demand that both material and pattern shall be ample in form and richly varied in texture."

She was an unlikely rebel and an unlikely realistic novelist. Not merely was she in, or close to, Richmond's upper crust, she was frail, secretive, afflicted with "morbid shyness," yet even as a child she was "a social rebel." Surrounded by the wealthy and the powerful, she found herself drawn to the poor and the powerless; as a very small girl she "began to think, or to feel, that cruelty is the only sin." She was, in her parents' populous household, "the only dissenter from orthodox Christianity, and the only rebel against the Calvinist conscience."

Glasgow was deeply unhappy for much of her life. Her father was honest, decent, icily cold, rigid: "Not once in my knowledge of him had he ever changed his mind or admitted that he was wrong -- or even mistaken." She adored her mother without reservation -- she "was the center of my childhood's world, the sun in my universe" -- but when Ellen was still young her mother "suffered the long anguish of a nervous illness." The result was that this emotionally starved girl often had nowhere to turn for succor except an older sister who was only occasionally available. Yet she "was not disposed, by temperament, to self-pity," and she was blessed with a "sardonic spirit which mocked incessantly: 'I will not be defeated! I will not look defeated!' "

A further result, of course, was that she retreated into her inner world and made a universe out of it. She became a writer, at the age of 7. She presented a lively facade to family and friends, but she was developing a real life "in the remote, hidden country of the mind" where she "ranged, free and wild, and a rebel." This passage about her early writing must be quoted at length:

". . . I wrote always in secret, but I wrote ceaselessly in dim corners, under beds, or, in the blessed summer days, under the deep shrubbery and beneath low-hanging boughs. Until my first book was finished no one, except my mother, who suspected but did not speak of it, was aware that, below the animated surface, I was already immersed in some dark stream of identity, stronger and deeper and more relentless than the external movement of living. It was not that I had so early found my vocation. At the age of seven my vocation had found me. The one permanent interest, the single core of unity at the center of my nature, was beginning to shape itself, and to harden. I was born a novelist, though I formed myself into an artist. Looking back on my life I can see that a solitary pattern has run through it, from earliest childhood. Always I have had to learn for myself, from within. Always I have persevered in the face of an immense disadvantage -- in the face of illness, of partial deafness, which came later, of the necessity to blaze my own trail through the wilderness that was ignorance. To teach one's self is to be forced to learn twice. Yet, no doubt it is true, as my friends assure me, that when one hews out from rock a philosophy or an understanding, it stays fast in the mind. Only a hunger and thirst for knowledge can bring perseverance."

Glasgow went about the business of becoming a novelist with incredible single-mindedness. She was literally self-taught. Deliberately, she sought "a steady control over my ideas and my material," a "style that was balanced yet supple, a style that was touched with beauty and yet tinctured with irony," and she was always "faithful to my resolve that I would write of the universal, not of the provincial, in human nature, that I would write of characters, not of characteristics." Though "it is true that I was a born novelist, it is true also that I flung myself into my work as desperately as a man might fling himself into a hopeless battle."

This, as much as an indifference to "physical instincts" and the deafness that made conversation difficult, probably explains why she never married. She once "fell in love at first sight" with a man whom she calls Gerald B -- , but he was older, married and a father. For seven years, "I lived in an arrested pause between dreaming and waking," seeing him only infrequently, and then he died: "After those years, I felt love again, but never again could I feel ecstasy, never again the rush of wings in my heart. Several times I was in love with love. Twice I was engaged to be married. Always, when my senses were deeply stirred, some ghost of recollection would float between me and perfect fulfillment."

She implies that this "romantic passion" was never consummated, that "it is a law of nature that the memory of longing should survive the more fugitive memory of fulfillment." That is a keen observation, but one can only hope she found some fulfillment along with all that longing.

I first read "The Woman Within" about two decades ago, when I swallowed Glasgow's books one after another. A spree like that is fun while it lasts, but after it's over the books tend to dissolve into a blur. Read a second time, with greater care and with notepad close at hand, "The Woman Within" seems to me even better than it did at first: a classic of American autobiography and a penetrating examination of a born writer's inner life. What I have said about it here only hints at its richness, depth and implacable honesty. Read it and you surely will want to move along to Glasgow's novels, and if enough of you do, perhaps she will get the readership she so plainly deserves.

"The Woman Within" is available in a University of Virginia Press paperback ($18.50).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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