Tribute to Doris Betts
Award-winning author Doris Betts died on April 21, 2012, at age 79. Over the course of her writing career, she published six novels and three short story collections. She taught creative writing and English literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for more than thirty years, and the university established a $1 million endowed professorship in her name in 1998. She remains a cherished and influential figure in southern literature.
Doris Betts Bon Mots:
From “My Love Affair with Carolina,” 1998:
“Producing stories and poems may not be a good way to make a living, but it’s a wonderful way to make a life.”
From Speak So I Shall Know Thee: Interviews with Southern Writers (1990):
“I like to quote what Max Steele said to my class once, ‘The pulp magazine is gone, and most of the mass fiction publications are gone. In fact, the kind of slick story that used to appear in so-called ‘women’s magazines’ can now be seen on television between one and five everyday. So without much market for pulp or slick manuscripts, you may as well write the good, the true, the beautiful.'”
From “Southern Writers and the Bible,” in The Bookmark 53 (1985):
“On religious matters, I prefer to whisper, the reliable attention-getting method of mothers of young children.”
Tribute from Allan Gurganus:
On and off the page Doris Betts always erred on the side of generosity. If her fictional characters ever looked simple at first glance, that was before Betts settled into their hidden twists and meritorious complications. She read the starter fiction of thousands of grateful students at UNC-CH. But she also took on the seventh unpublished novel by her rural postman. Certain seasonal poems got slipped to her by ladies at the Pittsboro Presbyterian Church. “You just get better and better,” she told them all, with the wisdom of the ages and the patience of a saint.
Betts’ own work continued to purify. We now see that her project was always bigger than her published fiction. She was quick to avoid being typecast as a writer of the School of the Southern Grotesque. She lived steeped in Yeats and Rilke and the great modernists. Her prose was not just native to the Blue Ridge Mountains but kept forever slouching toward Bethlehem.
Her husband, Judge Lowry Betts, could not stand to see old horses sent to the glue factory. He took in thirty. And once he died, Doris continued their twice-daily feeding and watering. These beasts were too old to ride. They were too old to do most anything but eat. And so she fed them.
Her determined existence left the world improved. She was organized, selfless, stubborn, an ingrained, fully operational Presbyterian, a pure original.
Native North Carolinian author Allan Gurganus is best known for his first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
Tribute from Marjorie Hudson:
This tribute first appeared in The Literarian at the Center for Fiction (www.centerforfiction.org).
In addition to being a literary light, Doris was also a great neighbor and mentor in the little town where she lived. I had the good fortune of meeting her when I was just getting started as a writer of fiction. I wasn’t in any of her classes. I was a lowly copyeditor at a luminous local publisher. After I published an early story in the venerable Story magazine, I told her I wished I could come to one of her classes. She let “outsiders” audit her classes in those days. She turned and gave me the once-over. “If you have a story in Story magazine, what you really need is just time to write.” She had me there. I needed time—but also courage. I kept thinking if I could borrow some of her courage, I’d be able to pull off being a writer.
It was from Doris that I learned the great lesson that being a southern writer was not about being nice. It was about fierce dedication to the writing art, and to the art of living.
Living in the little town of Pittsboro, we’d run into each other from time to time. While she was out there mentoring her UNC undergrads, she was also teaching Sunday school at her local Presbyterian church. While she was winning national recognition as a writer, she was serving on the board of her local Friends of the Library. While she was working away on her next novel, she was also tutoring and working to establish a local literacy council. And while nursing her mother and husband in long illnesses, she would, from time to time, find ways to encourage me in my struggle to produce new work, weather rejections, and find work that paid.
She wrote many recommendations for me, and in recent years we met for lunch often, sometimes with a small group of local writers she seemed intent on encouraging. Shrugging off questions about her own work and her illness, she would always ask me—and the others—“What are you working on now? How’s it going?” Those snapping black eyes digging out the truth, shining a light on my tendency to fudge or waver in my habits. Asking for a commitment to the work that took just a little more courage than I had. Helping me live up to the idea that it matters to be a writer.
Award-winning writer Marjorie Hudson is the author of Accidental Birds of the Carolinas and Searching for Virginia Dare.
Tribute from Lee Smith:
The following was first presented as part of Lee Smith’s acceptance speech for the 2012 North Caroliniana Society Award.
Doris Betts died only this past April, after waging a year’s battle with lung cancer. The only child of two millworkers, Doris was born in Statesville, attended UNC Greensboro, and went on to write six novels and three collections of short stories. Earthy and funny, Doris was unflinching in her honesty. One time I overheard her counseling a student who had asked her, “What should I do if I really want to be a writer?” To which Doris answered, “Honey, I think you ought to stop if you possibly can!” She wasn’t kidding. Writing was a sacred lifelong commitment for Doris, a way of worship. Like Flannery O’Connor, she found grace in the hard rock ground of her fiction. She never pushed her beliefs on anybody, but as she said to me one time, laughing, “Listen, if you see a little mouse running across my pages, that mouse is a Christian mouse!”
Doris also told a story that I have never forgotten. When she and her husband Lowry had three little children and were living in graduate student housing, she answered a knock at the door to find the older writer Frances Gray Patton there. Miss Patton handed her a check for a thousand dollars, “for babysitting,” she explained, “so you can keep on with your writing.” Doris was floored. But she later passed this kind of practical generosity on herself, to countless students at UNC, where she was revered. She passed it on to me, too, at a crucial time in my life.
Even though I desperately needed it at the time, I would never have had the nerve to apply for a full-time teaching job at North Carolina State University if Doris hadn’t pushed me into it. I didn’t have the academic credentials. “Don’t give me that crap,” Doris said. “Just go for it.” (A motto, I suggest, that covers just about anything!)
Many years later, when I retired from my eighteen-year teaching career at NC State, I had Miss Patton’s gesture—and Doris’s encouragement—in mind when I started a yearly award for women in our graduate writing program at NC State, naming it in honor of Robbie Knott, one of our best young women graduate student teachers who had died much too soon of cancer. It’s not much—just a thousand dollars each year, which doesn’t go very far—but at least it will buy her some babysitting.
Virginia native Lee Smith is the author of twelve novels and four short story collections, including the New York Times bestseller The Last Girls.
Tribute from Michael McFee:
Many times—by way of explaining why writers and writing have flourished in our state—Doris said that the literary community in North Carolina is cooperative rather than competitive. Not naively and blindly boosteristic, but supportive, encouraging, welcoming. Doris fully embodied that attitude, for many decades: she could be tart and tough, and her literary standards were very high, for herself and her peers and her students; but she also knew how and when her fellow writers (especially the young ones) needed a kind word. Why has N.C. lit flourished so, in recent decades? A major part of the answer is certainly: Doris Betts.
She was the best teacher most of us ever beheld, not just in the classroom but outside of it, in her office, in her faithful and lively correspondence, in how closely she stayed in touch with those she had so closely taught. As she once said, “My pride in the achievements of every ex-student is nearly parental.”
I loved how she signed her notes: “More to come.”
Doris is rightly remembered as a powerful presence, “a force of art and nature,” as a mutual friend recently described her; but she was also wonderfully thoughtful and tender when the occasion called for it. Right after I got tenure at Chapel Hill, I received an exuberant letter of congratulations from Doris—written with one of her beloved fountain pens, whose ink stained her hard-working hands—boldly addressed to “PROFESSOR Michael McFee.” She knew how much that word, that title, that honor meant to me, as it did to her, also a child of working-class North Carolina parents.
Hearing her feisty laughter ring down the second-floor hall redeemed many a gray day in Greenlaw. She seemed to live every minute with a fierce joy.
We were fellow Geminis—in fact, we shared the same early-June birthday, and always tried to have lunch on or near the date. Once, I asked her why some of her students had enjoyed such success (books, prizes, literary careers) and others hadn’t. She said that it wasn’t a matter of talent, though a verbal gift or spark is needed to get going: it was a matter of perseverance, of persistence, of simply not giving up in the face of rejection or indifference.
I forget who first said this, and about whom, but it can and should be said about the brilliant, passionate, hilarious, tenacious, generous, wise, and deeply moral Doris Betts, who was—to me and to many, many others—a goddess:
The Greeks would have built her a temple.
Michael McFee has published fourteen books and has taught in the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill for several decades.
Tribute from Jim Peacock:
Literary recollections I shall pass by for others have said much on that. Doris as a leader and public speaker is my memory, for she preceded me as Chair of the Faculty of the University of North Carolina, and she was surely the last of us to amuse or inspire. Her address to the public on a University Day stands in my mind as a great one—funny, poignant, dignified, and brave. But I shall move from her to her late husband, the judge. A friend got a speeding ticket, and she decided to defend herself. I had done so myself not long before, the only defendant with a coat and tie, conspicuous among the teenagers who had tattoos on their biceps and cigarette packages on their deltoids under rolled-up t-shirt sleeves. My friend’s court appearance was too cold for t-shirts. It was at the Chatham County courthourse in Pittsboro and was the coldest day of the year, close to zero degrees Fahrenheit. Judge Betts was, she said, and I observed, stern but kind, and he let her off with court costs only. If Doris had been present, maybe she would have transfigured the scene into a story, but probably just gone home (where she doubtless had remained) to feed and shelter her horses. I wish I had known her better.
James L. Peacock is the Kenan Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Grounded Globalism: How The U.S. South Embraces the World.
Tribute from Sally Buckner:
This tribute was originally written for the 2012 North Carolina Writers’ Conference in New Bern, NC.
I think it probable that I have known Doris Waugh Betts longer than any of you assembled in this room. We were students at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina—now UNC-G—where she was a legend by her sophomore year. “Have you seen her read?” asked one incredulous classmate, opening a book, skimming the left-hand page, then the right in mere seconds, then turning the page and repeating the process. (This is almost a decade before speed-reading courses became a national fad.) And lest you think Doris missed anything important, I can report that in history class one day she raised her hand to cite a point made by Thorstein Veblen, whose works were on our parallel reading list. “It’s on page 243, down near the bottom of the page,” she volunteered—while I gaped.
During my senior year, when I served as editor of the university newspaper, I was fortunate that Doris, a junior, agreed to be feature editor. She not only edited, but wrote a weekly feature. When I heard from the next room a typewriter rattling away at machine-gun speed, it was clear that Doris had arrived, and in virtually no time she appeared, waving a completed—and of course completely delightful—feature. The best parts were those she called “J. J. [for James Joycian] Impressions.” Here she honed her already sharp descriptive skills on any and all campus activities, from broiling in the suncourt to waiting for mail at the P.O. (Some of you do remember letters, don’t you?)
Of course her legend mushroomed when, during her sophomore year, she won the 1953 Mademoiselle fiction contest with her story, “Mr. Shawn and Father Scott,” then just a year later won the UNC Putnam fiction prize for a collection of short stories. By then she was no longer living on campus, having married Lowry Betts before her junior year and then fairly promptly becoming pregnant. Although she completed that year, she never earned her bachelor’s degree. Yet after coming to the University in Chapel Hill, at the insistence of Max Steele, head of creative writing, again she became a legend, not only for publishing novels and short fiction at a steady rate, but for her teaching. Steele complained that he could never get in to see her because students were always lining the hallway to her office. They also lined up to register for her courses, for she was cherished as one who was simultaneously supportive and tough. As one who has taught writing for more years than I care to admit, I can testify how difficult it is to give stern criticism without discouraging a student. But Doris had mastered the art of laying the hard truths on the line in such a way that, far from being discouraged, the student ran back to her typewriter, hoping to do whatever was required to make the story worthwhile.
Doris may have learned how important it was to be both tough and supportive when as an undergraduate she showed a professor some of her poetry. What he said—and I’m paraphrasing here—was, “Your poetry’s not much to speak of—but you might do something with your prose.” Do something she did! Surely on the farm she and Lowry built outside Pittsboro, there must be an entire room dedicated to literary honors based on her six novels and three collections of short fiction. It would take too long to name them now, and after all, in the age of Google, they’re easily accessible. They offer proof, as if we needed it, of the superb quality of her work.
And now, in memoriam, let me name what we will always remember about Doris Waugh Betts:
- Her love of literature and her feisty determination to make her own stories not merely interesting, but intriguing, tackling the toughest of subjects—betrayal, sexual abuse, the death of a beloved child—and challenging readers to search the depths of her words and of their own experience.
- Her absolute love of the University and of her students, demonstrated by her dedicated efforts on their behalf. She earned award after award for her teaching at Chapel Hill, where she served for a time as an assistant dean, and was the first woman to head the Faculty Senate. When she retired, a distinguished professorship was named in her honor. All this without a bachelor’s degree! A true Wonder Woman!
- Her rootedness. A millworker’s daughter who developed a sterling career, including one story that was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning short film and later into an award-winning musical, Doris never “got above her raisin’.” She remained steadfast in her devotion to so-called “ordinary” folks, whose lives, she proved through her fiction again and again, were never merely ordinary.
- And finally her courage, evident in her academic career, in her writing, and in dealing with the difficulties of daily life. For years she attended first her ailing mother, then her beloved Lowry, who suffered and died from Parkinson’s Disease. She received word of her own cancer even as she was dealing with the impending death of her only daughter from another form of cancer. Yes, she grieved, of course she grieved, but she faced loss and death with the same spunk she had shown in breaking literary and educational barriers during her long and fruitful life. Her daughter-in-law reported that in the final days of her life, surrounded by family and her much-loved dog and horse, she frequently murmured, “I am lucky.” And for much of her life, indeed she was. But Doris, I must add this: we whose lives have been touched, enriched, sharpened by your wisdom, your courage, and your plucky humor—we are the lucky ones. Indeed.
Sally Buckner is a teacher, editor, and poet and the recipient of the 1999 R. Hunt Parker Award for contributions to North Carolina literature. She lives in Cary, NC.