Review of Lee Smith's Oral History

Oral History
by Lee Smith
New York: G P Putnam’s Sons, 1983.

Author Bio
Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Appalachian Mountains of Grundy, Virginia. Her parents raised her there and she cites the people of Grundy as formative to her style and sense of speech. Smith spent her last two years of high school in Richmond boarding school, and then went on to college. She currently resides in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Smith was raised a Methodist, but she attended a Pentecostal church with a friend on a regular basis.  She got “saved” multiple times during revival services and started dating a boy at one of the “wild” churches of the mountains. Smith says the revival meetings acted as a kind of aphrodisiac for her and her boyfriend. Her mother, who moved to Grundy as a school teacher, was less than enthused about Smith’s religious adventures because they were too “low-class.” Even before the revival meetings, Smith believed she heard God speak to her as a child. When she left Grundy to go to a Episcopal prep school in St. Catherine’s, her enthusiasm about religion waned in the face of what she describes as “institutionalized ritual.” She maintains that she may find that passion again, but that it will probably come when she returns to the mountains because she associates it with the mountains. She says she still believes in God and continues to look for a way to balance this belief with the mundane, everyday life.

Smith received a BA in English from Hollins College in 1967. While in University she became friends with fellow author Annie Dillard. Since that time she has taught Creative Writing in both high school and a variety of colleges and University, including North Carolina University and Duke University.

Smith has published eleven novels and three collections of short stories. She has received the O. Henry Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, as well as many other literary awards. Her work has appeared on the New York times Bestseller and has become a staple of contemporary Sothern Literature studies.

Her fiction is most often set in the southern United States, and usually in the Appalachian mountains where she grew up. Her work frequently features religion, whether it is the focus of the work or simply in the background. Of particular interest is Saving Grace, which focuses on the daughter of a snake-handling Pentecostal, and her short story “Tongues of Fire,” about a young girl who converts to Pentecostalism and speaks in tongues.

Smith, Lee. Interview with Susan Ketchin. The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1994. 44-55.

Smith, Lee. “A Spiritual Journey: An Interview with Lee Smith.” By Linda Byrd Cook. The Southern Quarterly 47.1 (2009): 74-103.

Plot Description
Oral History is a family saga novel told from multiple points of view. It is the story of the Cantrell family in Hoot Owl Holler, located in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. The frame narrative features Jennifer, a descendant of the Cantrell family who was raised in the city.  Jennifer comes back to interview her relatives for a college project. The core narrative begins in the early 1900s and traces the family through to the 1980s. As with many family sagas, there are many failed romances and scandalous affairs that fill the pages. The tellers of the stories attribute these failures to a curse brought on by the earliest failed romance in the narrative. Almarine Cantrell begins a love affair with “Red” Emmy. His grandmother, Granny Younger, convinces him to throw Emmy out of his house because Granny believes Emmy is a witch. It is Granny who introduces the idea that Emmy curses Almarine and his offspring. The story of this curse haunts the later generations of Cantrells, all of whom experience tragedy and loss in some way. The unreliability of the narrators makes it impossible to sort out what is an exaggeration and what actually happened, situating the early-eighties novel within the tradition of postmodern novels with multiple perspectives that question objective truth.

Pentecostal Elements
Most of the second section and a portion of the third section of the novel are told from the perspective of Richard Burlage. Richard’s portion of the narrative stands out against the other narrators. While the other narrators tend to have a clearly rural southern dialect, Richard’s sections are overly wordy and full of flowery language. As a result, he appears as an outsider, both in terms of the text itself and the way he is treated in Hoot Owl Holler.

Richard is an ivy-league educated man from Richmond who is determined to find spiritual and emotional enlightenment while offering something to those “less fortunate.” He takes a position as a teacher near Hoot Owl Holler and begins teaching there.  He also attends a Pentecostal church where they speak in tongues and promote a variety of ecstatic religious experiences. Richard is drawn to the church because they seem to have an emotional and spiritual engagement he lacks.

The text links his desire for spiritual engagement in the church with his sexual desire for Dory Cantrell.  The Cantrells do not attend the church, but Richard sees them, and Dory in particular, as having the same kind of emotional, and eventually, spiritual engagement with their surroundings. His desire culminates when Richard secretly meets with Dory at a church service. While waiting for Dory, Richard is overwhelmed by emotion and goes to the altar to get saved. As soon as he prays for salvation, Dory walks into the church and Richard leaves with her.  What follows is several days of sexual adventures between the two that take a very spiritual tone thanks to Richard’s language.

The two are eventually caught and Dory’s family takes her back to Hoot Owl Holler. Richard loses his teaching position and plans to move back to Richmond. He writes Dory to ask her to come with him, but the message is never delivered. Both Richard and Dory end up in marriages they find lacking as a result. Dory kills herself many years later, though there is no conclusive link to her failed romance with Richard.

Critical Response
Early reviews of the novel tend to praise Smith for an accurate portrayal of Appalachian life and a true rendering of Appalachian dialect through her speakers. While the reviews overwhelmingly present the novel as better than her previous work, they still find it lacking in some regard. Some suggest it is too safe, while others argue it loses momentum in the latter third of the book. Despite these criticisms, the novel became a Book-of-the-Month selection in 1983.

Since then, the novel has received a significant amount of critical attention. I will look at two specific streams of this scholarship. The first involves the positioning of Jennifer and Richard. Several critics suggest that the novel critiques the position of condescending outsiders through the two characters (Soos; Billips; Jones; Hill; Gallant Eckard; Hazelwood Donlon; Hendricks Wallace; Parrish). Rodger Cunningham even uses the novel as an example of how Post-Colonial theory can be applied to portrayals of Appalachian people. Nancy Parrish raises an important complication in with this approach: Smith has stated numerous times that she identifies with Richard. The result, argues Parrish, is that the portrayals become less of a binary critique (outsiders bad, insiders good) and more of a way for Smith to self-reflexively acknowledge her position as an author writing about Appalachian mountain people. Finally, in one of the most cited articles on this book, Suzanne Jones suggests that, while Jennifer and Richard both act as condescending outsiders who manipulate the narrative to their own purposes, all of the narrators from Hoot Owl Holler do the same; each narrator tweaks the story to emphasize or exaggerate particular points to satisfy his/her own agenda. The result is that the ethical dichotomy between insider/outsider begins to collapse.

The second stream of scholarship involves religion. Several critics argue that the novel privileges female, earth centred, and emotionally engaged spirituality over stayed Christianity (Byrd; Oswalt; Reily). Central to this argument is the portrayal of “Red” Emery. These critics not only argue that “Red” Emery is treated unfairly by the Cantrells and their underlying Christianity, but that she does actually posses supernatural powers. This latter point is far from clear in the published version of the novel, as stated above. In earlier drafts of the novel, “Red” Emery has her own section of the narrative. This section makes the stories of her supernatural abilities even less believable. Linda Byrd argues that Smith is actually promoting goddess spirituality in the novel, but there is little textual evidence to support her claim. Conrad Oswalt, meanwhile, argues that even Granny’s use of Biblical mysticism is more of an “elemental” religious practice rather than a Christian one, ignoring various forms of Christian mysticism. Despite the problems with these arguments, there is an underlying current in the novel which these critics identify. Specifically, it questions gender roles, and the deployment of religion in securing those roles, in the Appalachian mountains. The answers the novel provides are not clear cut, and certainly don’t fall neatly into the dichotomies that these critics present.

Billips, Martha. “‘What a Wild and Various State’: Virginia in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 13.1-2 (2007): 26-48.

Byrd, Linda. “The Emergence of the Sacred Sexual Mother in Lee Smith's Oral History.” The Southern Literary Journal. 31.1 (1998): 119-42.

Cunningham, Rodger. “Writing on the Cusp: Double Alterity and Minority Discourse in Appalachia.” The Future of Southern Letters. Eds. Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 41-53.

Gallant Eckard, Paula. “The Prismatic Past in Oral History and Mama Day.” MELUS 20.3 (1995): 121-35.

Hazelwood Donlon, Jocelyn. “Hearing Is Believing: Southern Racial Communities and Strategies of Story-Listening in Gloria Naylor and Lee Smith.” Twentieth Century Literature 41.1 (1995): 16-35.

Hendricks Wallace, Anne. “Ethical Readings of Folklore: Can We Stop Turning the Southern Folk of Lee Smith’s Oral History into Commodities?” Southern Studies 4.4 (1993): 361-76.

Hill, Reinhold L. “‘These Stories Are not ‘Real,’ but They Are as True as I Can Make Them’: Lee Smith's Literary Ethnography.” Southern Folklore 57.2 (2000): 106-18.

Jones, Suzanne W. “City Folks in Hoot Owl Holler: Narrative Strategy in Lee Smith's Oral History.” The Southern Literary Journal 20.1 (1987) 101-112.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Rev of Oral History by Lee Smith. The New York Times 29 July 1983. C21.

Ostwalt, Conrad. “Witches and Jesus: Lee Smith's Appalachian Religion.” The Southern Literary Journal 31.1 (1998): 98-118.

Parrish, Nancy C. “‘Ghostland’: Tourism in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” Southern Quarterly 32.2 (1994): 37-47.

Reilly, Rosalind B. “Oral History: The Enchanted Circle of Narrative and Dream.” Southern Literary Journal 23.1 (1990): 79-92.

Smith, Dave. “Myths of Love: New American Fiction.” Rev of Departing as Air by Allen Wier, The Summoning by Robert Towers, Oral History by Lee Smith, and The Good Son by Craig Nova. The Kenyon Review 6.1 (1984): 121-34.

Soos, Frank. “Insiders and Outsiders: Point of View in Lee Smith’s Oral History.” The Iron Mountain Review 3:1 (1986): 20-4.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Bewitched Voices; In Fine Folk Tradition, Vivid Tales of the Holler.” Rev of Oral History by Lee Smith. The Washington Post 15 June 1983. B1.