This essay argues that Ellen Glasgow's 1925 novel Barren Ground is an attempt to adapt literary realism, perennially viewed as the handmaiden of liberal individualism, to an age in which individualism was being replaced by more corporate and associational paradigms. To do so, Glasgow modifies the bildungsroman, one of the most pervasive permutations of the realist novel, to narrate two revolutionary histories: the story of its heroine's development of a communitarian outlook and sense of herself and the story of the realist novel shedding its individualism-inflected past. The essay contends that Barren Ground's three parts—“Broomsedge,” “Pine,” and “Life-Everlasting”—correspond both to different stages in the heroine's development and to different phases in the history of the Anglo-American novel. Through examining Glasgow's novel in relation to her other writings, contemporary trends in literature and philosophy, and, more briefly, more recent debates in political philosophy, the essay demonstrates that Glasgow was much more cosmopolitan and historically minded than former treatments of her work (which stress her southern heritage) have led us to believe. Finally, the essay suggests that Barren Ground offers an approach to artistic innovation that differs significantly from the aggressive, iconoclastic experimentation characteristic of the generation of writers just coming into their own at the time of Barren Ground's publication, the modernists.

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