Mary Lee Settle

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In addition to her novels, Mary Lee Settle wrote several nonfiction books. Her juvenile works, The Story of Flight (1967) and Water World (1984), the latter being a parallel history of humanity’s exploration of the sea, are not as significant as her autobiographical All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman Second Class 2146391 (1966) or her historical study The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes (1972). All the Brave Promises describes Settle’s experiences as an American volunteer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1942 and 1943. The Scopes Trial, like All the Brave Promises, deals with human responses to a historical confrontation. In Addie (1998), Settle examines her life as it is framed by her ancestors, including her grandmother, Addie Tompkins.


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As late as 1978, when she won the National Book Award for fiction for Blood Tie, critics were calling Mary Lee Settle an “unknown” writer. With the earlier publication of four of her historical novels, some of them had praised her for the research-based realism that resulted in works more respectable than the typically lurid products of that genre. Critics, however, found Settle’s complexity sometimes confusing, pointing out the changes in point of view, the flash-forwards and flashbacks, and sometimes the assumption that the reader knew the history of her characters as well as the writer did. There was a lack of agreement as to whether her characters were well developed. After the completion of the Beulah Quintet (consisting of O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, Prisons, The Scapegoat, and The Killing Ground) in 1982, however, critics recognized the depth and scope of her vision, arguing that Settle’s structural complexity was justified by her aim: to present the truth about human relationships in their historical context. To her early champions, among them Malcolm Cowley and George Garrett, were added numerous other critics who saw evidence of her considerable talent in her contemporary works as well as in the historical novels. To them, the award for Blood Tie was a belated recognition rather than an unexpected one.

When Celebration was published in 1986, Settle received praise, rather than blame, for her stylistic and technical feats, and she was no longer faulted for her characterization. Settle’s reputation was established as that of a skillful, serious writer whose approach to her material was justified by her purpose: to document her own search and that of her characters for, as critic Peggy Bach put it, “their own personal past and the taproot that was cut.” Settle’s lifetime achievement was formally recognized in 1994, when the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her its Academy Award in Literature.


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Bach, Peggy. “The Searching Voice and Vision of Mary Lee Settle.” Southern Review 20 (October, 1984): 842-850. After outlining the various critical assessments of Settle’s work, Bach supports her own insistence that it can hardly be rated too highly. In the Beulah Quintet, Settle has traced a family through three hundred years of history, showing how desperately even people beginning fresh in a new land need to have a sense of their past.

Galligan, Edward L. “The Novels of Mary Lee Settle.” The Sewanee Review 104 (Summer, 1996): 413-422. Galligan offers a general view of Settle’s fiction, focusing on her variety and unpredictability in order to undergird his argument that she is worthy of a serious place in American letters.

Garrett, George. Understanding Mary Lee Settle . Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. Garrett is one of Settle’s most prolific analysts; in this work he offers an overview of her oeuvre, including sympathetic discussions of her major fiction,...

(This entire section contains 381 words.)

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with special attention to the Beulah Quintet. He also devotes chapters toBlood Tie, Celebration, and some of her nonfiction.

Joyner, Nancy Carol. “Mary Lee Settle’s Connections: Class and Clothes in the Beulah Quintet.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Stresses the theme of social rigidity and social injustice in Settle’s Beulah Quintet.

Rosenberg, Brian. Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Rosenberg examines the Quintet as a single fiction instead of a series of related novels, seeing it as a grand-scale work which uses the history of West Virginia as a paradigm of the history of the United States.

Speer, Jean Haskell. “Montani Semper Liberi: Mary Lee Settle and the Myths of Appalachia.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. Speer contends that in the Beulah Quintet one of Settle’s purposes was to debunk such myths as the assumption that there is a single, easily defined Appalachian culture whose people are both ignorant and innocent.

Stephens, Mariflo. “Mary Lee Settle: The Lioness in Winter.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 74 (Fall, 1996): 581-589. Novelist Stephens records her acquaintance with Settle, including material about Settle’s life, politics, and writing. Stephens believes that politics inspired a negative review of Choices.


Critical Essays