Doris Betts Betts, Doris (Waugh) - Essay

Doris June Waugh


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doris (Waugh) Betts 1932–

American novelist, short story writer, and journalist.

Betts's work has inspired some critics to define her as a regional or Southern writer because of her realistic descriptions of small-town life in the South and her emphasis on familial relationships. However, Betts's themes of love and responsibility and her thoughtful characterizations have a universal appeal. Although Betts has received substantial critical attention, her work has not gained the public acknowledgment some critics feel she deserves.

Many critics consider Betts's short story collections to be her most powerful work. These stories are highly praised for their sensitive prose style and realistic dialogue. The humanistic studies of love, pain, loneliness, and death found in The Gentle Insurrection (1954) are particularly noteworthy. The Astronomer and Other Stories (1966) has also gained favorable critical attention. The title story, which some critics maintain is Betts's finest work, tells of a recently retired widower whose sole interest in life is studying astronomy. His solitary existence is interrupted when he boards a young couple who involve him in their troubled relationship. Betts's inventive use of the cosmos as a guide to the actions of her characters in this story is an important motif.

Betts has also written four novels. Tall Houses in Winter (1957) is a poignant depiction of a man struggling to decide whether to undergo surgery that could possibly save his life. Although some critics find the book sentimental, others cite Betts's well-crafted characterizations and skillful use of recollections through which the protagonist confronts his past mistakes and is better able to assess his future.

Betts's third novel, The River to Pickle Beach (1972), is a story of the power of bigotry and ignorance. Set in a coastal North Carolina town in the summer of 1968, following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., a prejudiced man directs his hatred and anxiety toward a retarded woman and her son and instills fear and violence into the rest of the community. The use of the Kennedy and King assassinations as an omnipresent element serves as an indirect influence on the tragic events in the novel and typifies the national malaise of the time.

Literary authorities generally acknowledge that Betts emerges as a powerful and sensitive novelist in Heading West (1981). Considered by some to be her most ambitious novel, it introduces into her work a setting outside the South, the theme of the value of independence, and a more complex plot structure. The book is a psychological drama about a passive woman whose life is controlled by her family until she is kidnapped. Her physical imprisonment while being taken across the country results in the gradual realization both of her need to live as an independent person and her potential for further growth.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)

Robert Tallant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her first book ["The Gentle Insurrection"], a collection of twelve short stories, Doris Betts, a young North Carolinian, proves herself to be already a sturdy professional writer, a master of the short story form, and a candidate for an important position among those concerned with serious and perceptive reporting in literary form of the Southern small town and Southern people. Mrs. Betts is concerned with a universal problem: the difficulty of achieving real understanding between people. In all the stories this theme becomes more important than background and region. One seems to hear Mrs. Betts cry out: "If only we could talk to each other! If only we could understand each other! Then we could be almost happy!"

Outside the unity of theme the stories are unalike: the characters, all alive and very believable, are varied, leading different kinds of lives and having different kinds of troubles. Yet, basically, it is their inability to understand or to be understood that is their tragedy….

Most of Mrs. Betts' people are sad people, but they are rarely morbid. She writes of them with insight and pity, but never with bathos. Her small Southern town is not sordid or decadent, but outwardly at least normal, clean and average.

Robert Tallant, "The Sad People," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1954, p. 4.

Sylvia Stallings

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Those who found much to admire in Doris Betts' "The Gentle Insurrection" … will be gratified to learn that "Tall Houses in Winter," her second book and first novel, shows her talent to have matured and clarified. She has a sensitive response to persons and situations and a natural sense of timing.

"Tall Houses in Winter" turns on the simplest of devices, a man's appraisal of his past. Ryan Godwin, returning after ten years to the small Southern town where he had been born and from which he had several times fled, faced an operation which might or might not arrest a malignancy in his throat. Even for his own satisfaction, he could not explain the reasons for first taking one more look at Stoneville. Only three people living and two dead connected him with it: his grim spinster sister, Asa; Lady Malveena, the Negro woman who had raised all the Godwin children, and twelve-year-old Fen, the son of the woman whom Ryan had loved. Jessica Godwin herself had lain for those ten years on Methodist Hill beside her husband, Ryan's dull brother Avery. They had been killed together in an automobile crash when Fen was barely two and without Jessica's ever admitting that the boy, as Ryan suspected, was his son.

Mrs. Betts creates with infinite subtlety the character of Stoneville, as it appeared to Ryan while he was growing up and hating its smugness, its small-mindedness, and its total lack of imagination, and as it seems to Ryan...

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Borden Deal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Considering the excellence of its ingredients, it is difficult to state precisely why "Tall Houses in Winter" is a disappointing novel. Somehow, it reads like an exercise instead of an inspiration. The background detail is heavy-handed, too careful, too much sieved through other novels instead of deriving from life. The minor characters are carefully eccentric, just enough to make them stick in the reader's mind, and they utter too many casually significant remarks. The well-engineered flashbacks come precisely when and how expected, never surprising the reader. Just once—in the long flashback detailing the love between Ryan and Jessica—do the book, the writing and the characters come to life. Here Miss Betts gets her teeth into her story and writes absorbingly, inventively and all too briefly of a beautiful and doomed love. But thereafter, as before, her loaded dice invariably turn up the expected numbers.

Miss Betts has mastered all the necessary technical tools, and it is obvious that a great deal of thought and work has gone into her books. But there is a feeling that she writes from a deep conscientiousness rather than from a deep conviction; it is as though the novel had been written for a master's thesis, hand-tailored to the known whims of a capricious professor. If she can learn to absorb her technique instead of exploiting it and if, most of all, she can grow into recklessness and commitment, she may go far indeed. But "Tall Houses in Winter" is a novel that promises and disappoints.

Borden Deal, "Some Things to Do Before Dying," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 3, 1957, p. 4.

William Peden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doris Betts's third book follows a plot line that has produced some great fiction along with an avalanche of artistically contemptible but commercially successful novels and film scripts: the material rise and spiritual decline of a family of sharply contrasted individuals. The Scarlet Thread falls somewhere between the two extremes.

The scene is Greenway, a small town in the North Carolina piedmont; the time is 1897 and a few years thereafter. The novel begins auspiciously with the effective presentation of the Allen family of Greenway: imaginative, attractive Esther Allen and her brothers Thomas and David; their hardheaded father who is as crooked as a dog's hind leg; their Bible-quoting mother with her recurring recollections of her family's scarlet thread of abnormality, and their feisty grandfather, soon to die of a heart attack, who dominates the early chapters and is a first-rate literary achievement.

Complications soon develop with the plans to bring a cotton mill to Greenway, and Mrs. Betts's firm and admirable opening chapters at times degenerate into almost a burlesque of the "scrambled-genes" school of regional writing. We are presented with: a "romantic"—and doomed—love affair between Esther and the Yankee imported to supervise the mill; "social significance," centering around the discontented Negro Jube (as one might expect, the Klan rides again in what seems to me the most contrived sequences of the novel); sensationalism, provided by, among others, Miss Bethesda, a Negro "sorceress" whom Thomas disposes of in one of the many acts of violence, which include rape, sudden death, and the blowing up of the mill; sex (see Thomas); perversion (see Thomas); cruelty (see Thomas); artistic aspiration (see David); madness (see Miss Rosa, Mrs. Allen's sister); alcoholism (see Rosa's husband); folklore (see Miss Bethesda).

To all of this Mrs. Betts adds an often unwieldy level of Biblical symbol, allusion, reference, and parallel….

This is a shame, because Mrs. Betts is very talented, as she demonstrates time and again throughout The Scarlet Thread and Gentle Insurrection…. She is still a young writer. With the Gothic excesses of The Scarlet Thread behind her, she may yet become a very good one.

William Peden, "Myth, Magic, and a Touch of Madness," in Saturday Review (© 1965 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 6, February 6, 1965, p. 32.

Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among those Southern women who have contributed so vigorously to postwar American fiction, Doris Betts has never quite got her due. She is a tough, wise and compassionate writer, her last book, "The Astronomer and Other Stories," is among the best collections of short fiction of the 1960's, but outside her native North Carolina her audience has been small.

"The River to Pickle Beach" may change that. It has the ingredients of good popular fiction, and it is also a serious, provocative novel. Set in the summer of 1968, against the background of the King and Kennedy assassinations, the novel is about Jack and Bebe Sellars. A childless couple in their forties, they take over the management of an isolated North Carolina beach. Very different people—she is ebullient and outgoing; he is quiet and inward—they are bound by a deep, understanding affection and a strong sexual attraction.

Their summer is disrupted when a retarded woman and her illegitimate son, also retarded, come to the beach; their presence revives Jack's boyhood fears of derangement and murder. Then a third visitor arrives: Mickey McCane, an old Army buddy of Jack's, who lusts openly after Bebe, parades his racial prejudices, and outfits himself with an arsenal of firearms.

The author's ambitious attempt to depict McCane's violence as a microcosm of national violence is rather strained, and the novel is too long. But the portraits of Bebe and Jack are first-rate….

Mrs. Betts is a writer with a firm hold on what we in the South call "home truths." She has a splendid prose style, and she deserves to be read.

Jonathan Yardley, in a review of "The River to Pickle Beach," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1972 by The New York Times Company, reprinted by permission), May 21, 1972, p. 12.

Steven E. Alford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whenever I hear the terms "women's novel" or "Southern fiction," a strange transformation overcomes me. In company, my eyes widen (a careful observer would suspect a thyroid condition) and my smile jacks up several degrees. Alone, an irrepressible torpor sets in, and my body seeks a place to recline, preferably in a cork-lined enclosure…. Consequently, when I learned that I would be reviewing a new novel by one of the more charming and accomplished female Southern writers, Doris Betts, I began pricing cork at the hardware stores around Chapel Hill. Having finished reading her fine new work, Heading West, I am happy to say that this novel is not Southern Women's Fiction, but an amusing and humane work about...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps the best news about Heading West is that it should liberate Doris Betts from the relative obscurity in which she has labored for most of her career…. Those coming to her work for the first time will find that she writes clear, vivid prose, creates distinct and interesting characters, and is a master at conveying the nuances of psychological conflict; she is a serious writer whose books are unfailingly intelligent and readable.

But for those who have followed Betts' work over the years, Heading West is not unalloyed good news. It may be her "breakthrough" book in a commercial sense, but it is not an artistic breakthrough. She is one of the best writers of fiction in the...

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Beth Gutcheon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Heading West" is the story of a young spinster librarian who is kidnapped from a picnic at Linville Falls, N.C., in much the same sense that Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is the story of a Southern family's vacation trip to Florida being interrupted by a gunman known as the Misfit. In fact, a character not unlike the Misfit interrupts Nancy Finch and her sister and brother-in-law just as they are beginning their ham sandwiches. The kidnapper then carries Nancy off with something like the Misfit's pointless malevolence, and she remains his hostage all the way to the Grand Canyon. Although the publisher promises the reader "suspense" and "terror" on the dust jacket and says the novel "winds to a...

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