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Doris Betts Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Statesville, North Carolina, 1932. Education: Woman's College, Greensboro, North Carolina, 1950-53; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1954. Career: Journalist, Statesville Daily Record, 1950-51; Chapel Hill Weekly and News Leader, 1953-54; Sanford Daily Herald, 1956-57. Editorial staff, N.C. Democrat, 1961; editor, Sanford News Leader, 1962. Lecturer of creative writing, 1966-74, associate professor of English, 1974-78, professor of English, 1978-80, and since 1980 Alumni Distinguished Professor of English, University of North Carolina. Director, freshman-sophmore English, 1972-76; Fellows program, 1975-76; assistant dean, honors program, 1979-81; and faculty chair (elected), 1980-83, University of North Carolina. Visiting lecturer, Duke University, 1971; member of the board, 1979-81, and chair, 1981, Associated Writing Programs, National Endowment for the Arts. Awards: G.P. Putnam-U.N.C. Booklength Fiction prize, 1954; Sir Walter Raleigh Best Fiction by Carolinian award, 1957, for Tall Houses in Winter, 1965, for Scarlet Thread; Guggenheim fellowhsip, 1958; North Carolina Medal, 1975, for literature; Parker award, 1982-85, for literary achievement; John dos Passos award, 1983; American Academy of Arts and Letters Medal of Merit, 1989, for short story; Academy award, for Violet. Honorary D. Litt.: Greensboro College, 1987, and University of North Carolina, 1990; D.H.L., Erskine College, 1994. Member: National Humanities Center, 1993. Agent: Russell and Volkening, 50 West 29th Street, New York, New York 1001, USA.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Tall Houses in Winter. New York, Putnam, 1954; London, Gollancz, 1955.

The Scarlet Thread. New York, Harper, 1964.

The River to Pickle Beach. New York, Harper, 1972; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Heading West. New York, Knopf, 1981.

Souls Raised from the Dead. New York, Knopf, 1994.

The Sharp Teeth of Love. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Short Stories

The Gentle Insurrection. New York, Putnam, 1954; published as The Gentle Insurrection and Other Stories. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

The Astronomer and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1966; BatonRouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. New York, Harper, 1973; published asBeasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories. New York, Scribner, 1998.

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Film Adaptation:

Violet, adaptation from her own short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim."

Manuscript Collection:

Boston University, Boston.

Critical Studies:

The Home Truth of Doris Betts, North Carolina, Methodist College Press, 1992; Doris Betts by Elizabeth Evans, New York, Twayne, 1997.

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Doris Betts's writing is deeply informed by her religious sensibility, not in a dogmatic or didactic sense but in the way of one who asks important questions about good and evil, life and death, and who finds meaning in the universe and in the ways people respond to it. The biblical story of Job's much-tried faith could be considered a touchstone for Betts, and her fiction concerns similar trials in the 20th-century South, particularly North Carolina. Her earliest work tends to probe these philosophical questions in a somewhat programmatic way, as in "Mr. Shawn and Father Scott" in her first collection of short stories, The Gentle Insurrection. But four decades later in her novel, Souls Raised From the Dead, Betts's mature insights and highly developed techniques make her work incandescent with wisdom about the human condition.

In her second novel, The Scarlet Thread, Betts uses the experiences of the rapidly rising and dissolving Allen family of a North Carolina mill town to probe questions of human suffering. Through Thomas, the middle child, Betts explores the origins of evil. Thomas, from childhood on, exhibits anger and cruelty that culminate in the physical and mental abuse of his fragile wife, Nellie. One naturally wonders what made Thomas so, and one could respond that it was his belief that his siblings were "favored" both by life and their parents; his feelings of frustration and powerlessness were alleviated only through the power of cruelty. Betts, though, does not allow us to accept such a simplistic causal chain because Thomas's childhood and family are at least as good, and probably better, than those of most people around him, particularly the "mill children" and even his own siblings. His sister, Esther, responds to a jilting by leaving town and founding a new life. His brother, David, an artist in a world of philistines, pulls himself out of a life of drift backed by his parents' money to accept the challenge of learning the art of stone carving. Betts seems to suggest that even though all meet adversity in one sense or another, it is the individual's response to it that reveals whatever happiness is possible.

Betts's third novel, The River to Pickle Beach, continues to engage the question of human suffering through the contrasting responses of a married couple, Jack and Bebe Sellars. Jack responds to life's uncertainties with reserve and caution. He learns, plans, and avoids as much as he can, but his anxieties about the future will not let him enjoy the present; when he and Bebe embark on a new life as managers of a small beach resort, his fear of the impending visit of the owner's retarded relations blocks his own exhilaration at their new venture. It also prevents him from sharing Bebe's pleasure in the world of ocean and beach since Bebe meets life with optimism and joy, despite such disappointments as her childlessness. Jack's old army buddy, Mickey McCane, however, uses his rough childhood as the son of a disappearing and whoring mother to justify his need for power through the sexual degradation of women. When Bebe rejects his advances, Mickey does not learn that his demeaning attitude bars him from any meaningful relations with women but instead seeks the phallic power of guns on the easy target of the physically and mentally defective visitors whom, he subconsciously fears, represent his real self.

Abduction by a criminal who calls himself Dwight Anderson is the trial for North Carolina librarian Nancy Finch in Betts's fourth novel, Heading West. What started as a kidnapping becomes an opportunity for Nancy to escape not only Dwight but her self-made bonds to her elderly mother, epileptic brother, and spoiled sister. Nancy chooses to "head west" with him, bypassing some possibilities of escape, since she seems to fear her trivialized servitude to her family more than this dangerous criminal; she is learning that all he can do is kill her quickly as opposed to the slow death her "normal" life has become. She tests herself through her grueling flight from Dwight in the Grand Canyon and emerges victorious; he plunges to his death in an attempt to make himself feel powerful by controlling her with taunts and threats. Throughout her captivity, Nancy has attempted to find out what made Dwight so manipulative, affectless, and dehumanized—essentially to confront the problem of evil—and she continues to investigate his background as she heads back east alone. She learns that he was the "bad twin" raised by a crazed and begging grandmother; his brother, however damaged, has remained law-abiding. Again, Betts suggests that it is not circumstances, but the response to them that makes the man or woman and that even the horrors of an abduction have the potential for good in one who can learn from them.

What many would regard as the ultimate horror or evil, the death of a child, is Betts's subject in her fifth novel, Souls Raised from the Dead. Over the course of the novel, lively, intelligent Mary Grace Thompson dies of chronic renal failure, and those around her are tested like Job. As she always has, Mary Grace's mother escapes into her narcissistic world of men, mobility, and beauty rituals. Her father, Frank, a policeman who has seen much evil and suffering, must come to terms with Mary's illness, an adversary that cannot be confronted and vanquished by physical force. Unlike Mary's mother, Frank overcomes his tendency to avoid emotional situations in order to stand by Mary and to meet his commitments to life and work, friendships and family. His mother, Tacey, has always been a religious woman, but now her faith meets and surmounts, however tentatively, its ultimate challenge, surviving a grandchild who should have survived her. As this novel so painfully yet inspiringly suggests, for Betts we all have the potential to be "souls raised from the dead" no matter how life—and our situations in it—deny our circumstances.

—Veronica Makowsky

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