A review of Understanding Mary Lee Settle, by George Garrett, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 1988, 187 pages.
One useful way to distinguish between types of novelists is to characterize them as either intensive or extensive. An intensive novel, much the more common variety in modern times, deals with a small segment of individual experience and consciousness, wringing from it the maximum psychological meaning. Though it may encompass intensive experiences, an extensive novel, more common in earlier times, paints with a broad brush and achieves social and historical complexity.
When a writer does both of these things at a high level, and can even combine them successfully into a seamless whole, then one begins to think in terms of “great” and “enduring.” This characterization fits Faulkner, Conrad, Hardy, Dostoyevski, and Solzhenitsyn. And, according to the novelist and poet George Garrett, our relatively unknown contemporary American and Southern writer, Mary Lee Settle, will, in the long view, find a place in this company.
Writing of Settle’s The Beulah Quintet, which makes up the largest part, but by no means all, of her work, Garrett says, “No other serious American novelist of Settle’s generation —that generation which came to literary prominence in the years following World War II—has chosen to attempt anything so large and ambitious…. Settle’s remarkable accomplishment stands alone in its time.”
Garrett, in the little handbook to Settle’s work called Understanding Mary Lee Settle, displays in detail why he thinks this is so, in terms of both technical literary achievement and social significance. Though this judgment may not have yet found a home in the most fashionable circles of organized literary culture (there were protests from New York when Settle won the National Book Award for Blood Tie in 1978). Garrett does not stand alone. The critic William F. Ryan writes: “Mary Lee Settle may well be determined as the twentieth century American novelist who most splendidly recorded the passion and ideals of our history.” Writes Roger Shattuck: “The crucial scenes of the series [The Beulah Quintet] give mythic scope to the classic American pioneer story.”
Official modern taste is definitely existential and prefers the intensive to the extensive. It is uncomfortable with fiction that achieves a complexity of social and historical vision. Why this is so is an interesting realm for speculation—perhaps because historical complexity always introduces ambiguity and thus undermines the most fashionable liberal cliches. Just to deal with recent Southern writers, one thinks immediately of the popularity of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, who plow a narrow segment of human experience for all it is worth, with great artistry but without any social or historical breadth, except perhaps inferentially. Among the men, Walker Percy and Reynolds Price fall into the same intensive category. Percy portrays the consciousness and circumstances of the contemporary South perceptively, but nowhere does he achieve much historical depth, at least not without a great deal of exegesis outside of the books themselves. If he did, he would be as good as or better than he is, and much less popular. In The Killing Ground Mary Lee Settle takes up Percy’s theme, the consciousness of the twentieth century Southerner buffeted between heritage and modernity. Because she does so against a deep historical background and without Percy’s intimations of the supernatural, it is possible that she does so more successfully, though in a way that is less accessible and has less broad appeal.
By both the nature of her work and her uneven reception. Settle cannot be likened to O’Connor or Welty. A closer analogy, perhaps, would be Katherine Anne Porter. But a nearer likeness can be drawn to Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, a now almost forgotten giant from the early part of this century and the grandmother of modern Southern writers. Like Settle, she combined the intensive and the extensive into a seamless whole. In The Great Meadow Roberts rendered the American pioneer experience into art as well as it has ever been rendered, and in The Time of Man, which deals with the poorest of white Southerners on the land, she achieved an experiential intensity of such heartbreaking lyrical beauty that, were Americans a people who really valued literature, she would today be a cult figure.
Another likeness can be made to Caroline Gordon, a Southern writer who, like Settle, combined existential intensity and historical vision. As does The Great Meadow, Gordon’s novels of the nineteenth century South, like Penhally and None Shall Look Back, anticipate parts of Settle’s Beulah Quintet in their portrayal of the imperatives and ambiguities of Southern history. None Shall Look Back appeared at about the same time as Gone with the Wind and dealt with the same subject: the experiences of Southern families, especially the women, in the Civil War. Now forgotten, Gordon’s work encompasses ten times the truth and beauty’ of the popular classic.
Settle, who in speeches and interviews has had a good deal to say about the nature of literary reputation, would probably prefer to be forgotten and under-rated like Roberts and Gordon than to suffer the fate of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the last likeness that will be drawn to replace Settle in a developmental perspective. Rawlings resembles Settle in the clarity and unsentimental hard-headedness of her vision of contemporary life and in a career of heroic craftsmanship and perseverance against non- and mis-recognition. Rawlings, a very serious writer, suffered from having her beautiful pastoral story. The Yearling, made into a lachrymose Disney movie, so that ever after she has been thought of, when remembered at all, as a sentimental juvenile writer, something very far from the truth. More recently, her semi-fictional memoir Cross Creek, a profound and honest appreciation of her struggles with nature and of the lives of her white and black neighbors in the Florida “cracker” country, also suffered the Hollywood treatment. The film version of Cross Creek, starring a ludicrously miscast Mary Steenburgen, turned the work into a weird and utterly unfaithful rendering of wimpish feminism meets Tobacco Road. One is thankful that Hollywood has not yet seen 0 Beulah Land or The Scapegoat (from The Beulah Quintet) as hot properties.
Settle’s biography is complex, and is dealt with briefly and sometimes elliptically in Understanding Mary Lee Settle, as it relates to understanding her work. First, is her genteel Southern background (born 1918) centered in Charleston, West Virginia, which as “Canona” is the central place of The Beulah Quintet. This is followed by an incomplete education at Sweetbriar College, a brief stint on the stage, service in England during World War II, a journalistic career, and then a long period of laborious and unrewarded dedication to writing—punctuated by poverty, several marriages, long residences abroad in odd places such as Turkey, and a successful bout with cancer. Finally, in the 1970s, she received a National Book Award, a considerable though mixed critical recognition, and an appointment at the University of Virginia.
One of the things that first must be said about Mary Lee Settle is that her corpus of fiction is so large, so varied, and so good that it cannot be characterized in brief fashion. Like the best writers, or the best anything, she has continually set herself new challenges.
Her literary achievement could, however, be divided into two categories, one typified by the five novels of The Beulah Quintet, and the other by her international or cosmopolitan novels, Blood Tie and Celebration. A considerable portion of her other work can be loosely related to these categories.
Among these books, mention should certainly be made of her World War II memoir, All the Brave Promises: Memoirs of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391 (1966). Settle was an early American volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force. The book is first of all an account of this unusual experience. But Settle’s gifts have made it much more, and it may not be too much to say that there is nothing like it in the literature of the war, certainly not in English. All the Brave Promises achieves a moving universality in plumbing the experiences of Western man (and woman) in the twentieth century, as a cog in an immense, impersonal, and often incomprehensible machine. I can think of no other work of either fact or fiction from the war that succeeds so well on both levels: as vivid personal experience and as allegory. Charles B. MacDonald’s Company Commander equals it in vividness but not in literary skill or philosophical depth. The fictional accounts of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh. and James Jones tell us much about the meaning of the experience but lack the hard edge of reality that marks All the Brave Promises from the first to the last word.
The five novels of The Beulah Quintet constitute an epic of American history through the story of a group of interrelated families who settled in the mountain valleys of what became West Virginia in the eighteenth century. The books were not written in chronological order. Each stands alone as a novel and each reflects a different set of approaches and techniques. Garrett, himself an accomplished historical novelist, well describes the creative impulses that went into the series, its growth and development, and the array of devices, some of them “daring and risky,” that are employed.
The epic stretches from the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century almost to the present. One of the daring elements is that the books do not tell a continuing story in a literal sense, but drop into history at widely separated points. They are joined together (like real history) by a continuity of families and by an unbroken though largely unconscious chain of memory.
The families include what in Southern terms would be considered both the gentry and the yeomanry, perhaps as well some who could be considered “hillbilly” or “poor white.” To these are later added other elements: nineteenth century Irish immigrants, and a mulatto branch of the central family, the Laceys. The novels vary in the degree to which they are intensive or extensive, but each has a rich range of interrelationships between families, generations, men and women, and surrounding society.
Prisons (1973), which could stand alone as an impressive feat of historical fiction, begins the story of several of the families in the midst of the English Civil Wars, the central figure being Johnny Church, a member of the Puritan gentry executed by Cromwell at the age of twenty for an excess of Dissent. There are many writers who can portray the lust, violence, and intrigue of the period well, as Settle has done. Few could so successfully interweave with them a vivid understanding of the ideas and idealism of liberty and Protestantism, as she has done.
O Beulah Land (1956) is the story of the building of Canona in the wilderness of western Virginia by settlers who range from Tidewater gentry to refugees from the London jails, an experience told at such a high level that it becomes truly epic. The opening scene, describing the long flight of Hannah Bridewell, alone, across the mountain wilderness after Braddock’s defeat, is possibly one of the great passages of American literature. The central theme of O Beulah Land— and I venture this cautiously about so complex a work —is the nuances of successes, failures, and partial successes, in the transfer of the ideas and ideals of liberty from the Old World to the New.
Know Nothing (1961) re-enters history when the settlement planted in 0 Beulah Land is the fully developed society of the late antebellum South. Better pictures have been drawn of the Old South, as by Caroline Gordon, yet this one is full}– elaborated and compelling and brings out many facets that are realized nowhere else. Most readers will find Hannah Bridewell alone in the wilderness the most moving scene, among man}” extended and compelling scenes that Settle has crafted into the Quintet. For me, the most stunning comes at the end of Know Nothing when, in the opening weeks of the Civil War, Southern volunteers of all classes and ages, gallant and disorganized, enthusiastic and deeply ambivalent, are plodding forward through rain and mud toward what we but not they know is a doomed effort to hold the Federals out of western Virginia. This scene says more about Southern history than a whole library full of historical “nonfiction.”
In The Scapegoat (1980) we move forward again to the early twentieth century. “Beulah Land” is now the coal mines. The mountain paradise of liberty is a gutted outpost of international industrialism. The gentry are in the process of being converted into mere agents of Northern and foreign capitalists. The yeomanry have been subjected to the mines or pushed to the periphery of society. New elements have been added: a world of immigrants, existing side by side with that of the natives but seldom interpenetrating, with its own elaborations and interior dialogues: outside labor agitators: modern pop culture; and stirrings of feminism and progressivism. In a story that takes place over a very short period, centered on a murder during a mine strike. Settle manages to portray all of these elements in depth, with sympathy and understanding and without sentimentality.
The Killing Ground (1982) is, as Garrett explains, a daring exercise of semi-autobiographical fiction that draws together the past set forth by the other four books into a modern consciousness facing its own complexities—existential, spiritual, familial, and societal. As I have argued above, nowhere has a modern Southern consciousness been plumbed so deeply and significantly. And thus we have a case study for us all in the pain and difficulty of relating traditional impulses to the historical, institutional world that man has created for himself in the later twentieth century.
Like most great works of art, there is nothing esoteric about The Beulah Quintet. It can be understood to a degree and enjoyed by any sensible reader. But it should not be confused with the costume dramas that make up the bulk of popular historical fiction. It encompasses an artistry, an authenticity, and a multi-layered breadth of vision that is not found there.
To outline the plots of the quintet and to describe it generally does not, of course, tell us all that it means. Like any work of art, it is best grasped in its own terms rather than in description. It advances us to consider carefully, as Garrett does, how the work as a whole gradually grew out of Settle’s own background, thought, and experiences. We can add that it is certainly a deep meditation on human life, an existential quest for meaning shaped by a powerful historical sense.
One aspect of the meditation is the recurrent theme-of liberty. If Settle gives allegiance to anything throughout her work, it is to those people who, to her, represent a recurrent striving for freedom, a resistance to restraints that are unchosen and indefensible. She (and here she resembles Faulkner) is a democrat in a profound and old Jeffersonian sense that has almost disappeared. Never is her insistence on liberty sentimental or self-indulgent. It is always put forward in the context of candid knowledge of the costs. Settle has through most of her life appeared to be a kind of liberal. She went abroad in disgust when Nixon was elected in 1972. To apply terms of liberalism and conservatism from contemporary political discourse, however, is to distort a view that comes from a different and profounder realm. Her liberalism has never been conventional. Nowhere is there in print a more telling exposure of the hollowness of the Kennedy phenomenon of the sixties and the delusions of those who participated in it than appears in The Killing Ground. And in her public statements she has acknowledged that threats to liberty may not all come from the stereotyped demons of the right. They may well come, in a more insidious form, from the commercial and cultural clannishness of the urban liberal publishing oligarchy, for instance.
All of this does not exhaust what might be learned from The Beulah Quintet. “The place of the whole extraordinary quintet, and the place of The Killing Ground within it.” Garrett observes, “remain to be fully known and understood. Time will tell.” Exactly, and it is a measure of the importance of the work that those who have read it closely have not clarified and exhausted all its possibilities.
The other grand division of Settle’s work is in remarkable contrast to The Beulah Quintet. Besides the epic of her own people and country”, she has made a substantial contribution, in Blood Tie (1977) and Celebration (1986), to the literary portrayal of a major phase of modern life, the interaction of Western and non-Western cultures.
The interpenetration of the West and the Third World at the individual level may be the most significant phenomenon of our era, larger than the world wars or the struggle between communism and constitutionalism. Our period, unlike any since the later Roman Empire, is one of intermingling and universalization of culture. This was the subject of Conrad and Kipling at the beginning of this century, and it has continually attracted both great and lesser writers. On the lesser side one thinks of the soap operas of .4 Passage to India and Paul Scott’s novels, from which the popular television series The Jewel in the Crown came. At a somewhat higher level are Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and George Orwell’s Burmese Days. And cultural interaction has been the ground for the major work of V.S. Naipaul.
Among these writers, Settle belongs in the higher and serious group. With an intensely modern consciousness, she renders a candid and objective vision that explores the nuances of the phenomenon. Neither the Westerners nor the “natives” receive disdain or sentimentality. She is neither a “colonialist” nor a ritualistic egalitarian.
Blood Tie is set in a coastal Turkish town, and is an immensely complex exploration of the circumstances and minds of modernizing locals and a variety of American and European exiles. There is a large cast of well-realized characters, all of them caught in a timeless tragedy of illusions and misapprehensions. Celebration has a smaller cast of characters—a young American widow, a CIA man, a black African Jesuit, a British homosexual, a Muslim doctor, and a few others. The setting moves from London to Hong Kong to Turkey to Africa. As the title suggests, the book moves, in the end, to find, among all these troubled and strange characters, an affirmative celebration of what Faulkner would have called “the old verities.”
Garrett suggests that these two novels represent “the most successful and serious international fiction written by an American in our time.” Even more than The Beulah Quintet, however, these books have yet to be fully assimilated and assessed. But undoubtedly, anyone who has not become familiar with the works of Mary Lee Settle has not exhausted the potentialities of American literature.