When Houghton Mifflin awarded Josephine Ayers Haxton a fellowship for her first novel, A Family’s Affairs (1962), she assumed the pseudonym Ellen Douglas to protect the identity of her maternal aunts, whose lives had inspired the plot. Her cover was soon blown when her story “On the Lake” appeared in the New Yorker and friends Betty and Hodding Carter recognized the boating accident as a fictionalized version of an incident that had occurred when Haxton was fishing with her sons.
Born in Natchez on 12 July 1921, Josephine Ayers grew up in small towns in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana as her family moved to follow her father’s civil engineering career. Ayers’s literary life was nurtured by her mother, who read to her every night, and her paternal grandmother, who wrote children’s books. Books began broadening Douglas’s world early on. She devoured William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe in high school and W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green, and Richard Wright’s Native Son in college, while her first serious boyfriend plied her with texts ranging from Ten Days that Shook the World to The Decline of the West. Ayers enrolled at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1938 but transferred to the University of Mississippi and graduated in 1942 with a degree in sociology. Although her parents lived and breathed the southern segregationist worldview, undergirded by a strong Presbyterian faith, Ayers’s horizons expanded considerably when she encountered a liberal sociology professor at the University of Mississippi who directed her honors thesis on tenant farming.
In January 1945 Ayers married composer and musician Kenneth Haxton and moved with him to Greenville, where he managed his family’s department store, Nelms and Blum, and collaborated in creating Levee Press, which produced limited editions of works by Faulkner, Welty, and William Alexander Percy. The Haxtons raised three sons in Greenville and enjoyed a literary society that included poet Charles Bell, newspaper editor Hodding Carter, historian Shelby Foote, novelist Walker Percy, and literary agent Ben Wasson. During the volatile 1960s, when her husband publicly supported the peaceful integration of schools, Haxton used their home to host a historic meeting of black and white women to advise the welfare department about setting up a day care center. Shortly after the couple divorced in 1980, Douglas moved to Jackson, and she subsequently taught and was a writer in residence at Northeast Louisiana University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Virginia, and Millsaps College.
Black-white relationships became a very important subject for Douglas as early as her second book, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), which included the novella “Hold On,” a longer version of “On the Lake,” a story for which Douglas won the O. Henry Prize. Drawing inspiration from Faulkner, Douglas planted all of her fiction firmly in Mississippi (her Homochitto is based on Natchez and her Philippi on Greenville), but she used as her models such great nineteenth-century realists as Flaubert, Dostoevsky, James, and Tolstoy, consciously reacting against the gothic and mythic elements in Faulkner’s work. Douglas admired Welty but found her “too idiosyncratic a writer” to serve as an influence; instead, Douglas turned to Katherine Anne Porter to validate her preoccupation with complex family relationships. Douglas’s reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique helped shape her views about gender relations, which dominate the plot of her second novel, Where the Dreams Cross (1968). A concern with the way America warehouses the elderly and infirm became the subject of her third novel, Apostles of Light (1973).
Interviewers always seemed to press Douglas about how her life relates to her art. And while she was willing to talk about personal influences in her fiction, she politely but firmly pointed out that where readers see people and places, a writer also sees an artistic “problem”: conflicting stories and messy emotions that have to be shaped with the conventions of fiction and worked out within or against a literary tradition. In explaining her narrative choices, Douglas repeatedly said that “each project has its own reasons, so that the reason you do something is because it works in that project.” Interest in her work has increased because of the narrative versatility evidenced in her experimental novels, The Rock Cried Out (1979), A Lifetime Burning (1982), and Can’t Quit You, Baby (1988), and in her hybrid collection, Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell (1998). Douglas attributed her growing ability to match form and content in these later works to her reading of metafiction, particularly Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
The Rock Cried Out features embedded narratives and focuses on a white youth’s naïveté about his family and his community during the 1960s; A Lifetime Burning, written in the form of a journal, concerns a wife’s misunderstanding of her marriage as well as her own sexuality; and the metafictional Can’t Quit You, Baby explores a white woman’s self-deception in her relationship with her African American maid. But these novels are also about writing fiction. Contemporary theories about positionality and America’s ongoing problems with race relations made Douglas especially sensitive about her characters’ and her own difficulty not only in understanding someone who is different but also in fully understanding their own experiences. Douglas said that over the years she had “gotten more and more interested in what’s true and what isn’t true and how impossible it is to recognize the truth or to tell the truth or to read a book and know it’s true.” By finding just the right form for her books, Ellen Douglas sought to share with her readers her preoccupation with truth and moral responsibility.
Ellen Douglas died at her home in Jackson in 2012.
- Ellen Douglas, interview by Suzanne Jones (19 June 2004)
- Margalit Fox, New York Times (12 November 2012)
- Southern Quarterly (Summer 1995)
- Panthea Reid, ed., Conversations with Ellen Douglas (2000)