“Multiple Personality Disorder”: Speakers and Listeners in Lee Smith’s Novels
Lee Smith’s new novel, On Agate Hill, is filled with characters who have “speaking parts.” One of these belongs to Molly Petree, a “ghost girl” coming of age in the “dead world” of the South immediately following the Civil War. The book has received strong praise. In one reviewer’s words, “Smith is such a beautiful writer, tough and full of grace, that soon you are lost in the half-light of Molly's haunted landscape, listening to the voices of the ghosts, wishing they'd let you stay longer." Over a career that now spans forty years and fifteen works of fiction, including twelve novels, matters of voice, ghostly and otherwise, have become consistently more central to Lee’s fiction. As she herself notes, “Voice is most important to me. My stories always tell themselves to me in a human voice—often, with a mountain accent. If I can hear the voice, I can write the book.” In the sketch that follows, we’ll listen as often as possible to Lee’s own voice talking about her craft. Luckily, there are now many wide-ranging interviews to draw upon, in which with her usual generosity, she shares her thinking about her craft with a forthrightness that is one of the strongest features of her speech.
For a new edition of her groundbreaking novel, Oral History (first published in 1983), Lee recently constructed an entertaining fictional interview, allowing one of the novel’s characters, Jink Cantrell, to leave the confines of the book to ask its author some questions. At one point Jink queries, “why did you put so many voices in it? Some people have found it hard to follow.” Lee replies, “Oh, I always have too many people in my books. I think it’s because I was an only child. I always wanted lots of brothers and sisters.” Living in a southwestern Virginia coalmining town as an only child, she may not have had siblings, but she had a passel of relatives who all partook of a remote community’s ritual of spinning yarns and telling tales. In many of her novels, indeed in those considered her best, narrative duties are divided among several first-person storytellers (Lee’s symbolic lost siblings?) who present themselves and their individual “takes” on life in a rich tapestry of different accents and personalities. In another attempt at explaining why these multiple narrators have become such a valuable tool, Lee has joked, “Maybe I've got multiple personality disorder.” To this she added, “but seriously, this is another reason I write fiction: I'm greedy, I want to have more than one life.” So what Lee does with her shifting points of view is an amazing “cross-pollination” between the voices that she hears, in their own accents, and the voices that she imagines in order to enlarge her (and her reader’s) life with the stories that she is weaving.
The Last Girls (2002), the novel that precedes On Agate Hill, gives us a vivid instance of Lee’s multivocality. Here the narrative is divided among four women speakers who have gathered for a reunion cruise that commemorates their participation, many years earlier, in a trip down the Mississippi River on a raft they built themselves. Their story has its roots in an actual voyage that Lee took in 1966 with a group of friends from Hollins College. Still, much more than any particular classmate or event, it is Lee herself who appears within all four of her characters. She has said, “The ways in which I felt close to each woman are obvious: I’ve spent my life as a schoolteacher, like Harriet; I constantly juggle my role as wife and mother with the demands of being an artist, like Catherine; writing has been a solace for me, as it has for Anna; and I was a wild girl myself, many eons ago, like Baby. But Courtney is more like my mother’s voice still whispering in my head, ‘Now Lee, you know you really OUGHT to . . . . ’” The narrators of The Last Girls are, like the many voices in Family Linen, Oral History, and now, On Agate Hill, inventions that expand the writer’s vision and self-knowledge.
Ivy Rowe of Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) is the single character whose accent and diction most distinctively appropriate all the dramatic possibilities contained in the word “voice.” The novel’s epistolary structure allows Ivy, as she grows from girl to old woman, to record an ongoing process of self-discovery in letters that she writes to a recurring series of correspondents. Reviewers have compared Molly Petree, whose voice comes to us out of a diary presented “verbatim” in On Agate Hill, to Ivy Rowe. Both characters are girl children learning language and storytelling by writing, in a very “speakerly” fashion, to correspondents who are often their own imaginative creations. Their listeners are made or kept alive in order to give both girl-women a way to keep their own identities from dissolving into permanent silence. Yet the two novels, and especially their use of voice, are significantly different. In Fair and Tender Ladies Ivy’s voice informs and sustains the entire narrative. On Agate Hill comes to us from many voices other than Molly’s, all of them preserved in a box of curios that has been discovered by a modern young woman charged with making sense of them. In the box are diaries, letters, court testimony, news accounts, a ballad—all “writings,” yet also “speakings” that display the operations of many characters’ voices as well as different projections of audience. Within this design, Molly’s voice is seldom “her own.”
Like On Agate Hill, Family Linen (1985) uses the device of a found diary, this one written by a young woman, “Miss Elizabeth,” who is struggling to find a voice and place in a long ago time. Elizabeth’s diary captures her voice as a young woman, speaking/writing in much the same hyperpoetic Victorian style as young Molly Petree. Elizabeth’s diary voice becomes a counterforce to the increasingly modern diction of her children and grandchildren, who are brought together by the Elizabeth’s death and by the memory of a horrific murder that haunts first one sister and then the whole family. Their voices—young, middle-aged, and old; thoroughly modern or lodged unmoving in the past – all tell parts of a story that retains each person’s uniqueness while it overcomes their estrangement from each other. Lee says that this multiplicity provides another reason why “I like to write from the first person point of view—it lets me off the hook; I'm not responsible for telling the truth, only one person's version of it.”
Elizabeth’s diary shields her from truth, giving her a place where she can deny her dire circumstances. In On Agate Hill, Molly’s diary provides a place where she can fight, be a “spitfire,” vent her anger at hypocrisy and treachery as well as her pleasure in nature and romance. Both characters’ diaries are critical as means for Molly and Elizabeth to develop “voice,” identity, selfhood. As Lee has said of such opportunities, in another context, Molly and Elizabeth are “receiving the permission to write [themselves] into being.” Ivy Rowe, Elizabeth, Lee’s poet friend Lou Crabree and many of her other writing students, and now Molly and even the tragically unbalanced Mariah in On Agate Hill, write as a way to survive. Because of their isolation and the belittlement that they endure from others, because of their helplessness as children or just as women, the will to claim the right to articulate feelings, much less to shape a sense of self through voice, constitutes an action of heroic proportions.
But is finding a voice enough? Certainly for Lee’s characters, it represents a necessary achievement of self-knowledge and self-assertion. On Agate Hill, however, marks a significant new emphasis for Lee’s work—a concentration on listening, as well as voicing. Tuscany Miller, whose grating voice Lee uses as the outer frame of the novel, grows from “listening in” to all the voices she has been lucky enough to find in the box of “curios” that Molly has filled with the “stuff” of her life. But more importantly, near the end of the novel, it is Molly who accepts the challenge of redefining herself as one who listens and learns from another, when she reads the long letter left to her by her mentor, Simon Black.
Even more poignantly, the novel presents, at the end, a listener character who absolutely completes Molly’s life. In an essay about her writing of On Agate Hill, Lee has indicated how difficult it was to deal with her grief over the loss of her beloved son Josh, who died in 2003 at age 33. After a period of great despondency, Lee finally found in her writing a way to emerge from the dark. Within the character of Juney, whom Molly finds living at Agate Hill when she returns to the ruins of her plantation home as an older woman, Lee created a wise and winsome listener reminiscent of Josh Seay. Juney is a magical, shadowy “little man” who draws out Molly’s (and Lee’s?) stories. Juney, in his delighted attention, shows Molly (whom he calls Mammalee) how to hear the rich chords of life all around her: “‘Say it Mammalee,’ Juney says, and I do,” Molly writes, “I say the world for him.” Lee Smith “says the world” beautifully and inimitably in this novel and many others. How true are her words, “If I can hear the voice, I can write the book.”
Lucinda MacKethan is a Professor of American literature and southern studies at North Carolina State University She has been a fellow at the National Humanities Center and is a senior consultant for the Scribbling Women website, www.scribblingwomen.org. Her Lamar Memorial Lecture in Southern Culture has been published as Daughters of Time: Creating Women's Voice in Southern Story, and she is author/editor of four other books in the area of southern studies, including a co-edited work, The Companion to Southern Literature (2001). She has been awarded an Alumni Distinguished Professorship and the NCSU Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. MacKethan and Lee Smith were classmates at Hollins College.
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