Ellen Douglas, a Mississippi-born writer whose novels explored the uneasy, sometimes surprisingly tender alliances between black and white women in the American South, died Wednesday at her home in Jackson, Miss. She was 91.
Her son Brooks Haxton confirmed her death.
Ellen Douglas was the pen name of Josephine Ayres Haxton, whose first novel, “A Family’s Affairs,” drew praise from critics on its publication in 1962 by Houghton Mifflin.
That book, as many of Douglas’ later novels would, explored the epochal divide between the Old South and the New, examining vast, difficult subjects — race relations, tensions between the sexes, the conflict between the needs of the individual and those of the community — through the small, clear prism of domestic life.
The domestic life in question was usually enacted by women, often middle-class white women and their black maids, joined in wary comradeship through shared household rituals. The word “domestic,” both as adjective and noun, was an almost audible subtext in Douglas’ work.
In “A Family’s Affairs,” which centers on three generations of women in the first half of the 20th century, Douglas was concerned with the construction and perpetuation of mythologies — the small ones that percolate within families and the large ones spun by entire societies — and the role that myth plays in rendering the past opaque.
The making of myth, and in particular its use as a homemade anesthetic for Southern white guilt, was a theme to which she would return repeatedly.
Throughout her career, Douglas was praised for her unflinching yet sympathetic characterizations, and for her ear for the nuances of Southern speech as it varied across the races and the sexes.
She was also known as a fluid stylist. Because much of her work was set in Mississippi, critics reflexively compared it to William Faulkner’s, an analogy that caused her no small irritation over time. She preferred to cite the Czech novelist Milan Kundera as an abiding influence.
While Douglas’ work embodied elements of Southern Gothic, in later books it also embraced more experimental elements. In “The Rock Cried Out” (1979), for instance, a Klansman confesses to a killing in a prolix soliloquy delivered over CB radio (it ranges over more than 20 pages in the finished book), a narrative device that did not find favor with every critic.
What ultimately informed Douglas’ later work was a postmodern concern with the shifting reliability of narration — and, by extension, the essential uncertainty of truth itself.
Her other novels include “Apostles of Light” (1973), about the fate of an elderly Southern woman, which was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1974.
In “Can’t Quit You, Baby” (1988), probably her most highly regarded novel, Douglas examined the relationship between Cornelia, an aging white woman of unimpeachable self-imposed propriety, and her black maid, Julia, familiarly known as Tweet.
Cornelia, who is hard of hearing, is also figuratively deaf to the hard realities of Tweet’s life. But as the novel progresses and Cornelia endures the first deep reversals in her own life, the complex bond between them sustains her in unexpected ways.
Reviewing the novel in The New York Times Book Review, playwright Alfred Uhry, the author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” called it “a haunting examination of the lives of two memorable women.”
Josephine Chamberlain Ayres was born on July 12, 1921, in Natchez, Miss., and reared in Hope, Ark., and Alexandria, La. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Mississippi, at which she later taught writing for many years.
She adopted the pen name Ellen Douglas before the publication of “A Family’s Affairs” to protect the privacy of two aunts, on whose lives she had based much of the plot.
Her other books include the novel “A Lifetime Burning” (1982); “Black Cloud, White Cloud” (1963), comprising novellas and short fiction; and “Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell” (1998), a volume of autobiographical nonfiction.
She was the subject of “Conversations With Ellen Douglas” (2000), a collection of interviews edited by Panthea Reid.