Catherine Venable Moore — Writer & Producer

Listening to Mary Lee

In Audio, Cedar Grove, Current Projects, Mary Lee Settle, West Virginia History, Women's History on November 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Listening to archival tape of writer Mary Lee Settle today, I found a few gems that I wanted to put out there. They’re from a series called “Tell It On The Mountain,” hosted by poet Nikki Giovanni and produced in the mid-90’s by Maxine Kenny at WMMT, the public radio station of Appalshop in Whitesburg, K.y. The series featured women writers who call the southern Appalachian Mountains home.

From Giovanni’s Intro: …Settle grew up in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia and she dabbled in acting and high fashion modeling before turning to a lifetime of writing. Now in her 70s, National Book Award winner Marry Lee Settle has lived through some turbulent years in American and European history, much of which she documents in impeccably researched historical fiction. Five of her acclaimed novels are called the Beaulah Quintet. These collected works trace the history of several Appalachian families from their roots in Cromwell’s England to the coal towns of West Virginia. Settle’s most recently published novel, “Choices,” follows one woman’s involvement in the great social movements of the 20th century. In her work, Mary Lee Settle proves everyday events are not always what they seem, and that economics, history, and class dominate our everyday lives. Having been born to it, she delights in criticizing the class of people she calls the “mountain gentility.”

 

On the “Mountain Kingdom” and why she writes historical fiction

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In my lifetime, I saw what had been a virgin country decimated by industry. I think I was marked by it. And also, I got sick of the legends of history. I think the reality of our history is so much stronger. So much more to be proud of, and ashamed of, than the sort of pacified, cleaned-up legend of our history. I wanted to know where I came from, what I was doing here, why I had the attitudes–the trained, received attitudes that I had. I questioned a lot of them, and a lot I threw out. (…) I’ve always said there’s a mountain kingdom in this country, and it goes from Wheeling down to east Tennessee. And we all belong together. We’re all more alike than we are like other people. My husband says you can’t rule anybody born above 5,000 feet. I think that in the mountain kingdom, this is true.

On strip mining

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My husband and I went to Harlan and Bell counties a couple of years ago. I was doing some research on book I just finished. And there aren’t any beautiful mountains anymore. Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled them away. (music) I think what’s happened in the mountains is tragic. You know that song? Oh, I tell you, I remember sitting in the back of a boat in the Aegean, and we’d all been diving. And it was somebody from the American Consul in Istanbul had brought some bluegrass music and I was crying, sitting in the stern of this boat in the Aegean, listening to Peabody’s Coal Train. (…) My father’s first job as a mining engineer was in a mine in the Kanawha Valley where there was not one word of English spoken. It was all Italian. And he said that those Italian people that came over made gardens and walls and raised vineyards, everything, up in those hollers. And my God you should see them now. Stripped out and ruined. I feel fairly strongly on this subject.

The Me That Came Back

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The me that came back was the me that had grown up there, to myself. But to other people, I was somebody who had gone away and got a lot of high falutin’ ideas and wasn’t behaving like a Sweetbrier girl anymore and asking too many questions. Once there was a German girl called ‘The Nasty Girl.’ That’s what I was treated like. It was an appalling experience. And now of course I go back and they give me prizes like that damn thing up there, and 3,000 people come to hear me talk. If they realized that when I leave, I just want to go, ‘pffff.’ People treat their own very badly in this country. You know when we were talking in the beginning about something called the creative impulse and how it’s dangerous? That’s what I meant. For a southerner, it tends to be dangerous. Especially for a mountain southerner. Because you don’t break the genteel rules. We have barriers to get over. They aren’t barriers–almost moats, aren’t they? Of understanding. I remember when working on ‘The Scapegoat,’ I was in a pool at Warm Springs and somebody that I knew whose husband was a very rich coal owner said, ‘I hope you tell the truth about the coal industry, I mean, our side.’ And I thought, there isn’t any side. There isn’t any side.

  1. She was a truly great individual. Thanks for posting her voice along with her words.
    Namaste,
    Bob

  2. It was my good fortune to meet her several times and I enjoyed her good humor and ability to create a warm and friendly feeling with admiring fans.

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