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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lee Smith
(b. 1944)

Lee Smith has been making up stories—or letting stories tell themselves—since she was a child; she said once that she did it to keep herself from lying. Her first novel, written while she was an undergraduate at Hollins College, appeared in 1968 and won an award. The novels and stories, and the awards, have kept on coming. When Lee Smith gives a reading, her audiences are enthralled; at a book signing, people—women, mostly—line up and loop around, waiting with astonishing patience for a chance to meet and speak to the writer. Smith’s subjects, like her stories and her voices, are many; but if there is one continuing theme, it is the ways it feels to be a southern woman today. She casts her many voices through as many places and times, yet she writes with special tenderness for her gender and her generation.

In the story Smith has called the closest to her own life, “Tongues of Fire,” a gap or gulf between classes separates and attracts the protagonist (a girl whom Dorothy Smith describes as “strangled by a mother rigidly dedicated to keeping up appearances”) and her schoolmate, who lives in a very different world among the contemporary rural poor. Her schoolmate’s mother speaks in tongues: “Tongues of fire just come down on my head,” she tells her daughter’s city friend. “I envy this,” Smith herself has said, “and aspire to it more than I can tell you.”

To many readers, it is Smith herself who speaks in tongues. She has an uncanny ear for voices and an uncommon range. In Oral History, Smith’s “breakthrough” novel, for example, we hear first the voice of a college student filled with the new pomposities of academic talk. She is convinced that she can “capture” her own past through oral history. But when her tape recorder records the ghostly historical voices of Granny Younger, Red Emmy, Richard Burlage, Dory Cantrell, those voices become for the reader more real and alive that the utterances of present day characters. Smith brings the lyricism of mountain ballads to life in their talk. In her many other narratives, the voices come from southern cities, mountains, and coasts; they come from the deep past and the “Phil Donahue Show”; they come from men and women, the young and the aged, rich and poor.

The voices of Smith’s characters emerge in patterns that suggest thematic preoccupations as well as sheer lyricism. Richard Burlage (Oral History), the educated Richmonder who comes to the mountains in search of “the very roots of consciousness and belief,” betrays those very roots by abandoning his mountain love, Dory, and by returning to his “real” life in Richmond. At the same time, his language, which had moved close to incoherence in his passion for Dory, regresses to the highly literate—and controlling—diction of his origins, and even the phrase above, “the very roots,” is exposed as a cliché. Yet the mountains do not emerge as the dichotomous victor in a thematic battle with civilization: Smith exposes Richard’s mountain fantasies as primitivist projections by showing, for example, Dory’s own longings for something other and different from what she has known. “Artists” deals with gaps between classes, arts, and artists. Jennifer’s ultimate choice of the art of Molly Crews should not be read as a simple victory for one side either, however. Smith consistently explores the sentimentality implied in privileging difference, particularly when the person doing the privileging comes from an already privileged position.

Smith’s first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968), tackles the question of difference and its relation to art head on. The narrator is a child whose summer sees the collapse of her fantasies about her family and about her own safety (a visiting boy forces Susan into sex through the rhetorical power of his imaginary friend). The power of the imagination to construct and to destroy is a major force as well in Something in the Wind, the story of a college student. In Black Mountain Breakdown, overwhelmed by an early rape and by her (not irrelevant) willingness to please, hence her inability to assert herself, Crystal Spangler ends up self-paralyzed.

Crystal Spangler marked the “bottom” in a sense for Lee Smith’s women; since then, their capacity for resilience, strength, pain, and sheer joy has grown steadily. Smith’s tour de force character, surely, is Ivy Rowe of Fair and Tender Ladies, an epistolary novel that takes Ivy from her first words to her death. Ivy inspired a one-woman play by Barbara Smith and Mark Hunter which ran off Broadway in 1990. Smith’s latest novel, Devil’s Dream, renders country music into narrative by telling the stories of country musicians. It too has inspired another creative enterprise, a traveling show and audiotape starring Smith reading and writer Clyde Edgerton singing, along with other expert country musicians.

Lee Smith has an irrepressible love of play that pervades her fiction. There is tummy-crunching humor in her lighter novels (Fancy Strut, Family Linen) and in many of her stories (collected in Cakewalk and Me and My Baby View the Eclipse), as well as in fugitive pieces like her parody of romance novels (and of her own most tragic character) in “Desire on Silhouette Lagoon: A Harleque’en Romanza by Crystal Spangler.” Beyond the humor, her sense of play means that Smith’s writing is constantly in process: she does not stop inventing new characters, new stories, and new literary strategies, showing—and giving—through it all a great and lasting pleasure.

Anne Goodwyn Jones
University of Florida

In the Heath Anthology
The Bubba Stories (1997)

Other Works
The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968)
Something in the Wind (1971)
Fancy Strut (1973)
Black Mountain Breakdown (1980)
Cakewalk (1981)
Oral History (1983)
"Desire on Silhouette Lagoon," in Uneeda Review, ed. J. Parkhurst Schimmelpfennig (1984)
Family Linen (1985)
Fair and Tender Ladies (1988)
Me and My Baby View the Eclipse (1990)
Devil's Dream (1992)
"The Bubba Stories," in The Rough Road Home, ed. Robert Gingher (1993)
Saving Grace (1994)
Christmas Letters (1996)

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The Bubba Stories
A New York Times Book Review by Julia Reed with a link to the first chapter, "Blue Wedding."

A Conversation with Lee Smith
Transcript of a Nashville Public Radio interview.

The Official Site of Author Lee Smith
Smith's page provides biographical information, list of works, and more.

Secondary Sources