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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

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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

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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 at forty-eight, after a successful career teaching in a New England college.

He had loved Jessica and she had refused to go away with him, clinging to Stoneville for the very reasons that he hated it: its predictability, its dullness, its lack of menace. Their affair was concealed successfully from everyone but Lady Malveena, who knew "the undersides of the centuries" and who steals scene after scene of the book….

[As] the weeks in Stoneville passed he came to love Fen for the boy's own sake, not as a possible extension of himself, and to make his peace with the town on both his and its terms. A second level of meaning underlies the overt turn of events in the Godwin family: the history of a young man's rebellion against conformity and his gradual attainment of a humility which can accept it.

It is too bad that Mrs. Betts has made her professed Christians into such straw figures, to set against Ryan's very appealing agnosticism. Asa's priggishness, the Reverend Mr. Barnes' maddening affability, and the simpers of church-minded old ladies may be all that Stoneville had to offer, but surely, once he was out in the world, Ryan Godwin would have encountered some men in whom ordination did not preclude intelligence.

Mrs. Betts has set herself a demanding task and fulfilled it with skill and imagination. As in her earlier book, she has also showed that regionalism can become a universal as well as a travesty. Whatever external influences may in the future fall across her writing, she has no need to question a literary instinct as sound as it is gifted.

Sylvia Stallings, "'Old Times There Are Not Forgotten'," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), March 3, 1957, p. 6.

Borden Deal

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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

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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

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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

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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 one person coming of age.

Nancy Finch is in a rut. Unmarried at thirty-four, she is edging imperceptibly into that Scholastic category of Spinster. In Greenway, North Carolina, for the past fifteen years she has lived with and cared for her hypochondriacal kvetch of a mother and her retarded brother. She is a librarian at the Stone County Library … and an alto in the Presbyterian choir. Living in Greenway, she seems poised to become another Evaline Sample, "whose small nervous breakdowns had each been shocked back together by small jolts of electrotherapy. Awed tenth-grade girls had warned one another that spinsterhood had driven Evaline Sample crazy, that older women needed 'sex juice' to stay normal." Nancy has had lovers, (unbeknownst to her mother), three by her count, though her first love, unconsummated, had become more important to her than the subsequent, dissatisfying affairs. Her relationship with this man, Oliver Newton, was, in her words, "the last time … that by doing nothing I did something right."

Mired in her passivity, she had planned on going on a sea cruise, praying that she would find a man to take her away; instead she found herself on a car trip through the Carolina mountains with her sister Faye and Faye's husband, Eddie Rayburn. On this trip, at Wiseman's Point overlooking Linville Gorge, she finds a man to take her away—not Prince Charming, but a twenty-nine year old kidnapper, Dwight Anderson…. Thus begins the action of this novel, a journey from North Carolina to the Grand Canyon and back again.

One of the exemplary instances of Sam Peckinpah's Neanderthal view of women occurs in Straw Dogs, wherein The Wife is raped by The Old Boyfriend, whom she at first resists; but then she Begins to Love It. In Heading West, we have a similar psychological situation, in which the kidnapped woman doesn't really want to escape; but Ms. Betts's treatment of this situation teaches us something about the complexity of human response. During her physical and mental battle with Dwight, Nancy is wrenched out of her passivity, and she finds a strength of character which had been buried under the drudgery and boredom of her life in Greenway. The Germans would call this novel a Bildungsroman, and that is one generic classification that I would go along with.

West has always been a special direction for Americans (vide Frederick Jackson Turner, John Wayne). By heading West, Nancy discovers the Self buried under the moribund persona of the Spinster Librarian. There is, however, a navigational metaphor buried in the title—Heading: West. Both at sea and in the air (and nautical and aerial metaphors abound in this work), one finds one's direction through triangulation. Nancy's attempts at finding her own proper direction involve a remarkable number of triangular relationships, and these bear watching throughout the novel. She leaves for her vacation trip with Faye and Eddie; her trip West is with Dwight and Judge Jolly; the Stone County Library has two permanent residents, Miss Boykin and Evaline Sample; her home life is dominated by her mother and brother; her brief friendship with J. Waldo Foster included his son, Benjy, and her discovery of Dwight's brother led her to a further triangular relationship with Dwight. Finally, the real events of Nancy's life are constantly juxtaposed between the memories and fantasies that pervade her inner life, and we could see her Bildung as consisting of striking a balance between the limiting and liberating qualities of memory and fantasy. (pp. 93-4)

From the height of Wiseman's Point to the depths of the Grand Canyon, Nancy emerged from this relationship not a new or a changed person, but one finally in touch with herself as a person, and not an extension of everyone else's expectations. Heading West is the story of a Southern woman written by a Southern woman, but in its careful and intelligent composition, psychological insight, humor, and, above all, its humanity, it transcends its regional boundaries and shows itself to be an exceptional work of fiction. (p. 94)

Steven E. Alford, in a review of "Heading West," in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1981 Carolina Quarterly) Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Fall, 1981, pp. 93-4.

Jonathan Yardley

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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 country, and a very important figure among those Southern writers who have come to prominence since the '60s, but she has yet to demonstrate a firm grasp on the structural complexities of the novel; in Heading West, as in her previous novels, she reveals herself to be a short-story writer who is uncomfortable going long distance.

In fact she is a writer with two careers, or two personalities. As a writer of short stories she is in the tradition of Flannery O'Connor, though very much herself; these stories appear in literary magazines, mainly Southern ones, and have earned her a reputation as a craftsman and stylist worthy of comparison with O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty and other American masters of short fiction. But as a novelist she reaches for a larger audience; her novels are not exactly "commercial," inasmuch as that term has acquired negative overtones that do not apply to any of her work, but they do tend to be overlong and overplotted.

Heading West is actually two novels. The first, which ends on page 215, is quite brilliant; it is the story of a woman who, idly yearning for "a new and freer life," suddenly finds herself sucked into a journey of prolonged fear and gradual self-discovery. It is followed, unfortunately, by a second novel in which the same woman is nursed back to health, falls in love, and returns home to accomplish her final liberation; this novel might be described as superior women's-magazine fiction….

Betts, who in her short stories knows exactly what to leave out, continues the story for another 144 pages. Certainly she satisfies the reader's natural desire to learn how everything comes out; she even supplies a happy ending. Yet after 215 pages of tension and psychological ambiguity, all of it strongly sustained, Heading West comes to a halt; the animosity between Nancy and Dwight, and the sexual tension, and the growing bonds between them—these are the cement that holds the novel together, and without that cement the novel has no core, no unifying center.

To be sure, Heading West is about solid, provocative themes: the clash between independence and family loyalties, the relationship of art and life, the randomness of fate, the mystery of love, the allure of evil. And heaven knows the novel is beautifully written, in prose that impresses itself on the mind without calling attention to itself. But its structural difficulties diminish its many accomplishments; the short story remains the form in which Doris Betts is most comfortable and successful.

Jonathan Yardley, "The Librarian and the Highwayman," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), November 29, 1981, p. 3.

Beth Gutcheon

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"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 fierce pitch"—probably assuming that readers no longer value, or perhaps notice, any but stupendously obvious emotions—the pleasures of "Heading West" are infinitely more subtle, complex and memorable than being scared in your armchair.

Certain recent novelists have been content to place fictive events within their cultural and historical context merely by providing a sound track, telling you what pop song is playing in the background of a scene. Ignorance of the recent recordings of, say, Blondie or Linda Ronstadt is enough to bar a reader from grasping all larger significance beyond plot in the works of such writers. Doris Betts … may or may not be familiar with Blondie, but without doubt she is deeply familiar with the Bible, Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, Freud, Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Navajo mythology and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. She is also capable of thinking and writing about more than one thing at once, and so, just as the horizontal progress of the Colorado River cuts vertically through stratum after stratum of rock in the canyon that is the central image of the novel, she tells a story that is taut and linear and compelling while simultaneously she cuts through layer after layer of different kinds of meaning.

The novel is divided into four parts. In the first, Nancy's problem is the same as a novelist's: how to persuade people that in the middle of a perfectly familiar scene, something extraordinary is happening. If suspense and terror were the point, Mrs. Betts could certainly have filled this section with tears, mad dashes and cries for help. Instead, she shows you a heroine who is wry, intelligent and sane, who wants to be free but for good reasons may not exactly want to go home. And Mrs. Betts makes you understand that what Nancy—or you—would really do at a coffee shop while in the custody of an armed man with faulty moral faculties is order your breakfast and eat it quietly. (pp. 12, 28)

In Part 2, farther west and into another stratum of meaning, images and associations switch from literary to biblical, from Robin Hood and Kafka to the prodigal son and thy brother's keeper. In Part 3, the characters actually enter the canyon, and as its rock wall shows striations formed before human life, so questions of blame and accountability are deftly interlarded with talk of wolves, eugenics, and the possibility that good and evil are simply traits carried in the cells, with no larger moral implications at all. And in Part 4, after Nancy has decisively ended her own victimization, the question of whether or not you can go home again emerges, as well as the possibility of transformation.

This last section is especially rich in echoes of the best of Southern literature. A character like William Faulkner's Benjy, awful relatives like those in Eudora Welty, and grotesque creatures akin to Flannery O'Connor's characters appear both as flesh and metaphor. Mrs. Betts can evoke them all, the wry, comic, familiar voices, without a quiver of lost timbre, and in addition to her marvelous ear there's her own droll vision.

"Heading West" is a book of great delights. (p. 28)

Beth Gutcheon, "Willing Victim," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 17, 1982, pp. 12, 28.


Betts, Doris (Vol. 6)