Settle, Mary Lee 1918-
SETTLE, Mary Lee 1918-
PERSONAL: Born July 29, 1918, in Charleston, WV; daughter of Joseph Edward (a civil engineer) and Rachel (Tompkins) Settle; married Rodney Weathersbee, 1939 (divorced, 1946); married Douglas Newton (a poet and journalist), 1946 (divorced, 1956); married William Littleton Tazewell (a columnist and historian), September 2, 1978; children: Christopher Weathersbee. Education: Attended Sweet Briar College, 1936-38. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian.
ADDRESSES: Home—544 Pembroke Ave., Norfolk, VA 23507. Agent—Roberta Pryor, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Novelist. Worked as a model and actress in New York, NY, 1938-39; Harper's Bazaar, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1945; freelance writer, 1945—. Flair magazine, English correspondent, 1950-51; American Heritage, New York, NY, editor, beginning 1961; Bard College, associate professor, 1965-76; visiting lecturer at Iowa Writer's Workshop, 1976, and University of Virginia, 1978. Founder of PEN-Faulkner Award, 1980. Wartime service: Women's Auxiliary Air Force, 1942-43; Office of War Information in England, writer, 1944-45.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowships, 1958, 1960; award from Merrill Foundation, 1975; National Book Award, 1978, for Blood Tie; Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, honorable mention, 1981, for The Scapegoat, and award, 1983, for The Killing Ground; American Academy of Arts and Literature award in literature, 1984; West Virginia Folklife Center Achievement Award, 2003.
The Love Eaters, Harper (New York, NY), 1954.
The Kiss of Kin, Harper (New York, NY), 1955.
Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, Viking (New York, NY), 1964.
The Clam Shell, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1971.
Blood Tie, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1977.
Celebration, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1986.
The Search for Beulah Land, Scribner (New York, NY), 1988.
Charley Bland, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.
Choices, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
Addie, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1998.
I, Roger Williams: A Fragment of Autobiography, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
"BEULAH QUINTET"; NOVELS
O Beulah Land, Viking (New York, NY), 1956, with a new introduction by the author, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
Know Nothing, Viking (New York, NY), 1960, published as Pride's Promise, Pinnacle Books (New York, NY), 1976, published under original title with a new introduction by the author, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
Prisons, Putnam (New York, NY), 1973, published as The Long Road to Paradise, Constable (London, England), 1974, new edition, with a new introduction by the author, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
The Scapegoat, Random House (New York, NY), 1980, new edition, with a new introduction by the author, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
The Killing Ground, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982, new edition, with a new introduction by the author, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
Juana La Loca (play), produced in New York, NY, 1965.
All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman Second Class 2146391 (autobiography), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1995.
The Story of Flight (juvenile), Random House (New York, NY), 1967.
The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes (juvenile), F. Watts (New York, NY), 1972.
Water World (juvenile), Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.
Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place (autobiography), Prentice-Hall (New York, NY), 1991.
Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of six unpublished plays and four unproduced film scripts, 1945-55. Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including The Girl in a Black Raincoat: Variations on a Theme, edited by George Garrett, Duell, Sloan & Pierce (New York, NY), 1966, and Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden, Crown (New York, NY), 1971; and to periodicals, including Harper's, Paris Review, and Argosy.
SIDELIGHTS: American novelist Mary Lee Settle is best known for her five-volume "Beulah Quintet." Spanning a three-hundred-year period, the novels in the quintet trace the development of American cultural and political identity through the histories of three fictional West Virginia families. These three families share a common ancestor, whose refusal to bow to Oliver Cromwell led to his execution during the English civil war of the mid-seventeenth century. Though Settle's works have led some to rate her as "one of the best American novelists," in the words of a Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer, she has received perhaps less recognition than she rightly deserves, in part due to being classified as a regional or Southern writer.
As the daughter of a Southern coal mine owner and civil engineer, Settle had a patrician upbringing. She attended Sweet Briar College for two years, then left for New York City, where she worked as a model and actress from 1938 until her marriage in 1939. When her English husband was called into military service at the beginning of World War II, Settle went to England and served in the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force for a year before transferring to the Office of War Information in London as a writer.
After the war she returned to New York, where she worked briefly as an assistant editor at Harper's before devoting herself wholly to writing. Her decision was precipitated, she would later recall in an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS), by a copy of Wuthering Heights. "I realized that Emily Brontë had written it and was dead by the time she was twenty-eight. I had just turned twenty-seven. So I saw my two ways. Either I would still be sitting there, a well-paid fashion and arts editor at forty, still writing about other people's accomplishments, or I would plunge into the precarious world of writing myself." She returned to England, and "wrote from 1945 to 1954 without publishing anything but the journalistic pieces that I did to live on." Far from regretting her years as a journalist, however, Settle once told CA that journalism is "the best training in the world. During that time I learned how to meet deadlines; I grew up as a get-it-on-the-page journalist who could research enough to write 5,000 lively words about anything in a few days."
During these years Settle wrote six unproduced plays and four unproduced film scripts before finally turning her hand to a novel. Her first published novel, The Love Eaters, was actually the second she had written. That book, as well as her first novel, The Kiss of Kin, were initially rejected by several U.S. publishers, but after British publisher Heinemann accepted The Love Eaters, both novels quickly found publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. These and O Beulah Land, the first novel of the "Beulah Quintet" to be written—although second in the storyline's chronology—reflect several years of research at the British Museum into the history of the West Virginia region where Settle grew up, and of the English immigrants who settled there. "I knew when I began that it would be more than one book," Settle later told CA, "but I didn't expect that it would keep me busy for twenty-five years." Her idea was to set forth "the sort of social and political impulses that formed America—the reasons many of our forebears came here." Out of any given 100,000 settlers who came to Virginia from 1675 to 1775, she noted, 80,000 were probably felons. "It's extraordinary that no Virginian ever seems to have been descended from any of them," she remarked. "They must all have been sterile."
O Beulah Land describes the founding of the fictional West Virginia community of Beulah by Hannah Bridewell, a transported London prostitute, and Jeremiah Catlett, a fugitive bondsman, in the years before the American Revolution. Perhaps because of widespread critical disdain for the historical novel, O Beulah Land initially drew little critical attention. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, however, Charlotte Capers described the novel as "head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries," and added, "The author's research in the British Museum has paid off in the realism with which she invests her characters."
Know Nothing, the second novel published in the "Beulah Quintet," takes place during the years leading to the U.S. Civil War. William Peden, writing in the Saturday Review, felt that the multiplicity of Settle's characters and her "floating point of view" detract from the effectiveness of the novel. Nonetheless, he praised the book's depiction of "the growing tensions between irreconcilable political, social, and moral forces" and the author's "literary integrity and admirable seriousness of purpose."
Publication of Settle's work did not assure her financial stability, and the next ten years were difficult ones. Settle had returned to Charleston in 1955 following the publication of her first two novels. Her second marriage had broken up—in large part, perhaps, because of her sudden literary success. "By 1961," she recalled in CAAS, "I had been left without help or enough money to live on." An editing job with American Heritage in New York City supported her while she wrote what she intended to be the final novel in the "Beulah" series, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. The book, which is now not generally counted as part of the quintet, was not a success. A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement complained of Settle's "hectic, uneven" writing. "Eloquent in many passages it surely is, and interestingly, thoughtfully constructed," admitted Robert M. Adams in the New York Review of Books. The critic nonetheless concluded that Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday is "not focused or resourceful enough to keep the reader content."
"I realized that I had not, as I had hoped, finished the work I had set out to do in 1954," Settle recalled. "A sense of failure, the fatigue of having worked for so long under such circumstances, and the end of the happiness I had hoped for in my personal life, plunged me into despair." She pulled through, however, and in 1965 found a part-time teaching position at Bard College that allowed her to support herself and still have time for her writing.
In 1966 Settle published All the Brave Promises, her memoir of her years in the WAAF. She wrote it, she observed in CAAS, "almost as a protest against the romanticism about the Second World War. The state of war—what the daily deprivation, grayness, drain of loss, and boredom did to people—was being forgotten." Writing in Commonweal, Alan Pryce-Jones commented that "Settle's victory is to show that a nasty experience was not entirely pain; her book, for all its rawness, is the book of a sympathetic and understanding woman. It is also relived with stereoscopic sharpness of outline. I hope it has . . . the success it deserves, among the few really good books to come out of World War II."
Disenchanted with the political atmosphere in the United States, Settle lived in England from 1969 to 1971 and in Turkey from 1972 to 1974, returning to Bard only to teach one semester each year. She wrote her novel Blood Tie after her return to West Virginia in 1974. The story concerns a group of expatriates living in Turkey—"not the wide-eyed, excited expatriate of the '20s," observed Anatole Broyard in the New York Times, "but the culture dropout of the '70s, someone who puts an ocean between himself and his past, who visits a foreign country . . . as a crasher enters a party." He noted of Settle, "Even for an experienced novelist, even for a good writer, she has done a remarkable job of capturing the culture that is, in a sense, the most important character in her book." "It is one of those rare books in which that which is foreign becomes familiar and ceases to be simply strange," George Garrett wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Multiple in narration, Blood Tie was clearly a virtuoso work."
In 1977 Settle left her position at Bard and turned her attention once again to her "Beulah" series. She had written Prisons, the first book chronologically although the third to be published, during her time in Turkey. In that novel, she turns to the England of the seventeenth century in her search for the seeds of American democracy. The Scapegoat, published in 1980, is the fourth novel of the "Beulah Quintet." The plot revolves around a West Virginia coal miners' strike that occurred in 1912; its characters include the historical figure Mother Jones, the United Mine Workers organizer. A reviewer in the Washington Post Book World suggested that Settle's "rather predictable rhetoric is the principal weakness in what is otherwise a powerful, distinctive, novel." Robert Houston, in the Nation, praised the author's attention to the sound of her characters: "Settle makes The Scapegoat a symphony of her characters' voices, captured with an unfailingly attuned ear." He also suggested that the author's avoidance of the popular styles in fiction contributed to her lack of commercial success in her early works. Houston commended the way Settle "has continued to write about such things as justice, the human heart, right and wrong—things it became fashionable to forget." Reviewing The Scapegoat in the Washington Post Book World, Anne Tyler called it "a quiet masterpiece."
The Killing Ground, the concluding volume of the "Beulah Quintet," returns to some of the events of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. The narrator, Hannah McKarkle—descendant of the families who are the focus of the quintet—presents herself as the author of the preceding four volumes. The novel, which brings the series into the present, examines the reasons why Hannah traces her family's history: her desire to make sense of her elder brother Johnny's violent death in jail. Hannah's motivation has something in common with Settle's own description of how she conceived the idea for the quintet. "I had a picture of one man hitting another in a West Virginia drunk tank one Saturday night," she once told CA, "and the idea was to go all the way back to see what lay behind that blow. At first I went back all the way to 1755, then I realized that wasn't far enough, and I went back further still, to Cromwell's England, in Prisons, to trace the idea of liberty from which so much of the American experience sprang."
Describing The Killing Ground as "part slag but part good, sturdy, useful black gold," Aaron Latham, in the New York Times Book Review, found the first half of the novel to be dull and over-long, but had high praise for the second half, which explores Hannah's motivations for writing. Reviewing the novel in Chicago's Tribune Books, Alexandra Johnson admired the "ingenious narrative conceit . . . that Hannah's novels are Settle's, thus updating and consolidating the Beulah saga into one novel." Johnson predicted that The Killing Ground, "so richly told and quietly haunting, [will] undoubtedly send readers scrambling for the earlier novels." "If you know any literate young person whom you wish well," suggested J. D. O'Hara in the Nation, "you might buy him or her a copy of The Killing Ground when you buy your own."
Settle's first work of fiction published after the conclusion of the "Beulah" series was a very different novel. Celebration was described by Publishers Weekly reviewer Wendy Smith as a "joyful and serene novel about a group of expatriates in London." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani found the book's large cast of characters overwhelming, writing that "unfortunately, . . . Celebration begins to feel, at times, like an overcrowded town meeting." Nonetheless, Kakutani affirmed that "Settle has a fine sense of detail, as well as an uncanny ear for verbal inflections."
In Settle's 1989 novel, Charley Bland, she takes a minor character from The Killing Ground, and delves into his life. She also explores the life of the narrator, a novelist who has remained in Europe after wartime service, then returns to her home in West Virginia and has an affair with Charley, whom she has known since childhood. David Leavitt, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said that the author "writes with an acute and occasionally overwhelming consciousness of herself as a Southern writer." Leavitt praised the novel's "precision and emotional power," but concluded that "Settle's haunted obsession with her homeland ultimately frustrates." Monroe K. Spears, in a Washington Post Book World review, called Charley Bland "a lyrical novel, songlike in brevity and emotional intensity, though also richly meditative. . . . The remarkable thing is that the novel manages, in its brief space, to do so many things successfully: to place all the characters precisely in the economy, class system and mythology of the small West Virginia town in 1960-66, to explain the psychological relations of all the main characters, and to set forth a deeply meditated account of the significance of the affair to the narrator."
Settle's novel Choices tells of the rising and falling fortunes of Melinda, a beautiful, intelligent debutante whose father commits suicide in order to ensure his family's financial security. The tragedy drives Melinda away from her protected world, and she sets out for a life far different from the one her father wished for her. Passionately involved in crusading for the oppressed, she joins in relief efforts for the families of coal miners, who are being mercilessly punished for their efforts to unionize and is eventually jailed for her efforts. She later goes to Spain to join in the war against Franco's fascist government, and is shocked by the carnage she witnesses there. Later in life, she serves as a spy in the South for the civil rights movement. The book is "an eyewitness sojourn through the history of our century, the book's artistic magic, typically of Settle, lies in its details, how vividly she gives that history local habitations and names. More than that, though, we grow enrapt by Settle's richly human tapestry woven of wisdom, experience, and compassion around a woman whose heart seems to beat in constant sympathy with the hearts of others," wrote an essayist in Contemporary Novelists. Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper congratulated the author for her "experienced, nimble, and gracious configuring a hero who, at the same time, is a very real person." Choices was also lauded by a Publishers Weekly reviewer who stated: "Written with urgency, conviction and grace, this keenly observed story of one woman's passage through the storms of the 20th century is Settle's best book since the novels in the Beulah Quintet."
Settle's nonfictional Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place is based on her experience of Turkey during her three-year sojourn there in the 1970s and a return visit in 1989. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Roderick Conway Morris described the result as "a diverting mix of travelogue, history, polemic and contemporary portrait." Travel narratives, suggested Joseph Coates in Chicago's Tribune Books, are often too far removed from personal experience for readers to enjoy. But Turkish Reflections he wrote, "is a luminous exception, a fully inhabited travel book." Dennis Drabelle, a reviewer for the Washington Post Book World, commented that Settle's "style has a well-turned simplicity that complements the spare materials of Turkish aesthetics."
Settle seems always to have been writing about places from afar: she wrote of West Virginia while in London and Turkey, of Britain while in America, and of Turkey while in West Virginia. "It's difficult to write a book in the place where it's set," she once told CA. "You have to have relief from the pitch of concentration involved in the writing. If when you get up from your desk you simply go out into the same scenes you're writing about, it's too much. I wrote Prisons in Turkey. I went there simply because I wanted somewhere warm and cheap to write. Then while I was there I gradually became aware of the outsiders living there, and the effect they had on the natives. That gave me the idea for Blood Tie. I didn't write the book in Turkey, of course, but after I came back to Charlottesville." Settle's travels were also the basis of her book Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present.
In Addie: A Memoir, Settle relates her own family's story in a novel-like narrative that is dominated by two very different women: the author's mother, a genteel, determined woman, and her grandmother Addie, an emotional, fiery woman who told Settle about ghosts, took her to a tent revival to heal her eye problems, and in general made a world of myth and poetry accessible to Settle. Numerous other characters, as well as the author's younger self, enliven the pages. "Her mellifluous prose and her novelist's gift for setting scenes and delineating characters keeps this memoir flowing like a clear mountain spring," reported a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "There are places in Settle's capacious book for passion and politics, for social comedy, for the follies and pain of old hatreds, for lasting resentments and enduring gratitudes. Every portrait is three-dimensional," wrote a contributor to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who went on to say that Addie "will stand as a classic American memoir. This reader finished, wept, turned back, and read it plumb through all over again, for Addie is a book to love as well as to read, a book to pass from hand to hand, generation to generation, like a talisman."
Settle goes far back in English history for her next book, I, Roger Williams: A Fragment of Autobiography. This imaginative fictional biography of the life of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, is told from Williams's point of view in his old age. The story takes in his humble beginnings, his tutelage under Sir Edward Coke, an influential jurist, and the many political developments that took place in England during the 1600s. Williams became a clergyman in England, but his dissenting views spelled trouble for him and his family, and he removed to New England in 1630. In Massachusetts, he found the Puritan church of the New World just as corrupt as he had believed England's to be, and he was eventually banished from the colony in the dead of winter. Rescued by native Americans, he eventually went down to the Naragansett Bay and founded the small settlement of Providence. "Settle brilliantly catches the combustible ironies of Williams's character, and they give light to this unusual novel," remarked Ron Charles in Christian Science Monitor. Roger Harris, reviewing the book in the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger, advised: "Williams comes to complex life as a passionate, vibrant figure. . . . The writing is magnificent as Settle captures the passion of the religious and political battles in which Williams was involved."
In an interview with Wendy Smith of Publishers Weekly, Settle commented that Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus contains a fitting summary of her own goals in writing: "My task is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything." Settle has clearly aimed for this result in her fiction and nonfiction alike. Noted Anatole Broyard in a New York Times review, "She writes so well that one sometimes feels lost between illusion and reality, or literature and life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1981, Volume 61, 1990.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Garrett, George, Understanding Mary Lee Settle, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1988.
Rosenberg, Brian, Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1991.
America, November 4, 1989, Patrick H. Samway, review of Charley Bland, p. 302; August 31, 1991, Patrick H. Samway, review of Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place, p. 123; October 7, 1995, Gary M. Ciuba, review of Choices, p. 31.
Antioch Review, winter, 1997, Suzann Bick, review of Choices, p. 109.
Atlantic, October, 1980, p. 101.
Booklist, April 15, 1995, Brad Hooper, review of Choices, p. 1481; April 1, 2001, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of I, Roger Williams: A Fragment of Autobiography, p. 1454.
Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2001, Ron Charles, review of I, Roger Williams, p. 18.
Commonweal, March 31, 1967, p. 58.
Library Journal, June 15, 1989, Barbara Hoffert, review of Charley Bland, p. 82; May 15, 1991, Harold M. Otness, review of Turkish Reflections, p. 101; June 1, 1995, Ann H. Fisher, review of Choices, p. 166.
Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1986; October 27, 1989.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 5, 1980, p. 1; July 11, 1982, p. 1; July 12, 1987, p. 14; June 23, 1991, p. 6.
Mississippi Quarterly, fall, 1985, pp. 391-413.
Nation, November 8, 1980, pp. 469-471; August 21-28, 1982, pp. 150-152; July 10, 1995, John Leonard, review of Choices, p. 67.
National Geographic Traveler, March-April, 1992, Anthony Weller, review of Turkish Reflections, p. 142.
New Republic, December 27, 1980, pp. 37-39; June 16, 1982, pp. 30-32.
Newsweek, November 10, 1986, p. 84.
New Yorker, September 16, 1991, review of Turkish Reflections, p. 96.
New York Times, August 18, 1977, p. 52; October 22, 1980; October 9, 1986.
New York Times Book Review, October 26, 1980, p. 1; July 11, 1982, p. 1; October 26, 1986, p. 14; October 22, 1989, p. 12; July 14, 1991, p. 1; June 25, 1995, Thomas Mallon, review of Choices, p. 23; October 25, 1998, Angeline Goreau, review of Addie, p. 27; April 22, 2001, Caleb Crain, review of I, Roger Williams, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, October 10, 1986, Wendy Smith, interview with Settle, p. 73; June 23, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of Charley Bland, p. 50; April 10, 1995, review of Choices, p. 55; September 7, 1998, review of Addie, p. 74.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 1998, review of Addie, p. C2.
South Atlantic Quarterly, summer, 1987, pp. 229-243.
Southern Review, October, 1984, pp. 842-850; winter, 1988, pp. 13-26; spring, 1989, Brian Rosenberg, interview with Settle, p. 351.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 8, 2001, Roger Harris, review of I, Roger Williams, p. 4.
Times (London, England), February 17, 1983.
Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 1967, p. 339; April 10, 1992, p. 28.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 23, 1980, p. 7; August 1, 1982, p. 3; November 23, 1986, p. 5; November 26, 1989, p. 6; June 30, 1991, p. 6; June 18, 1995, p. 6.
Virginian Pilot, December 6, 1998, "With Typical Ferocity, Mary Lee Settle Examines Her West Virginia Origins," p. J3.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1989, pp. 401-417.
Washington Post, January 15, 1987.
Washington Post Book World, September 28, 1980, p. 1; June 13, 1982, p. 3; November 9, 1986, p. 7; October 15, 1989, p. 4; May 26, 1991, p. 4.*