The recent date of July 29 marks the birthday of distinguished West Virginia novelist Mary Lee Settle. Although she wrote numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, she is probably best known for her cycle of novels known as the “Beulah Quintet,” which trace the histories of several West Virginia families from their origins in the 1600s up through the mid twentieth century. They also explore the evolution of American democracy and American ideas of freedom. In addition, she created the PEN/Faulkner Award, a yearly award presented to an author based on the votes of fellow writers.
Mary Lee Settle was born on July 29, 1918 in Charleston, West Virginia. Her father was a civil engineer working in the coal fields, and some of her childhood was spent in rural Kentucky. The family returned to West Virginia around 1930 after time in both Kentucky and Florida. She later attended Sweet Briar College in Virginia for two years, then left the school to become a model in New York. She married an Englishman, Rodney Wethersbee, and moved to England. During the war years she gave birth to a son, served in the women’s branch of the RAF, and wrote for the U.S. Office of War Information.
During this time she became serious about her own writing and became friends with people in English literary and publishing circles. She divorced Wethersbee, married English writer Douglas Newton, and worked for a while as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar during a brief return to the U.S., but decided to focus more on her own work. She wrote six plays before turning to fiction. Her first novel to be published was actually her second– The Love Eaters (1954), followed by her first: Kiss of Kin (1955).
She became interested in writing about early America, and during the late 1940s began researching the world of 17th century colonial America at the British Library, unexpectedly finding in England an embarrassment of riches relating to the history of early Virginia. Her first novel of the Beulah Quintet to be published (although not the first in terms of its fictional chronology) was O Beulah Land (1956), concerning settlement of what would become West Virginia. The other volumes of the Quintet are Know Nothing (1960), which concerns the Civil War; Prisons (1973) which is actually the first book in the quintet as it introduces the two 17th century men who are the ancestors of subsequent characters; Scapegoat (1980), dealing with one day in 1917 during a coal mine strike; and The Killing Ground (1982), set in the later 20th century. The Killing Ground is actually a revision of another novel Settle wrote and published in the early 1960s called Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. She revised the novel to make it congruent with the earlier novels of the quintet. In addition to her literary artistry, Settle is widely respected for the historical authenticity of her work. She spent months immersed in old letters and documents to better understand how people in earlier times thought and talked. To gain an understanding of how labor activist Mother Jones spoke, Settle read aloud into a tape recorder hours of Jones’ testimony in a court case to absorb the rhythms of her speech.
Mary Lee Settle divorced her second husband and returned to the U.S. in 1956, eventually teaching at Bard College in upstate New York and later at the University of Virginia. She lived in Turkey from 1968 to 1972—she actually did what some people promised they would do if Richard Nixon was elected President: leave the country. But the situation appears to have been more serious than a simple dislike of Nixon. In an interview with The Paris Review, Settle described being harassed for political and anti-war activity—constant hang-up phone calls at night, mysterious cars repeatedly pulling in and out of her driveway—and she was also heavily questioned by IRS officials before being allowed to leave for Turkey. It seems quite possible to me that she was probably very suspicious to authorities at the time given not only her politics, but also her time overseas and the fact she had served in a foreign military—even one that was an ally—during World War II. It will be interesting to see if a future biographer turns up an FBI COINTELPRO file on Mary Lee Settle.
She returned from Turkey not long after Nixon’s resignation. She wrote a novel about British and American expatriates in Turkey called Blood Ties that won the National Book Award in 1978. That same year she married her third husband, a writer and historian named William Tazewell. They were married for twenty years until his death in 1998.
Mary Lee Settle’s other books beside the Quintet include novels with both southern and British settings and several nonfiction books for children. In 1966 she published a memoir of her RAF experience in World War II– All The Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. She also wrote books of travel essays on Spain and Turkey. Her last novel was I, Roger Williams, a fictional autobiography of the theologian, religious freedom advocate, and founder of Rhode Island. For Mary Lee Settle, Roger Williams was a key figure in understanding the development of American democracy.
Mary Lee Settle died from lung cancer on September 25, 2005.
NY Times obituary: Anita Gates, September 29, 2005.
The Literature of the Appalachian South: George Brosi. Sixth printing, 1995.
Wikipedia: Mary Lee Settle.
The Paris Review: Spring 1990, Vol, 114. Interview by Kenny Crane.
VQR Online (Virginia Quarterly Review): “Mary Lee Settle: The Lioness In Winter.” Mariflo Stephens, Autumn 1996.