In 1926 Elizabeth Madox Roberts, a 45-year-old former schoolteacher from Springfield, Kentucky, published her first novel. The Time of Man came out to great acclaim; it was reviewed widely, admired here and abroad by writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Glenway Wescott, and Sherwood Anderson, and became a bestseller. Her second novel was also a success, and as Robert Penn Warren wrote in a 1963 appreciation of her, “By 1930, with the appearance of The Great Meadow, her fourth novel, it was impossible to discuss American fiction without referring to Elizabeth Madox Roberts.”
At the time of her death eleven years later, however, she had lived “past her reputation and her popularity,” he adds, and she remains little read today. She has fallen into the slough of Regional Writer, a term generally used for someone of ability but not genius, someone most appreciated by the people whose region and history he depicts. With rare exceptions it is only in Kentucky that Roberts is still remembered and still read, but here at least we are preserving the memory of a novelist and poet who is no less extraordinary for being obscure.
The Time of Man is the story of Ellen Chesser, the daughter of itinerant white sharecroppers, whom we first meet as a girl of 14. She works hard, has little education, owns almost nothing and knows very few people. “Things to put in drawers and drawers to put things in, she would like, and people to say things to,” Roberts writes.
What Ellen possesses lies within her. She has a strong sense of herself, and a strengthening conviction that she is alive and vital in this world. It is this innate assurance of her own value, however small that value may be or narrow in scope, that sustains her through heartbreaks of one kind and another. This is a novel with a plot, but the book is chiefly the story of the soul of this one good woman. Its focus is narrow. The secondary characters are memorable but are not portrayed at any length; with some telling details we get a line drawing of them, uncolored. Ellen’s world is small, because it is the world of a poor woman whose transportation is generally her own two feet. But we are given all the expanse of Ellen’s mind and spirit, as she grows up and matures in understanding, and all in a book written in a beautiful style, studded here and there with the vivid speech of rural Kentucky from the turn of the twentieth century.
While far-reaching books can have their own genius, the best portrayals of character often come from writers saturated with the knowledge and love of a specific place and its people-—Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri; Wendell Berry’s Port Royal, Kentucky; William Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi (now there are some regional writers for you). Rooted books, if they are any good, contain a record of a place’s speech and folkways that is valuable in and of itself. They are the fictional counterpart to heirloom seeds, because they contain a historically important record of a people whose lives and language might otherwise be lost to memory. If The Time of Man were less beautiful than it is, it would still be valuable as one of these records, being full of the rhythm of farmwork as it wasonce done without gasoline, and of the social mores of its characters, who look so much more than they speak. And when they do talk, Roberts has distilled and preserved some of their iambic, natively poetic speech.
Locally rooted as the book is, like all first-class pieces of fiction it transcends its character and setting with the universality of its appeal. We can understand Ellen because we recognize part of ourselves in her, whether or not we have ever been poor, ever farmed, or ever been female. To give one example: Roberts understands (or remembers) very well the ebb and flow of mood in a young person’s mind and recalls beautifully the ages-old loneliness that only the very young feel. Other stages of life have their own depressions, but no one ever again feels as ancient as he did as a teenager.
Roberts writes beautifully, too, of the quick expansions of spirit Ellen feels from time to time, moments of gratitude for a bird’s song, a neighbor’s friendship, even the conviction she could draw her own strength from the hard rocks she is resting upon. Ellen never permanently loses her capacity for joy, and this is part of her attractiveness both to her fellow characters and to the reader. This quality in her makes this often tragic story an essentially happy one.
So, if this is such a good book, why have you never heard of it? I can only guess. Except for her college years in Chicago, Roberts never lived in a big city or taught at a well-known university. She was not part of any literary circle; though the Southern Agrarians admired her, she preceded them (I’ll Take My Stand appeared in 1930, and most of its contributors were a good bit younger than she).
Penn Warren believed Roberts fell out of fashion so soon after her success because she wasn’t political in the thirties’ fashion. In The Time of Man she writes about a sharecropper in as un-Marxian or un-Rooseveltean a manner as possible. The struggle in this book is between Ellen and Life (as Roberts described it elsewhere), not Ellen and The Man, or Ellen and The Company. Roberts is not interested here in the wider world of political or economic injustice, or even social injustice, though the book has its moments of social cruelty. That men and women will treat each other unjustly is something she takes for granted. She occupies herself instead with what Ellen makes of the life she is dealt—the kind of life she can wrest from the stones she is sometimes given for bread.
I would guess that for similar reasons Roberts was not rediscovered by the woman’s movement in the 1970s (or later). Ellen is too true to her traditional life and her flawed husband, and while she is victimized she is too assuredly loyal and self-sufficient ever to be a victim. She is instead one of the great Everymen of fiction, like Ulysses or Kim or Huckleberry Finn, and while I would not compare any writer to Homer, Roberts stands up very well to Twain. If she had written nothing else—and despite a lifetime of illness and an early death, she published 12 volumes of poetry and fiction—for this book alone she deserves to be read and remembered.
Katherine Dalton lives in New Castle, Kentucky. She writes regularly for Chronicles magazine, and was a contributor to Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky, 2007).