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Mary Lee Settle Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Charleston, West Virginia, 1918. Education: Sweet Briar College, 1936-38. Military Service: Women's Auxiliary, R.A.F., 1942-43. Career: Editor, Harper's Bazaar, 1945; English correspondant, Flair, 1950-51; associate professor, Bard College, New York, 1956-76. Visiting lecturer, University of Virginia, 1978. Awards: Guggenheim fellow, 1958, 1960; Merrill Foundation award, 1975; National Book award, 1978, for Blood Tie; Janet Heidinger Kafka prize, 1983, for fiction; Academy award in literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1994.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Love Eaters. New York, Harper, and London, Heinemann, 1954.

The Kiss of Kin. New York, Harper, and London, Heinemann, 1955.

Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday (originally part of the Beulah Quintet). New York, Viking, 1964; London, Heinemann, 1965.

The Clam Shell. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Bodley Head, 1971.

Blood Tie. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Celebration, illustrated by John Collier. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Hutchinson, 1986.

Charley Bland. Franklin Center, Pennsylania, Franklin Library, 1989.

Choices. New York, Talese/Doubleday, 1995.

Beulah Quintet Series:

O Beulah Land. New York, Viking, and London, Heinemann, 1956.

Know Nothing. New York, Viking, 1960; London, Heinemann, 1961.

Prisons. New York, Putnam, 1973; as The Long Road to Paradise, London, Constable, 1974.

The Scapegoat. New York, Random House, 1980.

The Killing Ground. New York, Farrar Straus, 1982.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Congress Burney," in Paris Review, 7, 1954-55.

"The Old Wives' Tale," in Harper's Magazine, September 1955.

"Paragraph Eleven," in The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett. New York, Duell, 1966.

"Coalburg, Virginia: One of the Lucky Ones," in While Someone Else Is Eating, edited by Earl Shorris. Garden City, Doubleday, 1984.

Other

All the Brave Promises: The Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. New York, Delacorte, and London, Heinemann, 1966.

The Story of Flight (for children), illustrated by George Evans. New York, Random House, 1967.

The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. New York, Watts, 1972.

Water World (for children). New York, Dutton, 1984.

Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place. New York, Prentice Hall, and London, Grafton, 1991.

Addie. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

*

Critical Studies:

"The Searching Voice and Vision of Mary Lee Settle" by Peggy Bach, in The Southern Review, 20(4), October 1984; "Mary Lee Settle and the Tradition of Historical Fiction," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, 86(3), Summer 1987, and "Mary Lee Settle and the Critics" in Virginia Quarterly Review, 65(3), Summer 1989, both by Brian Rosenberg; Understanding Mary Lee Settle by George Garrett, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1988; "Mary Lee Settle: 'Ambiguity of Steel"' by Jane Gentry Vance, in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, The University Press of Kentucky, 1989; Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom by Brian Rosenberg, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

* * *

"First you're an unknown," Martin Myers once observed, "then you write one book and you move up to obscurity." After more than a dozen books spread over four decades, Mary Lee Settle, one of the most large-minded of American novelists, still languishes in relative obscurity, and the fault lies with the prejudices of contemporary criticism.

Out of reviewers' compulsion to impose order by corralling art within the convenience of labels, Settle, like equally undervalued southerners Elizabeth Spencer and George Garrett, has been shoved under the blanket of "southern writer," where she fails to meet imposed expectations. Why, critics demand, can't she be more baroque, like Faulkner, or tender, like Carson McCullers? Or, since her best-known work, the Beulah Quintet, is historical fiction, why can't Settle whisk us into the gothic romantic world of Margaret Mitchell?

Yet, Settle's fascination with the past, far from the exotic escapism of genre historical fiction, embodies nothing less than the quest to define the American character through a minute exploration of how it came to be formed. The picture that to this point emerges is a braided paradox: A national character shaped on the one side by hope and on the other by memory, each looking, Janus-like, in opposite directions, each guided by its own myth. On the one hand, Settle's America is founded by protean souls looking forward, to freedom, for a better life, willing to mortgage their past for a happier future. Simultaneously, its oedipal side wishes desperately to know who it is, which can only be discovered by learning where it came from.

The origins of the Beulah Quintet, which chronicles the saga of the Lacey, Catlett, and McKarkle families from the 1640s to 1980s, lie in the hero of the fourth-written of the quintet, Promises. Jonathan Church, fired by democratic passion for freedom, had rallied to Oliver Cromwell's rebellion against the Stuart monarchy. However, when he, like those later romantics who would at first cheer the French Revolution, grows disenchanted with Cromwell's own arrogance and refuses to bow before him, twenty-year-old Church is executed in 1649.

Church's illegitimate son (by Church's aunt) emigrates to that part of the Ohio River Valley in Virginia that would later become part of West Virginia. In O Beulah Land, set in the years preceding the American Revolution, Church's descendant, Jonathan Lacey, settles at Beulah and achieves for a time the vision of freedom of his English ancestor. Over ensuing decades, the Laceys blend into the melting pot Beulah had become, and Settle picks up their story next in Know Nothing, in which Johnny Catlett, master of Beulah Plantation, under family pressure fights for the Confederacy. The next Beulah novel, The Scapegoat, focusing on less than one day's time in 1912, provides a wealth of richly refracted inner experience in lives caught up in the early days of labor organizing at the Lacey family's Seven Stars Coal Mine. The final piece of the quintet, The Killing Ground (which expands upon and is meant to replace the earlier Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday), clarifies the pattern evolving over the whole as descendent/novelist Hannah McKarkle, whose books bear the same titles as Settle's, comes home to Canona, West Virginia (near Beulah and strikingly like Charleston) to investigate her brother Johnny's death and, while there, explain her novels.

Whereas Settle's first two novels, Kiss of Kin and The Love Eaters, were also set in Canona and contain characters who appear in the Beulah Quintet, her Blood Tie, winner of the 1978 National Book Award, is set in Turkey. Yet it, as well as the weaker Celebration (1986), shares the quintet's attention to the need to grasp the past, even the ancient past. So too do Settle's two most recent novels, quite possibly her best: Charley Bland and Choices. The outward shape of these novels could not be more different, the former being a close-up focusing on one small, ill-fated love affair, the latter a panoramic sweep over a long and remarkable life.

We know from the first pages of Charley Bland that the love affair between the unnamed narrator and Charley is doomed. The lovers are enmeshed in an inviolable triangle, where character lacks strength and compassion enough to permit love to survive. "He won't marry you, you know, he never does," a woman calls out to the narrator. She'd known it from the start. In 1960, sixteen years after she'd run off with a British airman and become almost immediately widowed, the narrator returns to West Virginia.

Waiting there is the dissolute Charley Bland, the town's forty-five-year-old ladies' man. Two decades earlier, he had been the romanticized focus of her dreams. Back then it seemed "all the wild roads led to Charley Bland…. He acted out our dreams of what we could hope to do when we grew up, if we only had the nerve." To her teenaged eyes, the ironically named Bland was so idealized that when he leapt into a pool "his dive was so clean there was only a parting, not a splash."

Though at thirty-five her eyes have matured, they gaze longingly on a past she had thus far rejected. She had cut herself off from her roots and feels desperate to return to them through Charley. He woos her ("Being with you is like being alone"). Knowing that Bland "hated and used women," the narrator nevertheless yields both body and heart to him. But then there's Mrs. Bland, Charley's mother, the third corner of this most familiar of triangles. "It is," the narrator says, "the stuff of jokes, and comic strips, and suicides. It is the mother, and the son, and the woman, whether she is holy, whore, or wife."

Mrs. Bland uses her "charm like a blunt instrument," knowing this woman too will pass and become another autographed photo in the Bland attic, leaving herself at almost eighty to hold her middle-aged son as securely as any mother with her toddler on a leash. He must return to the mother who trained him in charm rather than character, a cripple caring for a cripple until her death.

Why, then, does the narrator remain in this hopeless love affair? She tells us, "It is when the ordinary becomes luminous that we are transformed." Both Charley and Mrs. Bland are, to her adult vision, ordinary. Even their triangle is ordinary, if heartbreaking. Yet, she allows both the love affair and its tragic course to attain the quixotic luminosity her girlhood eyes would have given them because she feels a desperate need for transformation.

"I am a Southerner," she says, "and there is bred in us, as carefully as if we were prize hounds, a sense of betrayal in leaving our roots." Charley Bland, the hero of her childhood, offers the hope of atonement. He "made the past shine; what he promised without saying a word was neither of our real lives but some mutual hope. The part of me I had not let live was no longer rejected." Faced with a doomed love affair, she is nevertheless in a position where she can scarcely lose. She either fulfills her past with Charley or she gets betrayed, one betrayal atoning for another, and can put her past at peace.

The past of Melinda Kregg Dunston in Settle's Choices (1995), hardly needs to be put at peace, for hers has been an extraordinary and heroic life, which she recollects as spring dawns in 1993 and Melinda, eighty-two, lies dying on the Italian coast. In 1930 Richmond, Virginia, Melinda was a bright and lovely debutante in a world that doesn't reward belles for questioning too closely the established order. Surrounded by beaus who say things like "don't worry about [exploited laborers]. Leave that to ugly women. You're much too beautiful to be high-minded," Melinda began as the naive product of a land where a mind is a terrible thing to waste on a girl.

Her father's suicide changes that. Hoping to leave his family safely rich with his insurance money, he instead turns Melinda away from safety and points her toward service, danger, and a lifetime of championing the oppressed. As she leaves Richmond, her Aunt Boodie extracts a promise that Melinda will keep: "Do everything," Boodie urges.

First, Melinda becomes a Red Cross volunteer and crosses the Kentucky border to feed the starving families of coal miners. Trying to unionize, miners are starved, blacklisted, evicted, jailed, and shot by hired thugs. Melinda sees emaciated girls of twenty bent like old women and signs reading "YOUR DOGS EAT BETTER THAN OUR KIDS," and she herself lands in jail for feeding the hungry. She has lost her innocence. And she has heard from a Kentucky widow another piece of life-defining advice: "My husband used to say you can argy all day long, but when you wake up at three o'clock in the mornin a thing is either wrong or it's right, and either you take a drink or do something about it."

That advice contains the key to the empathy that guides not only Melinda's life but the moral foundation of all of Settle's fiction. Melinda may be, in fact, the personification of all Settle most powerfully believes. The coal mines provide just the first of the battlefields Melinda enters to "do something about it." In 1937, she sails for Spain to wage battle against Franco's fascism, a young woman who can speak Spanish, type, and drive ambulance trucks.

But even Kentucky's gunfire hadn't prepared her for the massive carnage she sees in Spain. Settle shows Melinda stepping over piles of corpses, working to exhaustion beside nuns with the hearts of Madonna and the mouths of sailors, rushing "to take blood from the newly dead and pump it into the veins of the dying"—all in apparent futility, as Franco is copiously supplied by Hitler and Mussolini while the democracies stand idly by. But the British physician she marries reminds her what makes even a losing battle for justice essential: "Tye said anyway. You do it anyway."

Her remaining battles take on more muted, autumnal tones. But she fights them with every bit as much conviction. In London, Melinda comforts victims of V-2 bombings and supports her husband's efforts to launch the National Health Service. Melinda's last active battle fittingly takes place in her native south, in 1965 Mississippi, where she heads into the Deep South as a spy in her own country to find a missing cousin who'd been working for civil rights: "I can go in disguise…. I'll be a white lady with a white mind and white gloves in a black Buick." The scene has changed, and it is now a woman in late middle age fighting, but the battle has always been the same, for the faces of hate, of fear at not being able to hold one's advantage, of rage at being blocked from the pursuit of happiness, are the same wherever she's been.

Though Choices 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: "The day her heart refused to creak and break a little," Melinda thinks, "was the day she wanted to be dead."

So, the study of the past has brought Settle to an understanding of the present as a place where the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice must always be fought because in that fight, even when it appears futile or even suicidal, lies the key to love and the meaning of life within the human community. In one way or another, all of Settle's most realized characters have sensed that. And the best of them, like Melinda Kregg Dunston, base their lives on it.

—Andy Solomon

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