Lee Smith Essay - Critical Essays


With the publication of Black Mountain Breakdown, Lee Smith was recognized as one of the outstanding southern writers of her generation; the novels and short stories that appeared after Black Mountain Breakdown have only strengthened this estimation. Like earlier southern writers, Smith has an eye for interesting characters and an ear for colorful speech, as well as both a sense of place and a sense of humor. Except when she reaches back into history, Smith’s settings are the New South, and her characters are ordinary people, most of them trying to come to terms with their ordinary lives. Perhaps the quality for which Smith is most admired is her compassion; although she dramatizes her characters’ limitations and often satirizes their pretensions, she respects them as human beings, who cope as best they can with the human condition, and admires their individuality and singularity.

Smith’s short stories are set primarily in the contemporary South of shopping malls and convenience stores, where dreams and hopes are defined not by tradition or faith but by the images on the television screen. Her protagonists are apparently ordinary people, who are not quite satisfied with their ordinary lives but have small chance of changing them because they have neither the opportunity nor the initiative that would enable them to move up in the world. Furthermore, because most of Smith’s protagonists are women, many of whom have been betrayed and abandoned by men, they are especially vulnerable, both emotionally and socially. It is clear that Smith is realistic about the future of such characters, and perhaps, by extension, about life in general. One cannot, however, simply define her tone as pessimistic. There is too much comedy and gentle satire in Smith’s works for that kind of assessment; furthermore, she emphasizes the courage of her characters, who despite defeat and disappointment refuse to give up on life.


It is interesting that of the fourteen stories in Cakewalk, thirteen are told through the eyes of women. This focus is typical of Smith’s fiction. The point of view varies; frequently the writer uses first person, sometimes third person with limited omniscience, which concentrates on the thoughts and activities of a single character and thus has much the same effect as first person. No matter which technique she chooses, Smith does not interfere with or comment on her characters but lets them reveal themselves in the words and rhythms of everyday speech.

For example, Mrs. Jolene B. Newhouse, the first-person narrator in “Between the Lines,” seems to be speaking to the reader rather than writing her own story. She begins by explaining why her gossip column is called “Between the Lines,” but it is soon clear that what Jolene really wants to do is to point out how superior both she and her newspaper column are. There are dozens of lines in the story that enable Smith to satirize Jolene’s character—for example, all the smug self-evaluations: She has a sunny nature, she is naturally good, she is highly intelligent, she has always been a remarkable writer. There is also comedy of situation, such as the real story of Alma Goodnight, who has been hospitalized because her husband hit her with a rake and who now is getting her revenge, lying in luxury in a hospital bed while he suffers the torments of guilt. Clearly, Jolene is not so self-centered that she cannot see a situation as it really is. Her admirable grasp of reality is later illustrated when she describes her youngest daughter as an indecisive whiner. The realist Jolene, however, has a surprising depth to her character. She responds to the beauties of nature, which she describes in her column. Furthermore, she cherishes the memory of an almost mystical sexual encounter in the woods with a visiting evangelist. Perhaps because of her own experience, she has accepted her husband’s frailty, along with all the mysterious human actions that are written “between the lines” of her column.

Another of Smith’s first-person stories in Cakewalk, “Dear Phil Donahue,” is told by a woman who, like Jolene, has broken the rules, but who, unlike Jolene, has not been able to control her own situation. Having married her high school sweetheart, twenty-eight-year-old Martha Rasnick is living the life she always expected to live. However, isolated with her babies, uncertain who she is and uncertain who her husband really is, she has a mental breakdown. When a mentally disturbed boy hides in her garage, she feeds him as if he were a stray cat and even comforts him. As a result, she is abandoned by both her husband and their supposed friends, and she has to tell her story to her only human contact, a television personality.

Many of Smith’s characters are as isolated as Martha, but, because of what might be interpreted either as an unwillingness to face reality or as a triumph of the human spirit, they refuse to give up hope. For example, the protagonist in “All the Days of Our Lives” is a mother of three who has been divorced by her husband because she ran off to Daytona Beach with an insurance claims adjuster, long since departed, and who now alternates between disappearing into the world of television and imagining her lost husband to be some ideal creature, instead of the perfectionist who actually drove her away. At the end of the story, however, she snaps out of her depression and makes some decisions, including a resolution to take another look at the neighbor, who obviously adores her and who might give her a new love or at least a new interest. Similarly, in “Gulfport,” a young girl who has been used, betrayed, and abandoned by a lover, who she had convinced herself was going to marry her, clings to some possibilities for the future. Her lover might come back to her, she thinks, or she might go for a walk with the young Mormon missionary, or she might take a job in a lounge. As long as there is life, there are possibilities; as long as there are possibilities, there is hope.

Like “All the Days of Our Lives” and “Gulfport,” the title story of the collection, “Cakewalk,” is told in the third person. The...

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