Mary Lee Settle Essay - Settle, Mary Lee

Settle, Mary Lee


Settle, Mary Lee 1918–

An American novelist, Settle is best known for her historical novels centering around the Appalachian region. A Southern writer in theme and technique as well as in setting, she is fictively concerned with love, death, and memory and has thus elicited comparisons with Carson McCullers. O Beulah Land is generally considered her best novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

The Times Literary Supplement

The Love Eaters almost accomplishes [the creation of its own world]. Miss Mary Lee Settle's first novel examines the loveless roots of the small American town of Canona, and in the process creates a microcosm…. It is a patterned small world, filled out and completed by doctor, lawyer, librarian, nurse, college boy—a world which, symbolically, centres on the amateur theatre of the Canona Thespians.

Miss Lee Settle measures and follows out the impact upon Canona produced by Selby Dodd and another stranger, Hamilton Sacks, the first professional director of the Canona Thespians. Hamilton Sacks is a cripple, cut off from love by his deformity, who puts in its place a faultlessly malicious sense of weakness and unhappiness in others. Selby has a complementary deformity, that of living for the love which he attracts and exploits and is unable to return. Hamilton and Selby understand one another, and each of them finds scope for full play in Canona. Miss Lee Settle's book is uncomfortably alive with the antipathies of small-town American society, which she analyses in the vigorous and rhythmic idiom of American speech, and, although this writer is a relentless analyst, the effect she achieves is a compassionate one.

"Personal Relations: 'The Love Eaters'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1954; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2729, May 21, 1954, p. 325.

Edmund Fuller

There appear to be strong derivations in ["The Love Eaters"]…. Hamilton is bound to seem like a sinister modification of Sheridan Whiteside of "The Man Who Came to Dinner." There are country-club scenes and some domestic conversations reminiscent of "Appointment in Samarra." The book's philosophy, too, is about on the [John] O'Hara level. The author sees Selby as an incubus, feeding on the love of others—an explanation that fails to be adequate as character analysis.

Actually a substantial writing talent is latent here, with a vigorous dramatic sense. Sections of "The Love Eaters" are effective and have a strong occasional authenticity. Unhappily it simply does not cohere as a work of art, internally, or as a recognizable social portrait, aside from its random satiric thrusts. The result, as with so many contemporary novels, is a striking but basically artificial product.

Edmund Fuller, "Allegheny Upheaval," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 3, 1955, p. 5.

Dexter Allen

Eventually enough characters to provide a proper denouement [to O Beulah Land] converge on an exceptionally beautiful valley beyond the Endless Mountains. Beulah … is the promised land; and in this setting Miss Settle collects all the budding American stereotypes. Everyone is quite vigorous; the differences are chiefly of intent. Perhaps the most important character is Jeremiah, an escaped bondsman from the colonies who finds amazing spiritual and physical freedom in the Virginia wilderness. He is the weakest and most convincing by turns. (p. 545)

Miss Settle, leaving the true dimension of Jeremiah's personality to us, has given the wrong signposts. Out of his subsequent, anticlimactic union with Hannah, however, comes a more consistent character: their son Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is sketchily drawn, but the most sympathetic personage in the novel. (p. 546)

Miss Settle's transitions are at best awkward, at times quite confusing. She is undoubtedly at her best when her technique is sufficiently run-of-the-mill to pass unnoticed. She is a writer whose capabilities lie in the field of popular art—who only defeats herself by affecting the attitudes, without the insights, of serious expression. The opening passages of O Beulah Land are painfully amateurish in their attempted impressionism, without the banal interest of a Frank Yerby, or the pleasure in balances of a Virginia Woolf. These seem to constitute the two basic influences on her style.

One has the sense Miss Settle is trying desperately to view that tragic footprint on the first page with both a Hollywood camera's perspective and a poet's sensibility. The mood is difficult, unless one has so calloused an ear that it is enough for ideals to occur merely in sequence on a page to fit together. In the area of common dialogue, however, the writer can be really superb. Particularly in moments given to Jeremiah, and to his son Ezekiel, the sense of reality and pathos is genuine and beautiful. (pp. 546-47)

Dexter Allen, "History in the Service of Popular Art," in Commonweal (copyright © 1956 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIV, No. 22, August 31, 1956, pp. 545-47.

Charlotte Capers

Remarkable for its inclusiveness, [the] historical novel ["O Beulah Land"] is head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries. The author's research in the British Museum has paid off in the realism with which she invests her characters. The pioneers of Beulah are not golden-haired hunters seven feet tall, but in many cases are natural enemies from antagonistic religious, social and economic backgrounds, bound together by common danger and a growing identification with the land.

Charlotte Capers, "On Common Ground," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1956, p. 5.

William Peden

[Mary Lee Settle's canvas in "Know Nothing"], like that of most historical novels, is a crowded one, depicting a quarter of a century in the lives of a score of major characters….

The large number of Miss Settle's people is frequently an obstacle to the reader's understanding and enjoyment. Too frequently the author introduces a character only to abandon him temporarily; when the reader is later informed that such and such a character has committed suicide, or "come up in the world" and matriculated at the University of Virginia, he is unmoved for the simple reason he has forgotten him. This plethora of weakly-individualized people, together with the author's fondness for caricature and her confusing use of a floating point of view, is the major weakness of Miss Settle's novel. When the author shifts her focus from characterization to the depiction of events, she is considerably more successful…. Miss Settle effectively depicts events on the larger stage of actual history. The growing tensions between irreconcilable political, social, and moral forces…. are effectively projected. So too are certain phases of the social history of the period, such as the charming recreations of resort life at Egeria Springs. Miss Settle … knows her land and its people well and uses this knowledge effectively, and without pretentiousness, in spite of her occasional over-simplification of the differences between Tidewater and Western mores.

In concept, "Know Nothing" is of epic, even heroic, proportions. Miss Settle brings to her task literary integrity and admirable seriousness of purpose. Although the narrative occasionally walks rather than canters and the people are sometimes swallowed up in the background, "Know Nothing" is a welcome contrast to the mass of blowzy Technicolored so-called historical romances designed for those who prefer to read lying down.

William Peden, "Back to Beulah Land," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 45, November 5, 1960, p. 33.

Anthony Boucher

To readers of Miss Settle's earlier books, there should be much fascination in following [the] trail of violence [in "Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday"]…. One must regretfully add that, as a novel in its own right, "Fight Night" does not hold up. The writing is largely attractive. But Hannah's quest for meaning simply retreads too many well-trod paths of the Southern novel. The reader soon recognizes each new character, not as a human being, but as an expectable convention of that genre.

Possibly by now we have read enough about the problems of people hungering after a past "forever gone, forever yearned for, where life was ordered in dignity, and days were lovely, and there was no change." The...

(The entire section is 210 words.)

Robert M. Adams

Mary Lee Settle's impracticably titled Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday works out to a consistent, overall 86-proof Faulkner. The story in essence is Hannah McKarkle's (no kidding!) investigations into her charming doomed dead brother Jonathan. It is a story told with multiple flashbacks into the time past of the close family, the extended family, and the entire sordid little section of Appalachia which is Miss Settle's chosen beat. Indeed, the muddling of past with present is the story; but it will take an alert and almost passionately cooperative reader to undo the tangle which results. Faulkner imposes at least as heavy a burden of decipherment, but rewards us, at his best, with a bewildered,...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Mary Lee Settle, best known as an historical novelist, is, like most Southern writers since Faulkner, preoccupied with memory. In Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday the shadow of the past falls continually on the present, and the characters move through the half-light like figures in a trance, their speech a long, reminiscent lament. The whole book is a kind of mourning ballad for the futility and tragedy of the South….

[The McKarkles are] a predictable family built for melodrama, and Miss Settle succeeds only fitfully in raising their experience to the level of tragedy. Behind her accent on memory is a determination to find "the key place, the point, the place where a man stopped and...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Looking back across more than twenty years, it seems strange that the educated lance-corporal, whose voice, lyric or plaintive or poignant, added so distinctive a note to the literature of the Second World War, was almost never female. Why not, when the swathe of conscription cut through both sexes? A generation later, Mary Lee Settle has filled the gap with something more searching, because more precise than documentary. [All the Brave Promises] is experience not transmuted but filtered and refined by memory….

Miss Settle weathered [the problems] and was accepted. She renders it all with neither bitterness nor inverted romanticism: the insanities of discipline when administered by...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

T. A. Shippey

The long road [in The Long Road to Paradise] is Corporal Johnny Church's path to execution at Burford in 1649, for refusing service in Ireland and trying to hold Cromwell to his promises. As an individual's the story is hardly an interesting one; we are told its conclusion right at the start, and the narrative style—continuous first-person recapitulation—has a quality more slow than dreamy. But Miss Settle is more concerned with historical perspectives that the fates of men.

Apart from the odd Ranter and a sprinkling of Bible texts, there is no marked sense of the religious dimension in the [British] Civil War, and while some play is made with the changed meanings of democratic,...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

The New Republic

In [Blood Tie's] dense and deliciously rich prose Mary Lee Settle weaves an intricate tapestry of the lives of seven … expatriates who with their few Turkish friends become the victims of political repression, and of their dreams of rejuvenated life in a new land. Settle's portrait of the clash of two cultures and the eerie criss-crossing of her characters' motives and desires is hypnotizing; her accounts of archaeological excavation and deep-sea diving are fascinating; and her portrayal of the ties of blood, love and loyalty that survive destruction is unforgettably powerful.

"Current Paperbacks: 'Blood Tie'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

Anne Tyler

The Scapegoat is, I think, an even better book [than Mary Lee Settle's last novel, Blood Tie. Like Blood Tie, it shows the inner workings of a prodigious variety of people, but these people are somehow closer to us, less brittle, more genuine, their contradictions and self-delusions more subtly dealt with. Hard-bitten Mother Jones ("sitting there dumpy like a sweet little old lady, about the shape of a keg of dynamite") grows as familiar to us as our own grandmothers. We see into the very soul of Annunziata Pagano as she coolly, firmly summons the Italian-mama hysteria that will help her control a crisis….

In one sense, The Scapegoat is a straightforward, linear novel....

(The entire section is 245 words.)

The Atlantic Monthly

Set in a coal rich valley of West Virginia in 1912, [The Scapegoat] teems with Italian miners, British bosses, downriver rednecks, Philadelphia-bred wives, Vassar-educated daughters, imported strike-breakers, even a learned Orthodox Jew or two. No one claims kin; no one makes friends. Lacey Creek is a place where people view each other with suspicion, keep their motives to themselves, and eventually take out their frustrations on the only real stranger in their midst.

With seemingly effortless skill Mary Lee Settle introduces us to the members of this microcosm during the course of a day in early June, the last day of a miners' strike. Emotions are running high, though for various reasons: the...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

E. L. Doctorow

Readers and writers who mourn fiction's loss of subject would do well to catch up on Mary Lee Settle. I say catch up because this vigorous writer has since 1954 published eight novels that gobble up time and geography and make their way through the bloodlines of family dynasties, rendering the world from 17th-century England to 20th-century Turkey. And though she has had her champions …, she has experienced the peculiar lack of recognition sometimes suffered by strong-willed writers no matter how good or voluminous their work.

Miss Settle's ninth novel is "The Scapegoat," and it takes place in West Virginia in the year 1912. This is home territory for the author, the setting of her Beulah trilogy,...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Robert Houston

To some, it may come as a surprise that Mother Jones was a woman before she was a magazine, just as to many it has come as a surprise lately that something besides World War I happened between 1900 and 1920….

But Mary Lee Settle hasn't forgotten. The Scapegoat … remembers those years and people superbly. And if, as it appears, there is a renascence of interest in that perhaps deliberately forgotten "golden age" of native radicalism in America, The Scapegoat's timing is as right as its memory.

Though not a "strike novel," The Scapegoat uses as its focus a coal miners' strike in West Virginia in 1912. Whether it is based on a real strike is beside the point:...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)