When writer Ellen Douglas died at the age of ninety-one last November, she left behind an impressive body of fiction, including one novel, Apostles of Light, that was a National Book Award nominee.
After publishing her first novel at the age of forty, she went on to have a distinguished career, publishing works of fiction that earned critical acclaim.
Her death took me back to a time when I was fortunate to take a writing class with her. A newspaper article announced that Douglas would teach creative writing at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe during the spring 1979 semester.
I was living in Alexandria and working as a sportswriter for the Daily Town Talk. I had been noodling around with a novel ever since taking a writing class with Walker Percy at LSU four years earlier.
Every Wednesday, I made the two-hour drive to Monroe, sat through ninety minutes of class, and drove home. Sometimes I caught rides with a high school teacher who also took the class. As the miles bumped by, we took comfort from the thought that Douglas herself drove two hundred miles round trip each week from her home in Greenville, Mississippi, to meet us.
Douglas, who was fifty-seven then, was a pleasant-looking woman with a low, accented voice and a calm, soothing presence.
“People have the illusion that writing fiction is something they already know how to do,” she told us on the first day of class. “But different techniques and craft are required from those used in daily writing. The business of telling a story is not the business of expressing ourselves.”
She quoted a remark she had read in a “Dear Abby” column: “Small minds talk about people, mediocre minds talk about things, and great minds talk about ideas.”
Then she demolished the notion. “For a writer that is rubbish,” she declared. “Gossip is the stuff that novels are made of.”
In our discussions of my work, her main concern—and mine!—was plot. Why does the young woman do this and not that? Why is this man so relentlessly evil? I found her scribbled comments tersely expressive: “Hang in there.” “I will be interested to know where you go with all this.” “Onward and Upward.”
By the end of the semester, it was clear that the class was enamored of its teacher. Several students took gifts to the last class, and we celebrated the end of the semester with dinner at a local restaurant.
A few months later, I wrote an article about Douglas for the Town Talk. We met for lunch in Alexandria, where I set a tape recorder among the dishes and we talked at length.
Douglas was the pen name of Josephine Ayres Haxton, who was born in Natchez, Mississippi, and grew up in Louisiana and Arkansas. The family moved to Alexandria when Josephine was ten. She graduated from Bolton High School, attended Randolph Macon in Virginia, and finished college at Ole Miss in 1942.
“Faulkner was there,” she recalled. “You saw him on the square looking very reserved and impenetrable. People in Oxford paid no attention to him [as a writer]. They called him Count No Count and made fun of him.” But she and her circle of friends read and admired his work, most of which was already out of print.
She remembered “creative writing” as one of her favorite courses at Ole Miss in Oxford, but she didn’t think of pursuing a career in it at the time. “I was too busy looking for a husband, as most young girls were then,” she said with a wry smile.
After graduating at age twenty, she returned to Alexandria and lived with her parents while working at Camp Livingston. She also did something unusual for a woman then—she learned to fly a plane.
“I didn’t have to spend much money to live at home, so I took flying lessons,” she recalled. “It never crossed my parents’ minds to suggest that this was a foolhardy, unfeminine, or dangerous thing to do. I wanted to learn to fly, so I went out and learned to fly.
“I was fortunate to have a father who cared about the education of his daughters. He was an engineer and a devout Presbyterian. They wanted me to achieve and excel. That was the Presbyterian in them: You take your talent and don’t bury it.”
She met Kenneth Haxton, a writer and composer, at Ole Miss and married him in 1945. They lived in his native Greenville, where they raised three sons. (They would divorce thirty-five years later.)
Douglas told me she had published her first novel, A Family’s Affairs, in 1961, when she was forty. Seven years earlier, she had been casting about for something to do. The youngest of her three sons had started school, and she had long since decided “I wasn’t a bridge player or a garden-club lady.”
But she was a writer of impressive talent, although it took a chance wager to reveal this—even to her. A “frivolous” discussion one evening with her husband and a friend resulted in a three-way bet as to which of them could complete a short story.
“That got me back into the habit of writing,” she said. “It took me two or three months to finish it, because I’m very slow. But I realized then that was what I wanted to do.”
A self-admitted slow worker, she said, “I write for two or three hours a day. After that my brain gives out!”
After six years of “sitting down at the typewriter every day,” she had written a novel she considered an apprentice work. “I thought I’d lay it aside after I learned what I could from it.”
A visit from Charles G. Bell, a Mississippi friend and poet who taught at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., started the wheels turning toward publication. He took her manuscript back to Annapolis. When an editor asked him for novel manuscripts for the Houghton-Mifflin Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Fellowship competition, Bell submitted his own novel and that of Douglas.
“[The editor] telephoned me and said he wanted me to enter [my novel],” Douglas told me. “I didn’t really want to. I wasn’t happy with it.”
Several calls later, the editor told her, “Look, all I can say to you is, if you will enter your manuscript in our competition, it has won.”
“In that case, I’ll reconsider!” she told him.
“It was just that I didn’t take seriously the possibility of being published,” said Douglas. “It didn’t happen to people like me.”
She used a pseudonym to keep her private life separate from her literary one. “My paternal grandmother was named Ellen. She was a writer of children’s stories, very good ones. Douglas was suggested by my editor. I wanted a Scottish name, because my parents both have Scottish backgrounds.”
A Family’s Affairs was named one of the five best novels of 1961 by the New York Times and nominated for the National Book Award.
Much of our conversation over lunch was focused on her latest novel at the time, The Rock Cried Out, due out in September of 1979.
She set The Rock Cried Out in Mississippi during the civil rights strife of the Sixties. She recalled summers when scores of black churches were bombed. Her own activities, though modest, were often too liberal for the comfort of her conservative community. She worked to register black school children in the all-white elementary schools. “We were liberal for that time, but you could be liberal for that time and be a Neanderthal,” she said dryly.
The Haxtons became friendly with Hodding Carter Jr. when he moved to Greenville to start his newspaper the Delta Democrat-Times. “Greenville was a kind of oasis,” she recalled. “We had a good newspaper, and that created a climate of safety. Many young people who worked in voter registration came to Greenville for R&R. I think it was largely a result of having Hodding own the paper. Over the years, he made a consistent effort to educate public opinion. You couldn’t beat anybody up at the jail and get away with it. The paper would be down there to find out what was happening, and the next day it would be on the front page and you’d be sorry.”
Douglas’s works include Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), Where the Dreams Cross (1968), Apostles of Light (1973), A Lifetime Burning (1982), A Long Night (1986), The Magic Carpet and Other Tales (1987), Can’t Quit You, Baby (1988), Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell (1998), and Witnessing (2004). Among many honors, she was awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
She confessed that being labeled a southern writer could be onerous. “I think of myself as an American writer who lives in a particular place. Most writers don’t have to drag a whole section of the country along behind them like we [southern writers] do.
“People in the South have more of a sense of the complexities of human life, the ambiguities of moral problems. It’s more of a Jewish sensibility, that we drag our history behind us, so to speak, and that our tragedies have their comic side.”
Ruth Laney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.