Thursday, August 19, 2010

Know Nothing by Mary Lee Settle

. . . he wondered in the dark if it was only he, and men like him who were fated to be the know nothings, to question, to see beyond their attitudes, but not to speak.


"Oh, I am a lady and I'm not supposed to know anything. Ladies and slaves, look after their wants and rule their minds and keep them innocent. You men!"

She laughed again. "It's a woman's joke. Ladies always know the father of the mulattos on the next plantation. Never their own. How do you think we feel?" She waved her hand, pushing at him blindly. "I don't care for your fine ideals. I reckon women are more consarned with the facts. Lord God"--she sighed--"we have to be. You. . ."

--Mary Lee Settle, Know Nothing (1960)

Know Nothing is an antebellum novel written by the National Book Award-winning and PEN/Faulkner Award-founding author Mary Lee Settle who--get this--dropped out of college and auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind before moving to New York to work as an actress and model.

Despite a writing career that spanned 50 years, she appears to be a relative unknown in the book blogging community. That's unfortunate. Several years back I read more than 200 pages in her I, Roger Williams before setting it aside--too much Williams in Jacobean London, not enough colonial New England as I'd expected. But I gave her another chance in 2006 with The Scapegoat, which I thought a fantastic book. I've seen no mention of any Settle novel in the blogs since.


Know Nothing, just as fantastic as The Scapegoat, proceeds it in The Beulah Quintet, the series of novels, written out of order (and which I'll most likely continue reading out of order), focusing on the families who settle in the Alleghenies of West Virginia. It begins in 1837, with an eight-year-old Johnny Catlett, thrown in the river by his father as a means of teaching him how to swim. It ends in 1861, with Johnny, now fatherless and a captain in the confederate army, "swept up as a swimmer by the sudden flood of fear, but still with his head above water." In between Settle shows us what it was like to be a slave owner, a slave, a poor relation or a wife treated as a perpetual outsider by her husband's extended live-in family. Any resemblance to "Gone With the Wind" is an ironic one.

Settle regarded herself as an "archaeologist of language," one who researched primary sources to learn exactly how each of her characters should speak. Is it socially acceptable to use the word "ain't"? Who has more social standing--the woman who refers to her "pin money" or to her "egg money"?

And getting beyond language into the nuances of behavior, can a genteel mother survive the tackiness of a daughter approaching the mourners' bench during a tent revival? Is having new furnishings instead of hand-me-downs a sign of social inferiority? Can a man be both an abolitionist and a gentleman? (And why will a reader such as myself find it harder to forgive a character for a single witnessed act of abuse against an animal (a cat) than for that perpetuated by the same character over the decades against his fellow humans?)

If I'm making it all sound too academic, I apologize. It really isn't. Know Nothing is at heart the story of thwarted love--Melinda, the penniless orphaned cousin, is raised by Johnny's family, who won't be particularly happy if the two wind up together. And when Johnny is reluctant to commit-- "Cain't you give me time, Melinda?"-- Melinda, who knows the typical fate of an unmarried aging extraneous woman in the house, allows herself to be persuaded into marrying besmitten fourth-cousin Crawford, whose fatal flaw is to have no flaws. Can good come from it?

I've just received a used copy of Settle's Choices, a novel not in The Beulah Quintet but one whose main character bears the same name, and no doubt the same lineage, as Melinda in Know Nothing. That's my next Settle before I delve back into the Quintet.


  1. Wow! This sounds fantastic. I've never even heard of Settle, but she's going right on my list! I'm especially intrigued about the idea of novels set in the Alleghenies, since I grew up not too far from there.

  2. Settle is quite widely appreciated in the Southern Lit world, and I have appreciated a few of her great books (Choices being one of them). I haven't yet read these, but they're on the someday list.

  3. I don't remember Settle's name being mentioned in any of my lit classes at Chapel Hill, but it may well have been and I simply didn't pay attention--wouldn't be the first time I've zoned out on something important.

    Teresa, have you read anything by John Ehle? He's more of a Appalachians in North Carolina kind of guy, but he'd probably appeal to you. I met him at a reading years ago and he pegged my accent down to the county. (Which, of course, was horrifying, but impressive nonetheless.)

  4. Does it at least count that I own some of her fiction? If I ever mentioned it on my blog it would have been years ago. Maybe I should go grab a book off my shelves. I think at least one of the books I have I bought at a used bookstore, and I remember the owner telling me what a wonderful writer she is. How interesting that she tried out for the part of Scarlett. Good thing she didn't get it, eh, or she might not have written her books.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.