Lee Smith Smith, Lee - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lee Smith 1944–

American novelist and short story writer.

Smith's fiction is set in the contemporary South. Her works are characterized by a tone of ironic humor, a fast narrative pace, and an eye for oddity in character and community. Her characters, often not developed past caricatures, struggle to accept the world's realities. Faced with truth, some of Smith's characters withdraw into fantasy, others into madness. This theme of "spiritual anemia" runs through all of Smith's works. It has prompted critic Leonard Rogoff to conclude that she "writes novels of limitations rather than possibilities."

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mother is a Queen, sister is a Princess, and daddy is a cuckold, as seen by a 9-year-old Susan [in "The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed"]. One day a fierce Baron invades their castle in Dixie to take the Queen away to Splitsville in his big black car. Meanwhile, on the junior level, a dreadful little summer visitor forms a club to show the kids how to play doctor, and worse. The dogbushes, by the way, are not dogwood, but a place where a stray dog was found. Ah youth … youth, what novels are committed in thy name!

Martin Levin, "Reader's Report: 'The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1968, p. 82.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One aspect of Hemingway's technique is somewhat over-worked in [Lee Smith's Something in the Wind, a yarn] about an eighteen year old girl on the loose as a freshman in college: even though the girl herself is the narrator and all manner of events affect her, readers are given few insights into her own character, her thinking, or her motivations. All we are really aware of is her meticulously cultivated approach to life, one that dissociates her from reality and permits her to regard herself as a separate being, thus able to participate in an action without personal involvement including endless copulations with a succession of strangers. If the heroine's intellectual solution to the problems of living in a contemporary world is marked by considerable vacuity, at least her methods are marked by abandon, despair, vengeance, and a subconscious wish to play Delilah to all men and symbolically emasculate each in turn, one by one.

"Notes on Current Books: 'Something in the Wind'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1971, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 47, No. 3 (Summer, 1971), p. xcvi.∗

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Fancy strut," I learned from Lee Smith, is that stride of the drum majorette that resembles the goose-step. It's an important step for the town of Speed (Ala.), which aims to have its sesquicentennial parade led by its prize-winning high-stepper in the Tuscaloosa statewide competition. Other sesquicentennial events include an outdoor pageant ("The Song of Speed"), produced by an outdoor pageant promoter, a riot, a fire, a bungled suicide, a couple of seductions, and an acute case of senile dementia.

All the unscheduled events are in some way connected with the town's birthday carnival, which explodes into a display of comic fireworks that are a pure delight. "Fancy Strut" is that rarity, a genuinely funny book that is satiric without being mean. Speed's social arbiter is a crazy lady possessed by delusions of past grandeur, and the rest of its power structure is afflicted with appropriate occupational diseases. I wouldn't want to live there, but Miss Smith makes it a great place to visit.

Martin Levin, "New and Novel: 'Fancy Strut'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1973, p. 47.

Leonard Rogoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lee Smith's Fancy Strut marks a departure and homecoming. Her first novel—The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed—traces a Southern childhood, the story of Susan Tobey, who fancies a dreamworld of royalty and sunlight, even as her family disintegrates, even as her own imagination darkens and closes in on her. The second—Something in the Wind—is a novel of adolescence, Brooke Kincaid's, from boarding school in Virginia to university. Brooke too lives a vicarious life, through her friend and soul-mate Charles, who has died in a car crash. Brooke would also die to the world, embalmed in beer and shrouded in self-pity. She chooses not to understand, retiring in pain and madness…. Brooke's wish is to be left alone, not to "live in the world"; Susan Tobey would "see everything" but have "nothing … see me." Neither will feel or cry. Both would "live underground."…

In Fancy Strut Lee Smith expands the point of view and intrudes into other lives: a cheerleader, a demented spinster, a CPA. Unwilling or unable to transcend Brooke's special torment, Miss Smith has written a gently comic novel that is broader in sympathy but also less intense in feeling. Not confession but reporting, this is the portrait of a community: Speed, Alabama, 1965, the Year of the Sesquicentennial. If we care less for the businessmen and housewives of Speed than for Susan or Brooke, we recognize that they too are trying to make some sense of their world, however marginal their risks and niggling their victories. For despite the sternest efforts of these earnest, civic-minded townspeople to stage their pageant, events proceed without schedule and the Sesquicentennial program ends calamitously in a riot. The laughter is droll rather than sardonic; Miss Smith's penchant is for irony, but here it gleams far brighter than in her previous novels. Instead of visceral pain we have for once a laugh from the comic side of the absurd. If Susan and Brooke suffered privately, Speed's debacle is open to the public, and tickets sell quick and cheap. (p. 110)

Our laughter at [the people of Speed] is often disquietingly smug; however much the bric-brac of Speed clutters our own lives, we remain outsiders, detached, even as we feel ourselves strangers returning to our own hometowns. This...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With their pubescent rotundities to the rear and impertinent little bosoms to the front, young majorettes twirling quite superfluous batons in the course of a sesquicentennial celebration by townsfolk in a medium-sized Southern city constitute the center of attraction in Lee Smith's newest novel [Fancy Strut], enabling her to disclose with admirable deftness the behind-the-scenes manipulations by promoters and participants alike, their petty chicaneries and their predatory pursuits of old-fashioned sin. Her book clips along at a lively pace and thus prompts the reader to hope she will presently develop material matching her innate capacities and engaging narrative skill.

"Notes on Current Books: 'Fancy Strut'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), p. viii.∗

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The real heroine of Lee Smith's new novel, her fourth, is not doom-ridden Crystal Renee Spangler…. The real heroine of "Black Mountain Breakdown" is the narrator's voice, which turns Miss Smith's story into a country music ballad or a Southern Appalachian breakdown, in the sense of the word that means a tune played for a noisy dance, as in "Pike County Breakdown."

It is a voice that rushes its story forward in the present tense….

It is a voice of many moods—from the delicate dreaminess of adolescence to the breathless cattiness of a smalltown gossip….

Perhaps most impressive: it is a voice that reveals unhesitantly every banal and tawdry detail about her...

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Annie Gottlieb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Black Mountain Breakdown] Lee Smith does not show us life through a filter of literary allusions or devices. Instead, she gives us the sharp, sweet sensations of a life-hungry adolescent and the fresh poetry of Appalachian names…. There is no retrospective frame around the story of Crystal Spangler, so what happens to her is not a foregone conclusion…. We experience her life as she does, and it surprises us at every turn; we feel we are in the presence of someone "fully alive … more than real."

As a teen-ager in Black Rock, Va., Crystal is aroused to fear and ecstasy by the scary poems her father reads her in the darkened front room where he has withdrawn to drink and dream. After her father's death, and her rape by his retarded brother, Crystal is driven to seek out feelings of intensity: She sleeps with a "bad boy" from a nameless hollow, is "born again" at a revival meeting, has a vision. Her life fever impels her beyond Black Rock, away from her practical, enduring mother, her stolid best friend and her crazy-quilt of relatives, all the way to a New York burn-out from which she must come home to heal.

Lee Smith wisely observes Crystal's trajectory, like the departure and return of Halley's Comet, from the solid earth of Black Rock. In this novel, ordinary life has its own comforting poetry, but Crystal just isn't made for ordinary life. By living at home and teaching school she achieves an eggshell-like simulacrum of ordinary existence, but when well-meaning people force real life on her, she turns away to madness and to a beautifully implicit reunion with her dead father. Her withdrawal seems as much consummation as tragedy. She is not a failure but simply a stranger, one who, passing through life at a different angle, found it luminous. (pp. 15, 22)

Annie Gottlieb, "Three Hapless Heroines," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 29, 1981, pp. 14-15, 22.∗

Rosanne Coggeshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lee Smith's fourth novel, Black Mountain Breakdown, stands in relation to her first three books … in much the same way that Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's fourth novel, signals in her work new dimensions in vision as well as new stylistic and technical mastery. Smith has moved from her first narrative voice, that of nine-year-old Susan Tobey in Dogbushes, to a detached yet sympathetic and ironic third person omniscient narrator who reveals with equal ease the innermost musings of heroine Crystal Spangler, her "best friend" Agnes, her mother Lorene, her step-father Odell Peacock, and numerous other finely drawn and always interesting citizens of the Black Rock community.

We first meet Crystal when she is twelve years old, as she sits on the shore of the Levisa river, watching the lightning bugs that her friend Agnes expects her to be catching. Although "she could catch [them] … she doesn't; Crystal doesn't move." This passivity, this capacity for stillness, rare in a twelve-year-old, marks a quality in Crystal that makes her deserve her name…. [It] is this opening portion of the book, this scene of the youthful Crystal who can act but will not, whether from reverence for the beauty of the wild world she watches or from sheerest apathy we are never wholly certain, that we remember as we observe her growth and the metamorphoses, or seeming metamorphoses, that growth entails.

Despite the pervasiveness of Smith's always infectious humor, there remains an inescapable sombreness in Crystal Spangler's history. Is she, as her suicide-lover Jerold believed, "doomed" (as he was)? Or has she, in the end, reached a bliss that seems to us too fantastic to be real? Perhaps we are meant to conclude, as her step-father does, that the "Trouble with Crystal is, sometimes she almost makes you think something, but then she makes you stop and you never know what it was. You never get it thought through."

Rosanne Coggeshall, "Books in Brief: 'Black Mountain Breakdown'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1981 by Hollins College), Vol. XVIII, No. 2, April, 1981, p. 15.

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For the heroines in this collection of Lee Smith's stories [Cakewalk], life happens on two levels. There are the half truths, pieties and conventions of Middle America, Southern division, and then there are the secret impulses of the heart. Sometimes this tension turns her women into lovable—maybe too lovable—eccentrics, like wild old Mrs. Darcy in "Mrs. Darcy Meets the Blue-Eyed Stranger at the Beach," who hides her gift of healing from her worldly nagging daughters, or scatterbrained Florrie in the title story "Cakewalk," whose disorderly household and fantastic homemade cakes express a full and innocent heart. Sometimes, too, they are not so lovable, like the iron-willed grandmother in "Artists."… Others flounder, comically like Martha, the mad housewife of "Dear Phil Donahue," whose ideas of love are straight out of a country western song and who is stranded by her low-life boyfriend in a Louisiana motel. (pp. 14, 24)

[Lee Smith] is to Southern writing what the New South is to the South. Hers is a South divested of mystery, of broodings about hellfire and race and fatal family history—indeed, of history, period…. Her heroines get their ideas from women's magazines and soap operas, and, if they are very daring, from Phil Donahue. They sustain themselves by their own pluck and warmth.

It would be wrong to claim too much for these stories. With the exception of two unsuccessful experimental efforts, they are not ambitious. But if they are sometimes too pat, too obvious in their sympathies—after all, how many wise eccentrics misunderstood by crass relatives can one book support?—they are also lively and compassionate. Miss Smith has a sharp ear for the rapid pithy speech of her neighbors and an amused eye for the sheer oddity of small-town popular culture, and these talents do much to animate even her most conventional stories. (p. 24)

Katha Pollitt, "Southern Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 22, 1981, pp. 14, 24.

Rosanne Coggeshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Lee Smith's Cakewalk] works to confirm our conviction of the solidity, complexity, and downright delightfulness of her fiction. These fourteen stories, written over a period of eleven years … offer us worlds not necessarily unfamiliar yet charactered by Smith originals, men and women and children whose lives reveal the rarities too often left unnoticed in hour to hour existence….

The force of Smith's stories (like the force of her novels) depends largely on [the] ranges and depths of vision, vision not just of character or narrator but of the author herself. Grounded always in the recognizable world of Krogers and "Cool Club Rules," [Smith's] characters, through what they see and what they say, stretch and extend the boundaries of accepted reality, and take us to existential borders we've never before imagined. Smith's characters, like friends we have lost touch with and yet cannot forget, restore to us insights too worthy and valuable for easy definition….

Smith reveals intricacies of character and ambiguities of destiny that pull us back to contemplate her fictional world again and again, so here does she present us with lives never incredible and yet never simply apprehended. Much of the wonder of Smith's creations is derived from her mastery of the combination of the joyous and the awe-ful. Smith's Cakewalk commands first our attention, then our affection, and then our awe-filled delight.

Rosanne Coggeshall, "Books in Brief: 'Cakewalk'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1981 by Hollins College), Vol. XVIII, No. 5, December, 1981, p. 17.

Martha Ullman West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lee Smith has been pegged by a number of reputable reviewers writing in equally reputable publications as a regional writer, an author who can easily be mentioned in the same sentence as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor and Ellen Glasgow….

[The stories in Cakewalk] do not deny the validity of the comparison, but such pigeonholing does not tell the whole story. Smith does set her fiction south of the Mason Dixon line, where she also happens to live, and she does indeed have a talent for replicating the embellishments of the mountain yarn. The best of the stories in this collection, however, go beyond regionalism, telling about people and their relationships in a...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In a story in Cakewalk], "Artists," a young girl finds herself faced with a choice of identities that is reflected in the two pitched camps her family forms near her grandfather's deathbed; when the girl's father brings the dying old man's mistress to sit by his side, the family divides into those who are loyal to the grandmother, ensconced in frozen decorum downstairs in her Florida room painting cardinals and doves, and those who respect the mistress, a beauty shop proprietor who had been the one light of the grandfather's life for twenty years. "The whole family had to take sides," Jennifer notes, yet she herself cannot….

Which road to follow—high art and waist-length hair, suffering...

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