Statesville native Doris Betts, an internationally acclaimed author and Alumni Distinguished Professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, died on Saturday, April 21 at age 79. Betts was a Guggenheim Fellow and received countless honors including the North Carolina Award for Literature, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal, three Sir Walter Raleigh Awards for Fiction, the Southern Book Award and the John Dos Passos Prize.
She wrote nine novels and three collections of short stories, and was the first woman to chair the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she taught for more than three decades.
Betts’ short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim, was the basis of a 1981 short film, Violet, which won an Academy Award the following year, and her novel Souls Raised from the Dead was named one of the New York Times’ top twenty best books in 1994. Her other novels included Tall Houses in Winter (1957), The Scarlet Thread (1965), The River to Pickle Beach (1972), Heading West (1981) and The Sharp Teeth of Love (1998). Her short story collections included The Gentle Insurrection (1954), The Astronomer and Other Stories (1966) and Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories (1973).
The North Carolina Writers Network awards an annual Doris Betts Fiction Prize for unpublished short stories by North Carolina authors, and the 2012 meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association will feature a session on Betts’ fiction during its annual convention scheduled in Research Triangle Park Nov. 9 through 11. In the coming days, the N.C. Arts Council will share North Carolina authors’ recollections of Doris Betts.
Lee Smith, author of On Agate Hill and co-writer of the musical, Good Ol’ Girls:
Earthy and funny, Doris Betts was unflinching in her honesty—and her faith. Like Flannery O’Connor, she found grace in the hard rock ground of her fiction. She never pushed belief on anybody, but as she said to me one time, laughing, “Honey, if you see a little mouse running across my pages, that mouse is a Christian mouse!”
Allan Gurganus, Hillsborough, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All:
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 But she also took on the seventh unpublished novel by her rural postman.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.
Georgann Eubanks, Carrboro, author of the Literary Trails of North Carolina series:
When I think of Doris Betts, I always see her with a fountain pen–the tool she preferred to mark up manuscripts. She always had a patch of black ink on her middle finger where the pen rested when she wrote on her students’ pages. And those comments in the margins—in a small, neat, and beautiful cursive hand—were like gold. Doris was the model of generosity, but she also made you want to sit up straighter and pay fierce attention. Being in her presence was, every time, an unforgettable experience, because what Doris said was always as incisive and precise as what she wrote. She was and is a voice in my head that urges me to be a better person, not just a better writer.