Lee Smith Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Grundy, Virginia, 1944. Education: Hollins College, B.A. 1967; attended Sorbonne, University of Paris. Career: Feature writer, film critic, and editor of Sunday magazine, Tuscaloosa News, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1968-69; seventh-grade teacher, Harpeth Hall School, Nashville, Tennessee, 1971-73; teacher of language arts, Carolina Friends School, Durham, North Carolina, 1974-77; lecturer in creative writing, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1977-81; member of English department faculty, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1981—. Awards: O. Henry award, 1979, 1981; Sir Walter Raleigh award, 1984; North Carolina award for literature, 1985. Agent: Liz Darhansoff, 1220 Park Ave., New York, New York 10028, U.S.A.
The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed. New York, Harper, 1968.
Something in the Wind. New York, Harper, 1971.
Fancy Strut. New York, Harper, 1973.
Black Mountain Breakdown. New York, Putnam, 1980.
Oral History New York, Putnam, 1983.
Family Linen. New York, Putnam, 1985.
Fair and Tender Ladies. New York, Putnam, 1988.
The Devil's Dream. New York, Putnam, 1992.
Saving Grace. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.
The Christmas Letters: A Novella. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1996.
News of the Spirit. New York, Putnam, 1997.
Cakewalk. New York, Putnam, 1980.
Me and My Baby View the Eclipse: Stories. New York, Putnam, 1990.
Appalachian Portraits, photographs By Shelby Lee Adams. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
We Don't Love with Our Teeth. Portland, Oregon, Chinook Press, 1994.
Lee Smith by Dorothy Combs Hill, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1992; Gender Dynamics in the Fiction of Lee Smith: Examining Language and Narrative Strategies by Rebecca Smith, San Francisco, International Scholars Publications, 1997; Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers by Nancy C. Parrish, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
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Lee Smith has repeatedly claimed that the story is the story-teller's, that people recounting the same event will tell it with drastically different details. The author of numerous novels and several collections of short stories, Smith tells the stories of the "other South": Appalachia, where, Smith writes in a recent article in Women's Review of Books, the only columns were on the Presbyterian church, where there was no once-landed aristocracy, and where there is a long tradition of storytelling and songwriting. As Smith's work has increasingly reflected Appalachian themes, even her novels have become more like collections of stories, stories told by Smith's remarkable narrators, whose varied perspectives on shared experiences undermine any sense of a controlling, transcendent narrative.
Smith's narrators/protagonists are primarily women, and their stories balance self-expression against their duties towards men, their children, and their families. Smith's first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, is the story of Susan Tobey's ninth summer, when her mother leaves the family and Susan is raped. Her mother's departure fractures the traditionally southern narrative of chivalry through which Susan had understood her family. Soon afterwards, Susan gets caught up in another narrative: little Eugene's game of Iron Lung, in which Susan is the sick patient and Eugene and his imaginary friend Arthur are the Iron Lung. Susan realizes that this fiction is wrong, too, that she will be neither the omnipotent queen nor a sick, helpless girl, but where she will go from here is uncertain: she seems to face a kind of material reality, to abandon fictions, but she still perceives little Arthur, and she draws strength from a mythic vision of thirteen wondrous dogs who descend from the mountains.
In Something in the Wind and Fancy Strut, Smith again confronts the confining moors of traditional southern society, particularly as they confine southern women. In Something in the Wind, Brooke Kincaid is raised to be a southern lady, but at college she experiments with ideas and actions she believes are neither "southern" nor ladylike. Brooke's education at college seems to offer her a means of re-imagining herself: late in the novel, Brooke describes her friends' traditional wedding ceremony but laughs as she decides to pursue "new directions." In Fancy Strut, Smith satirizes society in a small southern town, Speed, Alabama. The name is ironic, as are the names of many of the characters: Manly Neighbor, for example, and Iona Flowers, who literally invents genteel details to grace the events she reports on in her social column. In laughing at southern social fictions, Smith reminds us that other directions are possible, but, as in her first novel, those directions remain uncharted.
In Black Mountain Breakdown, Smith begins a novelistic return to the "other South," the Appalachians, though the novel explores familiar themes. Crystal Spangler confronts what Smith has told Edwin T. Arnold is a challenge typical of women: "The way so many women, and I think particularly Southern women, are raised is to make themselves fit the image that other people set out for them." Crystal wins beauty contests and marries the football hero, fulfilling her mother's expectations of her, and she allows her husband to "take care" of her, sacrificing her extraordinary voice as a teacher. In almost every facet of her life, her voice and her desires remain unheard; even after her own uncle rapes her, no one credits her story. By the story's end, Crystal becomes literally catatonic. Though she is silenced, Black Mountain Breakdown contests the narrative that breaks down Crystal: Smith's close third-person perspective recounts Crystal's Appalachian voice, reminding us of an "other South," and the narrative is disrupted by excerpts from the diary of one of Crystal's female ancestors: a voice that offers Crystal an example she does not grasp.
The voices of female ancestors explode into Smith's next work, Oral History: framed by a college student's project to research her Appalachian heritage are stories told by primarily Appalachian storytellers, beginning with Granny Younger's almost mythic account of the original Almarine Cantrell's encounter with Red Emmy and ending with Sally's earthy and delightful story, which begins, "There's two things I like to do better than anything else in this world, even at my age and one of them is talk. You all can guess what the other is." In Oral History, the voices of strong female characters who can and do articulate their desires complement and compete with others' stories, including Richard Burbage's over-educated description of his experiment in Hoot Owl Holler and Rose Hibbitt's spiteful characterization of her failure to win Almarine's heart—the story that creates the local fiction of Hoot Owl Holler's curse. The end result, as Anne Goodwyn Jones has observed, is an absence at the heart of Oral History that is the absence of absolute truth, but everywhere else a wealth of character, stories, and meanings. Nonetheless, we never learn to what extent the knowledge enriches the student's life.
In perhaps a more optimistic novel, Family Linen, Smith employs a similar technique, organizing the perspectives of different family members who interact while the matriarch of the family is dying. The novel examines the relationships that hold families together, and it closes hopefully: with a wedding and with a signifi-cant change in Theresa, another of Smith's female college students. Theresa's new love and new motto, "Irony sucks," suggests that she has connected with her family and renounced the detachment from life that is typical of Smith's least successful female characters.
In Fair and Tender Ladies, an epistolary novel, Smith presents a life's worth of letters penned by Ivy Rowe, who may be Smith's most richly described and extraordinary character. By the middle of the novel, Rowe has achieved the self-reflection to exclaim joyfully, "I am beautiful," but her dying words demonstrate that her consciousness is centered in that beautiful body: "Oh I was young then, and I walked in my body like a Queen." Rowe's goals, perspectives, and voice change throughout her long life, yet she sees herself and accepts herself, though her community labels her as "ruint." By the novel's end, asked why she had written letters even to a sister long dead, Rowe responds, "It was the writing of them, that signified," indicating that the meaning of the letters is more in the act than the product, more in the writer than in the words. Appropriately, Fair and Tender Ladies is more remarkable for its gritty and lyrical storytelling than for its plot. It, too, ends hopefully: Rowe's next-to-last letter is to another of Smith's aspiring educated women, Rowe's daughter Joli, who has taken a Ph.D. in English and still corresponds meaningfully with her mother.
In The Devil's Dream, Smith further emphasizes the lyricism of Appalachian storytelling, presenting the perspectives of the members of a mountain family whose roots parallel the development of country music. More obviously than elsewhere, in The Devil's Dream, Smith interweaves fiction and fact, family history and regional history, once again subverting categories of fiction and thereby emphasizing the role of the speaker, who gives it meaning. And again, in The Devil's Dream, we see a successful, articulate female character, Katie Cocker, a country rock star, whose daughter remains close to her. Saving Grace, Smith's subsequent work, examines the life of Florida Grace Shepherd, who abandons her domineering father's serpent-handling religion to marry Travis Word, who believes in salvation by work rather than by grace of God. Florida Grace eventually rejects Travis Word and his philosophies, returning to the beliefs of her youth—absent the influence of her father while she rediscovers a relationship to her dead mother.
In focusing upon modern southern womanhood, Smith writes in the tradition of Eudora Welty and evokes comparisons with the work of Bobbie Ann Mason and Kaye Gibbons. Her work demonstrates that concocting fictions is a part of everyone's life, that articulating desires and fears is an important part of understanding one's self and a particularly challenging aspect of life as a southern woman.