Guide to Resources for the Study of West Virginia Authors and Appalachian Literary Traditions

Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library

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Mary Lee Settle

photo of Mary Lee Settle

Biographical Information

Novelist Mary Lee Settle was born in Charleston, WV, July 29, 1918. Her father owned a coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, and the family moved there a year later. Also a civil engineer, her father moved the family to Florida a few years later to work in the Florida land and building boom, where he designed and laid out the substructure of Venice, Florida. Young Mary Lee studied ballet and read about the Knights of the Round Table. The family returned to West Virginia when Mary Lee was ten, living with her grandmother for a year before moving to Charleston.The city would be home to Mary Lee Settle for the next seven years.

After high school, Settle spent two years at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, leaving after her sophomore year to work as a model in New York. She continued to work as a model and actress until she married Englishman Rodney Weathersbee in 1939. The couple moved to Canada, where Rodney joined the Canadian army. Her son Christopher was born while Settle was in Canada. She returned to West Virginia to leave her young son with her parents, then left to join the Women’s Auxiliary of the RAF and served in various British cities through World War II. She returned to the United States in January 1945 and worked briefly as an assistant editor at Harper’s Bazaar, a job she kept only briefly.

Wanting to pursue a writing career, she left Harper’s to return to England, where “everybody else was tired, too, was divorced.” (Her marriage to Rodney Weathersbee ended in 1946.) She worked from 1945-1954, making a simple living as a freelance journalist, including writing as Mrs. Charles Palmer, an etiquette expert for Woman’s Day. Also during this time, she wrote six unproduced plays and four unproduced film scripts before beginning to work on a novel. Her first novel, The Kiss of Kin, was initially rejected by several American publishers, as was her second, The Love Eaters. Finally British publisher Heinnemann accepted The Love Eaters, and both novels soon saw publication. The Love Eaters was published in 1954, The Kiss of Kin followed a year later. These novels, as well as the late Beulah books, were based in large part on years of research Mary Lee Settle had done at the British Museum on the history of West Virginia and the English immigrants, many of them criminals, who settled there. Also in this time, Settle married her second husband Douglas Newton (1946).

Settle then began work on what would be her best-known works, The Beulah Quintet. Oh Beulah Land, the first novel in the series, was published in 1956. It tells story of the founding of a fictional West Virginia town, Beulah, by Hannah Brideswell, a transported London prostitute, and Jeremiah Catlett, a fugitive bondman, in the years before the American Revolution. The novel drew little initial critical attention, though Charlotte Capers writing in the New York Times Book Reviewcommented that O Beulah Land was “head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries.” Her personal life, however, was not enjoying the same success as her professional one. She had divorced a second time, and had returned to West Virginia in 1955. She was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships, 1957-58 and 1959-60. It was during this time that the next two Beulah books, Know Nothing and Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday were published. Neither novel was very successful; one reviewer said of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday that it was “not focused or resourceful enough to keep the reader content.”

In 1965, discontented both personally and professionally, Settle accepted a part-time teaching position as Bard College, a position that provided her with some financial stability but still allowed her time to write. In 1966 she published All the Brave Promises, a memoir of her years in the RAF, one she consider a protest against what she called “the romanticism about the Second World War.”
Unhappy with the political turmoil of America in the late 1960s, Mary Lee Settle again left the United States, living in England from 1969-1971 and in Turkey from 1972-1974. She returned to the United States only to teach one semester at Bard each year. Blood Tie, her next novel, was written after her 1974 return to West Virginia. Blood Tie is the story of a group of expatriates living in Turkey, “the culture dropouts of the ‘70s, someone who puts an ocean between himself and his past” commented Anatole Broyard in the New York Times. Blood Tie received the critical praise that Settle’s other novels had been denied, including the 1978 National Book Award.

In 1977, Mary Lee Settle left her teaching position at Bard to re-focus on the Beulah series. Prisons, the third book to be published, takes the reader back in time to seventeenth century England to trace the beginnings of the Beulah families and of American democracy. The Scapegoat (1980), the next Beulah novel, returns to the United States and moves forward in time, focusing on the West Virginia miners’ strike of 1912. Settle published the concluding volume of the Beulah quintet, The Killing Ground, in 1982. The Killing Ground brings the reader into the present and introduces Hannah McKarkle, the unknown narrator of the previous Beulah novels. The midst of trying to finish the quintet, Mary Lee Settle also married again; she and William Littleton Tazewell, a columnist and historian, married in September 1978.

In 1980, Mary Lee Settle founded the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, writers to honor their peers, and is now the largest juried award for fiction in the U.S. It is named in honor of William Faulkner, who used his Nobel Prize funds to create an award for young writers.

Although the Beulah quintet remains her best known work, Mary Lee Settle has continued to write both fiction and non-fiction, including The Search for Beulah Land: the Story Behind the Beulah Quintet (1988). While she has never gained the widespread success that she perhaps deserves, she remains one of the most respected contemporary Appalachian novelists.

Mary Lee Settle died September 27, 2005, at her Ivy home at the age of 87 following a battle with cancer.

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Critical Responses

When Mary Lee Settle won the National Book Award for 1978, she was described as an “unknown” writer. But Blood Tie, the award-winning novel, was Settle’s ninth published work, her eighth novel. All her previous works had been published by distinguished publishers in both the United States and Great Britain. Her work had been praised by such critics as Malcolm Crowley and Granville Hicks, who had praised the “grandeur” of the early Beulah novels. Reviewing The Love Eaters, Settle’s first published novel, for the New Statesman, Rosamund Lehmann commented, “She has written this year’s sharpest novel.” Yet, several years and books later, she was still somehow a critical “unknown.” Despite the excellent reviews many of her earlier works had received, somehow Mary Lee Settle had never achieved wide critical renown or popular recognition.<.p>

Her work has received excellent reviews. Commonweal’s Allan Pryce-Jones wrote about All the Brave Promises, “Miss Settle’s victory is to show that a nasty experience was not entirely pain; her book, for all its rawness, is the book of a sympathetic and understanding woman . . . one of the few really good books to come out of World War II.” And commenting on Turkish Reflections, Dennis Drabelle of The Washington Post, wrote that Settle’s “style has a well-turned simplicity that complements the spare materials of Turkish aesthetics.” Likewise, critics had praised her fiction. Anne Tyler, writing in Washington Post Book World, called The Scapegoat “a quiet masterpiece.” Writing about Mary Lee Settle in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, George Garrett called Blood Tie “clearly a virtuoso work.”

Yet in converstations about Appalachian writers, Mary Lee Settle often is passed over, never seeming to gain the attention that Denise Giardina, Pinckney Benedict, Breece D’J Pancake, and Jayne Anne Phillips do.

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Works Published

Novels:

The Love Eaters

The Kiss of Kin

Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday

The Clam Shell

Blood Tie

Celebration

The Search for Beulah Land

Charley Bland

Choices

Addie

I, Roger Williams: A Fragment of Autobiography

Beulah Quintet:

O Beulah Land

Know Nothing

Prisons

The Scapegoat

The Killing Ground

Other Works:

Juana La Loca (play)

All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman Second Class 2146391

The Story of Flight (juvenile)

The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes (juvenile)

Water World (juvenile)

Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place (autobiography)

Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present

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Selected Bibliography

Bach, Peggy. The Searching Voice and Vision of Mary Lee Settle. The Southern Review. Autumn 1984. 20(4), 842-850.

Charles, Ron. The Bright Light of a Free Conscience. Christian Science Monitor. May 24, 2001.

Charley Bland (book review). Virginia Quarterly Review. Summer 1990. 66(3), 94.

Dyer, Joyce Coyne. The Clam Shell: Mary Lee Settle on East Coast Gentility. Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review. Winter 1986. 13(2), 171-183.

---. Embracing the Common: Mary Lee Settle in World War II. Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review. Winter 1985. 12(2), 127-134.

---. Mary Lee Settle's Prisons: Taproots History. Southern Literary Journal. Fall 1984. 17(1), 26-39.

Galligan, Edward L. The Novels of Mary Lee Settle. Sewanee Review. Summer 1996. 104(3), 413+.

Howard, Jennifer. Interview with Mary Lee Settle. Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South. Winter-Spring 1995. 33(2-3), 79-83.

Joyner, Nancy Carol. The Beulah/Canona Connection: Mary Lee Settle's Autobiographies. IN: Miller, Danny L et al. (eds.) An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature. Ohio University Press; 2005.

---. Mary Lee Settle's Connections: Class and Clothes in the Beulah Quintet. Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South. Fall 1983. 22(1), 33-45.

Mallon, Thomas. A Life on the Ramparts. New York Times Book Review. June 25, 1995. 144(50103), 23+.

Morris, R. C. Not So Innocent Abroad. New York Times Book Review. July 14, 1991. 140(4866), 1.

Murrey, Loretta. Dispossession and Regeneration in Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet. Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South. Fall 1996. 35(1), 62-68.

Notes on Current Books: Lives & Letter. Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 1999. 75(2), 54+.

Rosenberg, Brian. The Price of Freedom: An Interview with Mary Lee Settle. The Southern Review. Spring 1989. 25(2), 351-365.

Schafer, William J. Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet: History Darkly, through a Single-Lens Reflex. Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review. Autumn 1982. 10(1), 77-86.

Speer, Jean Haskell. Montani Semper Liberi: Mary Lee Settle and the Myths of Appalachia. IN: Inge, Tonette Bond (ed) Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Stanek, Lou Willet. Happy Endings, Modern Classics, and Other Oxymorons. Wilson Library Bulletin. December 1993. 68(4), 128.

Stephens, Mariflo. Mary Lee Settle: The Lioness in Winter. Virginia Quarterly Review. Autumn 1996. 72(4), 581+.

Vance, Jane Gentry. Historical Voices in Mary Lee Settle's 'Prisons:' Too Far in Freedom. Mississippi: The Journal of Southern Culture. Fall 1985. 38(4), 391-413.

---. Mary Lee Settle's The Beulah Quintet: History Inherited, History Created. Southern Literary Journal. Fall 1984. 17(1), 40-53.

---. O Beulah Land: The 'Yaller Vision" of Jeremiah Catlett. IN: Miller, Danny L et al. (eds.) An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature. Ohio University Press; 2005.

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Author Website

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West Virginia Wesleyan College

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