Novelist Mary Lee Settle (July 29, 1918-September 27, 2005) was born in Charleston. Her father, a mining engineer, moved his young family frequently as he followed the boom and bust of what his daughter later referred to as the manic-depressive coal industry. When Mary Lee was 10 years old, the family finally settled down in Charleston where Mary lived until she was 18. After two years at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, she moved to New York, and then to England where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II. All the Brave Promises (1966) is a moving account of her wartime experiences.
Following the war Settle returned to the United States, worked as an editor, and later taught fiction writing at Bard College and then at the University of Virginia. Even though she spent most of her adult life outside West Virginia, and a number of years outside the country, living in London, Paris, Rome, and Turkey, Settle had deep roots in the Mountain State. Her great-grandfather came to the Kanawha River Valley after the War of 1812, and built a home in 1844 at what became known as Cedar Grove. After several years in Turkey (where she wrote Blood Tie, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1978), Settle returned to her ancestral home at Cedar Grove and tried to write in its familiar surroundings. However, what she described as too much past and too much family made the attempt unsuccessful.
Although Mary Lee produced many novels as well as nonfiction during the past 50 years, her literary reputation rests on the Beulah Quintet, a sequence of five historical novels spanning four centuries. The Quintet took the author more than 25 years to research and write. It is the story of West Virginia from the appearance of the first white people in the 1750s to the present, the centuries linked together by a network of families and kinships. O Beulah Land (1956), the first and best known of the five books, focuses on the settlement of Canona (a fictional Charleston) in the years before the American Revolution. Know Nothing (1960) came next, picking up the descendants of Beulah Land’s characters some 60 years later and following them to the outbreak of the Civil War. Prisons (1973), the author’s personal favorite, is out of chronological order since it fills in the period prior to O Beulah Land. Prisons was undertaken when Settle realized that she must go back to the 17th-century English civil war to reveal her prevailing theme, the struggle for freedom, as it was originally expressed by the soldiers in Oliver Cromwell’s army. Returning to her West Virginia chronology and setting in The Scapegoat (1980), she presented a full treatment of the early 20th-century Mine Wars, casting Mother Jones as a principal character. The Killing Ground (1982), the story of modern Canona, completed the saga.
Settle’s creative outpouring did not diminish with age. In 1998, she published Addie, a revealing autobiography which demonstrates the profound influence of family and place on her writing. In 2001, at the age of 83, the author published I, Roger Williams, a novel based on the life of the founder of Rhode Island.
Mary Lee Settle died in Ivy, Virginia.
Written by Susan E. Lewis
Garrett, George P. Understanding Mary Lee Settle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Rosenberg, Brian. Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
Settle, Mary Lee. Addie: A Memoir. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.