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Ellen (Louise) Gilchrist Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1935. Education: Vanderbilt University, Nashville; Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi, B.A. in philosophy 1967; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1976. Has three sons. Career: Broadcaster on National Public Radio 1984-85; also journalist. Awards: Mississippi Arts Festival poetry award, 1968; New York Quarterly award, for poetry, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1979; Prairie Schooner award, 1981; Mississippi Academy award, 1982, 1985; Saxifrage award, 1983; American Book award, 1985; University of Arkansas Fulbright award, 1985; Mississippi Institute Arts and Letters award, for literature, 1985, 1990, 1991; O. Henry Short Story award, 1995. LHD, University of Southern Illinois, 1991.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Annunciation. Boston, Little Brown, 1983; London, Faber, 1984.

The Anna Papers. Boston, Little Brown, 1988; London, Faber, 1989.

Net of Jewels. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Faber, 1992.

Anabasis: A Journey to the Interior. Jackson, University of Mississippi, 1994.

Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Faber, 1994.

Sarah Conley. Boston, Little, Brown, 1997.

Short Stories

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams: Short Fiction. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1981; London, Faber, 1982.

Victory over Japan. Boston, Little Brown, 1984; London, Faber, 1985.

Drunk with Love. Boston, Little Brown, 1986; London, Faber, 1987.

Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. Boston, Little Brown, 1989;London, Faber, 1990.

I Cannot Get You Close Enough: Three Novellas. Boston, LittleBrown, 1990; London, Faber, 1991.

The Blue-Eyed Buddhist and Other Stories. London, Faber, 1990.

The Age of Miracles: Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 1995.

Rhoda: A Life in Stories. Boston, Little Brown, 1995.

The Courts of Love: Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 1996.

Flights of Angels: Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 1998.

The Cabal and Other Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 2000.

Collected Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 2000.

Plays

Television Plays:

A Season of Dreams, from stories by EudoraWelty, 1968.

Poetry

The Land Surveyor's Daughter. Fayetteville, Arkansas, Lost Road, 1979.

Riding Out the Tropical Depression: Selected Poems 1975-1985. New Orleans, Faust, 1986.

Other

Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist. Boston, Little Brown, 1987; London, Faber, 1988.

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Critical Studies:

Ellen Gilchrist by Mary A. McCay. New York, Twayne, 1997; The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist by Margaret Donovan Bauer. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1999.

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Ellen Gilchrist is one of America's best contemporary fiction writers. Throughout her work, some characteristics remain constant. Usually presented from a woman's point of view, the fiction includes convincing male figures. Gilchrist satirizes the foibles and arrogance of both sexes. Her women are not better than men, but their notably bad behavior is more often presented positively—as a sign of strength, a refusal to be victimized, or a daring determination to get pleasure through an outrageous act or verbal exchange. Most of her characters are self-centered, and their egoism can have both positive and negative effects. Gilchrist frequently employs an ironic juxtaposition of agony and comedy. Her stories usually present a series of scenes, with heavy use of dialogue and relatively little narrative comment. The stories generally close abruptly after a climactic episode. Narrators are either the main character, speaking in the first person, or an emotionally detached and critical observer. The settings, frequently in the South, include New Orleans, the rural Louisiana Delta, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas—although some stories in recent books take place in San Francisco, in Maine, and even in Istanbul.

In her first two volumes of stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory over Japan, Gilchrist includes a number of stories exploring the drug culture, alcoholism, diet faddism, and prescription drug abuse. The early stories include some of great violence. Among the early stories related to drugs are "The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society," which presents child-pushers; "The Gauzy Edge of Paradise," which focuses on drug faddists (a topic pursued later in "The Last Diet" in Drunk with Love); and "Defender of the Little Falaya." In some of these, Gilchrist skillfully contrasts the disorientation and hilarity induced by drugs with the dullness of the individuals' lives in their lucid states. Victory over Japan includes two sequences of compelling stories: one focusing on the engaging ninteen-year-old Nora Jane Whittington, introduced in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, and the other on Crystal Weiss, who "manages to have a good time" while detesting her rich lawyer husband, Manny. "Miss" Crystal gains a sympathetic dimension, because in four of the stories she is seen through the eyes of her tolerant black maid, Traceleen, the only fully-developed black person in Gilchrist's work. Gilchrist's strengths throughout all of her collections of short stories lie in comic satire and the creation of highly memorable characters. Her satire sometimes misfires in its harshness or repetitiveness, as in her predictable sniping at religion, and she tends to overuse stereotypes—Jewish lawyers, sex-starved wives, black servants, Chinese-Americans, nuns, and tennis players at country clubs. Such stereotypical minor characters function effectively in many of the satiric stories but lessen the impact of the two novels. In The Annunciation Amanda sustains the novel well in her childhood and early adolescence as she innocently enjoys incest and as she suffers a nightmarish and life-changing cesarean at the age of 14. In the final chapters, Amanda also responds with a moving and dramatic range of emotion to the challenge of bearing a child in her forties after more than twenty-five years of infertility. But Amanda is unconvincing both in her conversion to scholarly research at the University of Arkansas and her affair with the working-class student who makes love as beautifully as he plays the guitar. This novel possesses many of the strengths of the stories: forceful scenes, aggressive, stubborn, reckless characters, interesting eccentrics, and abundance of dialogue. In two stories in Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle ("The Song of Songs" and "Life on Earth") Gilchrist has recently provided alternative endings for The Annunciation, which should revive interest in the novel. Gilchrist's second novel, The Anna Papers, lacks the orderly structure of the first. It breaks into several episodic narratives, punctuated by letters, journal notes, and other fragments that comprise the papers of the author Anna Hand. Anna discovers she has cancer, returns home to Charlotte, North Carolina for a final year, and then drowns herself. Her dutiful sister, Helen Abadie, with reluctance and resentment, is sorting through Anna's papers as Anna's literary co-executor. The informing presence of Anna, the pointed statements and questions she left behind in her papers, the re-creation of her life by the friends who gather for a memorable six-day wake, the appearance of the New England poet, Mike Carmichael (literary co-executor with Helen) and—most of all—the surprising and refreshing renewal of the deadened life and spirit of Helen Abadie blend sorrow, anger, and comedy in The Anna Papers.

Anna Hand is central in Gilchrist's other recent fiction: in "Anna, Part I" in Drunk with Love and in all three novellas (Winter, De Haviland Hand, Summer in Maine) collected in I Cannot Get You Close Enough. She appears also in many references in the other recent publications, especially in Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. The titles of these last two books by Gilchrist are provided by Anna in her papers, and both refer to the conflict between individualism and connection with others. The words, quoted near the end of A Summer in Maine, are Anna's last words and were addressed to her lover, the "married physician": "I cannot get you close enough …. We never can get from anyone else the things we need to fill the endless terrible need, not to be dissolved, not to sink back into sand, heat, broom, air, thinnest air. And so we revolve around each other." The words imply not only her recognition of the failure of this love affair and of her year's efforts to forge strong bonds within her family before her death, but also her recognition of universal human inability to fully relate to others. Similarly, she chooses Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle to be the title of her "one last book." The title implies again that one is a separate and inconsequential particle in the universe, but it also suggests that one can tenuously or temporarily identify the self with the great waves of nature and of human history. The first two novellas in I Cannot Get You Close Enough chronicle Anna's two major efforts to establish solidity in her unstable family. Winter recounts her journey to the slums of Istanbul to expose the irresponsibility of Daniel Hand's wife, Sheila, in order to assure Anna that custody of her niece, Jessica, now 15, will remain with the Hand family. Jessica, a beautiful and talented pianist and dancer, is a slow learner and despises school. The second novella, De Haviland Hand, describes Anna's efforts, including a trip to a Cherokee community in rural Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to prepare the way for Daniel's other 15-year-old daughter, Olivia de Haviland Hand, to join the Hand enclave. (Spring Deer, Olivia's mother, died during childbirth, after her brief marriage to Daniel. Daniel was never notified of Olivia's existence.) Olivia has grown up fearing sex and childbirth as precursors of death, and consequently shuns the attention of boys. Achievement in horseback riding and getting high grades in school have become obsessions. She decides eventually to follow Anna by choosing a career as a writer and also to become a famed research scientist. At the close of A Summer in Maine, Jessica is pregnant and enters an ill-advised marriage. Olivia cries out that, if she is not accepted by Harvard, she will, like Anna, drown herself. This novella allows Gilchrist to gather at the rented house in Maine several figures from New Orleans who appeared memorably in her earlier books. They include the Weiss family (Miss Crystal, her husband, Manny, their children, King and Crystal Anne, their maid Traceleen and her niece, Andria); Lydia, a painter; Noel, an aging actress, who fears possible publication of her intimate correspondence with Anna Hand; and Alan Dalton, a handsome tennis player who causes estrangement between Lydia and Miss Crystal. The formerly inhibited and unimaginative Helen Abadie and the poet/literary co-executor arrive (as lovers), adding to the gossip and excitement in this novella. In other recent books, Gilchrist rewards faithful readers by returning to still more familiar figures. For example, in Drunk with Love Rhoda Manning appears at different ages—childhood, puberty, adolescence, and early marriage—in "Nineteen Forty-one," "The Expansion of the Universe," and "Adoration." Traceleen returns in a monologue, "Traceleen at Dawn," comically recalling Miss Crystal's attempt to quit drinking. In The Anna Papers Miss Crystal and Phelan Manning and other longtime companions enliven a six-day wake. In Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle Rhoda Manning again dominates three stories: as a child in "The Time Capsule," an adult in "Blue Hills at Sundown," and as a 53-year-old woman, "having run out of men" in the very long story, "Mexico." Rhoda, her brother, Dudley, and cousin Saint John attempt to prove in several days in Mexico that they can still have as wild a time as in their youth. The story, however, includes three sobering events: their attendance at a bull-fight, Rhoda's reckless arranging of a liaison with the champion matador, and a disastrous visit to Dudley's insecurely fenced compound, where wild animals are procured by thrill-seeking hunters. In the end, Rhoda finds herself, as in childhood, angry and dependent on her brother, but always willing to take risks for pleasure and excitement. Nora Jane Whittington, the anarchist, bandit, and lover of Sandy in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory over Japan, also returns in the title story of Drunk with Love—pregnant and with two lovers. She gives birth to twins in "The Starlight Express" in Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, a story in which Gilchrist also introduces her most intriguing new character, a Chinese geneticist, Lin Tan Sing, who will surely reappear in another volume.

In just five years, from 1995 to 2000, Gilchrist produced no less than six story collections. Not only Rhoda: A Life in Stories but The Courts of Love, half of which consisted of a novella, drew on previously established characters and situations, offering the reader a satisfyingly tactile experience of Gilchrist's fictional world. The tales in Flights of Angels, too, primarily concerned the Manning family and touched on familiar themes and locales. The title story of The Cabal concerns a tightly knit group that controls the social life of Jackson, Mississippi, and it introduces characters that reappear throughout the book. Thus these collections function, essentially, as novels; but Gilchrist also produced a novel in the traditional sense, Sarah Conley. In this, the story of a 52-year-old journalist and National Book Award winner torn by competing relationships and loyalties, she made a refreshing break from the well-worn circles of her earlier work.

—Margaret B. McDowell

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