Despite interruptions caused by family circumstances, Ellen Gilchrist has been a writer since the age of fifteen, publishing both fiction and nonfiction in a wide array of genres over more than a half century. Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg on 20 February 1935 and grew up primarily in Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, though her family regularly visited Mississippi. She began publishing a newspaper column but had to give it up at the age of fifteen when her family moved again. She enrolled at Vanderbilt University in 1953, transferred to the University of Alabama in 1954, and then dropped out to marry Marshall Walker in 1955. She and Walker had two sons before they divorced. She subsequently married and divorced James Nelson Bloodworth before remarrying Walker, having another son, and divorcing again in 1963. She then finished a bachelor’s degree at Millsaps College, where she took classes with Eudora Welty.
In 1968 Gilchrist married Frederick Sidney Kullman of New Orleans and resumed newspaper work in 1975 as a contributing editor of the Vieux Carré Courier. The next year she entered the creative writing master of fine arts program at the University of Arkansas, dividing her time between Fayetteville and New Orleans. While she was enrolled, she published her first collection of poems, The Land Surveyor’s Daughter (1979), and her first book of fiction, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981). Her first novel, The Annunciation (1983), soon followed, as did Victory over Japan (1984), a collection that won the American Book Award. Gilchrist has subsequently remained prolific, publishing poetry, fiction (including short stories, the genre for which she is best known, as well as novellas, novels, and historical fantasy), and nonfiction in both books and magazines.
In the Land of Dreamy Dreams introduces Rhoda Manning, an autobiographical character who is paradoxically both spoiled and oppressed by her father. Like her creator, Rhoda is a talented writer with the promise of a career ahead of her, but she drops out of college after eloping, and soon has several children. She divorces her husband but continues to focus most of her energy toward finding a mate rather than on writing. She is never able to overcome her conflict with her dominating father and brother or the resulting belief that her value as a woman depends on the opinions of the men in her life.
Rhoda became Gilchrist’s most popular recurrent character and the prototype for the protagonists of most of the author’s fiction. That prototype evolved in her second novel, The Anna Papers (1988), which features Anna Hand, who fulfills the promise that Rhoda cannot. Though Anna is also unsuccessful with marriage, she does not have children and is a published author who has set her own priorities and disregards familial obligations when necessary, chooses lovers according to her own desires without regard for whether society or her family would approve, and takes her own life rather than succumbing to cancer.
Other recurring characters include Nora Jane Whittington, also introduced in the first collection, and Crystal Manning Mallison Weiss, who is introduced by her African American housekeeper and confidante, Traceleen, the narrator of several stories in Victory over Japan. Gilchrist’s protagonists are divided between manifestations of the original prototype and characters that reflect its evolution. By continuing to create characters with Rhoda’s weaknesses, including women of the next two generations, Gilchrist shows that overcoming gender strictures remains difficult, even into the twenty-first century. Careers may be more accessible and socially acceptable, but southern families continue to emphasize the need for daughters to find appropriate husbands and provide heirs. Even Rhoda, in her sixties in recent collections, such as I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy (2002), has begun to echo her father’s concerns about the consequences of her granddaughters’ rebellious natures. Her two recent works are a collection of short stories, Acts of God (2014), and a collection of nonfiction writing, Things Like the Truth: Out of My Later Years (2016).
Gilchrist never completed her master of fine arts degree but settled in Fayetteville after she and Kullman divorced and in 2001 became a member of the University of Arkansas’s creative writing faculty. She divides her time between Fayetteville and Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
- Margaret Donovan Bauer, The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist (1999)
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture website, www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
- Ellen Gilchrist, A Dangerous Age (2008)
- Ellen Gilchrist, Falling through Space (2000)
- Ellen Gilchrist, “Keeping Houses,” in O: The Oprah Magazine (Summer 2008)
- Mary McCay, Ellen Gilchrist (1990)
- Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks, eds., The History of Southern Women’s Literature (2002)