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Settle, Mary Lee 1918–2005

Settle, Mary Lee 1918–2005

PERSONAL:

Born July 29, 1918, in Charleston, WV; died of lung cancer, September 27, 2005, in Charlottesville, VA; daughter of Joseph Edward (a civil engineer) and Rachel 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; died 1998), September 2, 1978; children: Christopher Weathersbee. Education: Attended Sweet Briar College, 1936-38. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian.

CAREER:

Novelist, writer, editor, and journalist. Worked as a model and actress in New York, NY, 1938-39; Harper's Bazaar, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1945; freelance writer, beginning 1945; Flair magazine, English correspondent, 1950-51; American Heritage, New York, NY, editor, beginning 1961; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York associate professor, 1965-76; visiting lecturer at Iowa Writer's Workshop, Iowa City, 1976, and University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1978. Also 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.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

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.

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.

Books published in omnibus as The Beulah Quintet, 1988.

OTHER

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.

Addie (memoir), University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1998.

Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.

Learning to Fly: A Writer's Memoir, edited by Anne Hobson Freeman, W.W. Norton & Company (New York, NY), 2007.

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. Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, Paris Review, and Argosy.

SIDELIGHTS:

American novelist Mary Lee Settle was 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 received perhaps less recognition than she rightly deserved, 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 genre, O Beulah Land initially drew little critical attention.

Know Nothing, the second novel published in the "Beulah Quintet," takes place during the years leading to the U.S. Civil War.

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.

"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: Memories of Aircraft Woman Second Class 2146391, 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."

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," wrote a Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor. "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 looked 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. 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."

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 overlong, but had high praise for the second half, which explores Hannah's motivations for writing. "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 contributor Wendy Smith as a "joyful and serene novel about a group of expatriates in London." New York Times contributor 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 took a minor character from The Killing Ground and delved into his life. She also explored 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, noted 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."

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 contributor 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 contributor 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. However, he called Turkish Reflections "a luminous exception, a fully inhabited travel book."

Settle seemed 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 related 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 contributor. "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 went 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, observed: "Williams comes to complex life as a passionate, vibrant figure." Harris added: "The writing is magnificent as Settle captures the passion of the religious and political battles in which Williams was involved."

Settle's last two books were Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present, published in 2004, and Learning to Fly: A Writer's Memoir, published in 2007, two years after the author's death from lung cancer. In Spanish Recognitions Settle recounts her solo trek through Spain while she was in her eighties. She not only recounts the sites she visited and people she met but also much of Spain's history. Referring to Spanish Recognitions as a "graceful memoir," a Kirkus Reviews contributor went on to write that the author is a "sympathetic and understanding guide." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted: "With this engaging, lucid recollection, personal, but not self-centered, she's the perfect guide for a vicarious journey."

A Publishers Weekly contributor called Learning to Fly "a delightfully literate recounting of a life lived to its fullest." Settle began the memoir two years before her death in 2005, and the story begins where her earlier memoir, Addie, left off. The reader sees Settle in 1938 at the age of twenty, determined to become an actress as she heads off for a theater apprenticeship. In the memoir, Settle sets forth the rest of her life as she ends up in New York City and then in London during World War II. She goes on to describe her life as she dedicates herself to becoming a writer. Katherine A. Webb wrote in the Library Journal that the author's "memoir reveals a woman of sharp, uncompromising intelligence and wit." Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post Book World: "That her life ended with this quite wonderful little book, with its vivid descriptions of London at war and its keen observations about the writer's life and craft, makes for a happy ending indeed."

In an interview with Wendy Smith, contributor to 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 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:

BOOKS

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.

PERIODICALS

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, review of The Scapegoat, 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; February 15, 2004, Brad Hooper, review of Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present, p. 1024.

Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2001, Ron Charles, review of I, Roger Williams, p. 18.

International Travel News, July, 2004, Chris Springer, review of Spanish Recognitions, p. 94.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of Spanish Recognitions, p. 1442; June 15, 2007, review of Learning to Fly: A Writer's Memoir.

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; March 1, 2004, Travis McDade, review of Spanish Recognitions, p. 96; August 1, 2007, Katharine A. Webb, review of Learning to Fly, p. 88.

Nation, November 8, 1980, Robert Houston, review of The Scapegoat, pp. 469-471; August 21-28, 1982, J.D. O'Hara, review of The Killing Ground, 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, Rosellen Brown, review of The Scapegoat, pp. 37-39; June 16, 1982, Gail Godwin, review of The Killing Ground, pp. 30-32.

Newsweek, November 10, 1986, review of Celebration, p. 84.

New Yorker, September 16, 1991, review of Turkish Reflections, p. 96.

New York Times, August 18, 1977, Anatole Broyard, review of Blood Tie; October 22, 1980, Anatole Broyard, review of The Scapegoat, p. 19; October 4, 1986, Michiko Kakutani, review of Celebration, p. 13.

New York Times Book Review, October 26, 1980, Roger Shattuck, "A Talk with Mary Lee Settle," p. 1; July 11, 1982, Aaron Latham, review of The Killing Ground, p. 1; October 26, 1986, William Boyd, review of Celebration, p. 14; October 22, 1989, David Leavitt, review of Charley Bland, p. 12; July 14, 1991, Roderick Conway Morris, review of Turkish Reflections, 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; September 2, 2007, Alex Kuczynski, "Frankly, My Dear," review of Learning to Fly, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly, October 10, 1986, Wendy Smith, "Mary Lee Settle," interview with author, 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; January 12, 2004, review of Spanish Recognitions, p. 48; June 18, 2007, review of Learning to Fly, p. 49.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 1998, review of Addie, p. C2.

South Atlantic Quarterly, summer, 1987, review of Prisons, pp. 229-243.

Southern Review, spring, 1989, Brian Rosenberg, "The Price of Freedom: An Interview with Mary Lee Settle," p. 351.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 8, 2001, Roger Harris, review of I, Roger Williams, p. 4.

Times Literary Supplement, April 10, 1992, Andrew Mango, review of Turkish Reflections, p. 28.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 23, 1986, review of Celebration, p. 5; November 26, 1989, review of Charley Bland, p. 6; June 30, 1991, Joseph Coates, review of Turkish Reflections, p. 6; June 18, 1995, review of Choices, p. 6.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1989, Brian C. Rosenberg, "Mary Lee Settle and the Critics," pp. 401-417.

Washington Post Book World, September 2, 2007, Jonathan Yardley, "A Novelist Tells How She Fared as a ‘Premature Anti-Fascist’ during World War II," p. BW15.

OBITUARIES:

PERIODICALS

Antioch Review, March 22, 2007, Alan Cheuse, "Classics of the Future."

Guardian (London, England), October 10 2005, "Mary Lee Settle."

New York Times, September 29, 2005, Anita Gates, "Mary Lee Settle, 87, Author of ‘Beulah’ Novels, Is Dead."

Washington Post, September 29, 2005, Matt Schudel, "Novelist Mary Lee Settle; Founded PEN/Faulkner Award," p. B7.

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