Ellen Douglas Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Josephine Ayeres in Natchez, Mississippi, 1921. Education: The University of Mississippi, Jackson, B.A. 1942. Family: Married Kenneth Haxton in 1945 (divorced); three sons. Career: Writer-in-residence, Northeast Louisiana University, Monroe, 1978-82, and since 1982 University of Mississippi; visiting professor, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1984; Welty Professor, Millsaps College, Jackson, 1988. Awards: Houghton Mifflin fellowship, 1961; Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1979; Fellowship of Southern Writers award, 1989. Agent: R.L.R. Associates, 7 West 51st Street, New York, New York 10020, U.S.A.
A Family's Affairs. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1961; London, Cape, 1963; Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Where the Dreams Cross. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Apostles of Light. Boston, Hougton Mifflin, 1973.
The Rock Cried Out. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1979; London, Virago Press, 1990; Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
A Lifetime Burning. New York, Random House, 1982; London, Bodley Head, 1983.
Can't Quit You, Baby. New York, Atheneum, 1988; London, ViragoPress, 1990.
Black Cloud, White Cloud. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998.
Uncollected Short Story
"On the Lake," in Prize Stories 1963, edited by Richard Poirier. NewYork, Doubleday, 1963.
The Magic Carpet and Other Tales. Jackson, University Press ofMississippi, 1987.
University of Mississippi Library, Jackson.
Conversations with Ellen Douglas, edited by Panthea Reid. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
* * *
Ellen Douglas's novels, written over a period of 30 years, have consistently dealt with the South, with relationships between the individual and family, between men and women, and between blacks and whites. Never adopting a programmatic feminist stance, Douglas has nonetheless consistently made clear the difficulties faced by women in the world of Southern gentlemen and rednecks. Never adopting a stance of political activism, Douglas has also consistently stressed the close, complex, and ambiguous relationships between black and white Southern women. Throughout works notable for strong and sensitive characterizations, Douglas has created plots which test such humanistic values as love, responsibility, and respect for tradition against the impersonality, arrogant individualism, and materialism of the contemporary New South.
Her first novel, A Family's Affairs, won a Houghton Mifflin fellowship and was named one of the New York Times best novels of 1962. The novel focuses on the Anderson family during the years 1917-1948, when Kate, the family matriarch, dies at the age of 85. At the novel's center are five women: Kate, her three daughters, and a granddaughter. It is Anna through whose eyes we experience the family crises which make up the novel's plot—crises which usually result from the feckless behavior of the daughters' husbands and Kate's son. Their egocentric individualism contrasts with the women's sense of responsibility to the family and with what Anna calls at the end of the novel "the habit of moral consciousness."
Anna figures in one of the two novels and both of the short stories which form Black Cloud, White Cloud, Douglas's second book.
Here Douglas concentrates on the responsibilities of Southern whites to their black servants; the works attest to the complicated relationships between the races, acknowledging the guilt whites feel for their oppression of blacks and the difficulty of redeeming their relationships despite shared pasts.
Where the Dreams Cross is Douglas's weakest novel, attacking in obvious and easy ways the bigotry and greedy materialism of the New South's politicians and the empty-headed frivolity of Old and New Southern belles by contrasting those vices with the virtues of the beautiful but hard-drinking, scandalous but morally responsible heroine. Apostles of Light, however, deservedly won a nomination for the National Book award. Douglas here sensitively portrays the plight of the elderly, revealing the frustrations of her heroine, Martha, as, first, her mind and body begin to betray her, and as, eventually, her relatives begin to betray her as well. Torn between their sense of responsibility for Martha and their fear that she will become a financial burden to them, her relatives convert the old family mansion into a profitable nursing home, the ironically named Golden Age Acres. Douglas's powerful and contrasting characterizations of Martha with the home's villainous manager, who treated the elderly residents as prisoners, provide the novel's tension.
The Rock Cried Out won praise in the popular press for its portrayal of a young man's loss of innocence and for Douglas's original handling of elements of the Southern Gothic tradition. The novel chronicles the return of Alan McLaurin to Mississippi after years in Boston and his discovery that the car wreck which caused the death of his first love, Phoebe, was the result of a Ku Klux Klansman's bullet. The Klansman's confession of his crime during a 25-page monologue on the CB in his truck (which McLaurin overhears) marks a flaw in Douglas's narrative technique and strains the reader's credulity. However, McLaurin's maturation (his youthful idealism is gradually replaced by a worldly cynicism) is handled well, and Douglas portrays vividly the tensions in the South between both races and classes during the civil rights era. Here too Douglas reveals her angry sense that technology and materialism have replaced tradition values in the New South.
A Lifetime Burning takes the form of the diary of a 62-year-old English professor, Corinne, who discovers her husband George's infidelities and who writes in order to understand her own blindness, to make sense of what she had thought a "good" life with him, and to leave a record for their grown children. In the course of the six months during which Corinne keeps her diary, she first writes an absurdly comic (and perhaps false) account of George's affair with "The Toad," worries that his distaste for her aging body has motivated that affair, and eventually writes of George's affair with "The Musk-Rat," a male intern at the hospital where George practices. As critic Carol S. Minning has noted, Corinne's first diary entry makes it easier for her to accept the second, the comic anticipates the more shocking, the false anticipates the true. Throughout the novel invention anticipates confession; in dream begins reality. In Douglas's novel, as in the epistolary novels of the 18th century, Corinne writes so that she may find an order to the chaotic facts her life lacks; in her diary she seeks to illuminate the truth of human mystery, her own, her husband's, and her family's.
Douglas followed a collection of classic fairy tales, The Magic Carpet and Other Tales, with her best novel, Can't Quit You, Baby. It tells the stories of two middle-aged women, Cornelia—sheltered, privileged, white, and deaf—and her black servant, Julia or Tweet—experienced, vital, and enduring. As the women work at common household tasks in Cornelia's house, Julia's stories of her violent and poverty-ridden past awaken Cornelia's memories of crises in her own past. Julia's courage eventually helps Cornelia to survive the death of her husband, to endure her own grief, to live, and to help Julia sustain herself during a subsequent crisis. The novel also assesses the difficulties of story-telling; given the "deafness" of listeners such as Cornelia (or of the reader), how is a narrator such as Julia (or Douglas) to be heard? Intelligent, comic, and poignant, the novel validates the early claim of the New York Times Book Review that Douglas is "one of the best … American novelists."
—David K. Jeffrey