Ellen Anderson G. Glasgow
( Originally Published 1901 )
THE majority of readers unconsciously associate every author who has been born and bred south of Mason and Dixon's line with the depiction of life and character of the Southern people. It was, consequently, rather startling when there appeared a Virginian who knew northern life — even metropolitan life — as intimately as those who had been bred to it ; a Virginian author who did not write of gay and valorous colonial cavaliers — who did unheard-of deeds of bravery and courted unquestionably beautiful, bepowdered, be-quilted, and Beshrew-me-gentle-Sir "-conversing damsels, — or of molly-cotton-tails, of foxes, and of other shy, retiring animals, who held as brilliant and intellectual conversation with each other as do the members of The Players. For this reason Miss Ellen Glasgow first drew attention to herself.
" The Descendant," a rather morbid ex-position of the development and life of an intellectual hybrid, the offspring of a low woman and a highly intellectual man, was a story of distinct strength and character, in which there were touches of Stephen Crane, linked with biting sarcasm and with pessimistic wit. It appeared in 1899 and was the herald of more brilliancy to come. When we read that Over the meadows the amber light of the afterglow fell like rain," there was something that reminded one quite forcibly of Crane's famous " amber-tinted river that purled along in whispering splendor," but there were other passages — in fact, many of them — which showed a depth of thought that was unusual and also the most pleasing of all literary traits, that of deep scientific and philosophic reflection.
Although a Virginian, Miss Glasgow knew the atmosphere of New York literary Bohemia which pervaded " The Descend-ant " and likewise " The Phases of an Inferior Planet," her second venture, for she had frequently come and gone on its easy-going tide. The fact that her forebears upon her father's side were all lawyers, judges, and the like, is accountable for her love of literature and of the literary life. She was born in Richmond, Virginia, and has lived a great deal at a country home near by, where she developed a love for the country and for such natural things as earth and sky and the lesser animals, which is in great evidence in all her writings. As a child she was delicate, a fact that kept her from attending school with the other children, and perhaps accounted for the philosophic manner in which she quite early regarded the progress of human events. Such learning as she received was won almost entirely by her own individual effort. The first simple step in reading and in writing she took unaided, and reading was not learned from school-books, but from long days spent over Scott's novels, when, spurred on by her delight in the stories which on winter evenings she had heard in the firelight from the lips of an elderly and affectionate aunt, she would spell out the words one by one. As she grew older, this love for books increased, and every-thing that she could lay her hands upon was absorbed with a greed that was insatiable. Of course, much fell into her hands that was unadulterated trash, but likewise much that had intrinsic merit. By the time she was thirteen she had learned to enjoy Robert Browning, and he has never lost the first place among the poets, in her heart, although Swinburne is likewise a favorite.
Perhaps many children of unusual intellectuality have displayed an equal love for books, but in Miss Glasgow, the imaginative development soon took a scientific trend, which is quite unusual. At eighteen she began a systematic study of political economy and of socialism, which brought her mind to a serious point, where the imaginative flights, stimulated by fairy stories and by writers of romance, were held in check by the ponderous thoughts of the world's greatest men of science. One who is well qualified to speak says that law, and the evolution of phenomena by means of law now became her point of view, and a viewpoint from which she has never swerved. In spite of this love and absorption of abstract sciences, her inborn love of stories has remained."
The most prominent characteristic of Miss Glasgow's personality is well shown by the following incident : In response to a request for her biography from a literary periodical, she wrote : " I remember once trying to write a sketch of my life and getting as far as ' I was born.' To this day I have found nothing more to add; and surely to be born is no difficult accomplishment. Apart from this I have made it a rule never to publish personal things ; — not that I am peculiarly modest or even painfully dull, but, if the truth must be told, even my friends admit that I never say anything interesting about myself." This modesty is paramount, and it is for this reason that she is seldom seen in society. Society does not attract the majority of literary people, — some, perhaps, as a means for the study of human eccentricities, — for there is much else for them to be thinking about. Miss Glasgow is no exception to the rule. She is quiet and reserved in the company of others, although when her interest or sympathy is awakened, the ready Southern cordiality warms her manner.
The knowledge of the law of evolution and the study of Spencer, of Darwin and the other great scientists, she says, has been one of the greatest pleasures of her existence. Long before she fully grasped the significance of the law of evolution, she felt, rather than realized, the close relation-ship between man and beast. Her love of animals is paramount. Even the birds of the air are her pets ; and their clamor at her window often sends her flying from her desk to the pantry, to secure the supply of crumbs they have learned to expect from her hands. This love of hers is combined with an interest that is all-absorbing. The habits, the actions, the different characteristics of this lower animal world interest her beyond measure, on account of their analogies to the higher life of man, here paralleled in miniature.
She had begun to scribble verses by the time she could read in words of two syllables, and while yet a mere girl wrote an entire novel which she had good judgment and tact enough not to afflict upon some struggling publisher's literary advisor. Al-though her first success came with " The Descendant " (finished before her twenty-second birthday) she had written other articles before and they had been published in magazines. Success did not come easily ; she had always worked hard, both with brain and with pen, and she still writes with care — and continually.
From her very soul, she has remarked, she believes that " the true success is to labor."
This infinite care and painstaking endeavor was well evinced in certain passages of her third book, " The Voice of the People," a story of her own Virginia and its curious class distinctions. The familiarity and accuracy with which the working of party machinery was given in minute detail, exhibited a careful and conscientious study of political ways and means. We are told that as early as 1897, when the plot for the story was first beginning to take shape in her mind, she drove more than twenty miles over the mountains, and in the hottest of August weather, in order to sit through two days of a Democratic convention which had been called in order to nominate a governor. She was smuggled in at the stage door of the opera house, where the convention was held, through friendly influence, and sat upon the stage surrounded by delegates from all parts of the State.
She and her companion were the only women in the building. By close observation she was thus able to give an inside view of political life, the truth and consistency of which could be vouched for by actual facts.
The influence of her favorite book, " The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," a book which she is never without, — for it accompanies her even upon her travels, — was well shown in " The Voice of the People." The characters—all of them contemporary Virginians — were clearly delineated in a pungently philosophical vein, that exhibited the influence of the master mind which looked at reasons and motives and at broader questions than mere petty vain-glory and personal ambition. Her powers of observation were here at their maximum of efficiency because this was her own native heath; and the characters were those with whom she was more at home than with the over-educated and morbidly sensitive men and women who lived and died with " The Descendant" and drew breath in her " Phases of an Inferior Planet."
The scene of the first half of the later novel was laid at Kingsborough, — readily recognized as Williamsburgh, Va., — a town which " dozed through the present to dream of the past, and found the future a night-mare," and the latter half in Miss Glasgow's native town of Richmond. The characters too were those she knew from childhood. There was the old Judge, a genuine and noble Virginian gentleman, from his classic head to his ill-fitting boots "; General Battle, " a colonel during the war but raised to the rank of general by the unanimous vote of his neighbors on his return home"; Miss Chris, his amiable sister, who had never surrendered and was " happy for forty years with a broken heart "; Eugenia, a sweet and capable heroine; and the hero, Nick Burr, a rufus-headed son of the people, a member of that well-known Southern sect known as the poll white trash," yet with genuine ability and infinite perseverance. His progress from the shiftless ranks in which he was born to the powerful upper class of the gentry, constituted the motive and force of the tale. From the time when he interrupted a conversation between the kind-hearted Judge and his own tobacco-chewing father with the remark that " There 's nothin' in farmin', I 'd ruther be a judge,' to the moment when he reached the governmental chair, by means of his own sterling merit and indomitable will, the progress of Nick Burr was replete with those perfectly human and logical events which belong to the life of the individual who is determined to be in the front ranks of those who enter the fierce political strife. It was "the survival of the fittest " exemplified in present-day Virginian life.
The negro element was of course subordinate, but lent a picturesque background and furnished some wit and still more humor. There were Uncle Ish and Aunt Verbeny, who gave vent to many delightful bits of unintellectual philosophy. One was that it was evident that it was a civil war, because when the Yankees rode up to the house and their hostess came out smiling and giving them welcome, they stood there bowing and scraping, and it was "Es civil as if dey 'd come a' cotin'."
With " The Voice of the People " Miss Glasgow had remained at home, and it was good that she had done so. She had written the manuscript only when in the mood for it, and it was therefore well done, and thoroughly well done. Her method of work is to write when the spirit is upon her, and then to write as long as she feels physically and mentally fit; thus her periods of work vary from one to three, four and often twelve hours a day, although the latter is quite unusual. " The Descendant " was written in a year, but she worked at it fitfully, sometimes leaving off for a full month. To each of the two subsequent books she devoted two years of study and of careful preparation.
At present she is engaged in the construction of a novel dealing with the Civil War and the Virginian life of that period. It is to treat not only of the events which transpired during the four years of conflict, but also of those just previous to the out-break of hostilities. From one who is such a careful and exact reasoner it will be interesting to view the final resultant, and see whether or not it will be colored with partisan feeling or will give a broad and unbiased opinion of those events which are still fresh in the memories of many Virginians. In view of the recent triumph of " The Çrisis," the outcome will be most interesting to the world of letters.