Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

Getting Hooked on History or How I Got Hooked on History

Frankly, I never gave much of a damn about the Civil War. We'd scarcely noticed it in the Appalachian mountains of far southwest Virginia where I grew up, where some men fought for the South and some men went with the Union but many didn't get involved at all, hiding out in the hollers until the rich man's war was over. What was there to fight for, anyway? We had no aristocracy, no landed gentry (no flat land, in fact), and certainly no plantations. The only columns in town supported the Baptist Church.

But then, many years later, my husband and I moved into an old house next to an ancient cemetery in Hillsborough, NC, where we found heartbreakingly short dates and "C.S.A." carved into many of its mossy stones.

Right down on the corner, the county historical museum holds a fine collection of Civil War artifacts, everything from rifles to photographs --- all those uniformed boys staring out solemnly into the unimaginable future. I couldn't quit looking at them. At the Museum I met Dr. Ernest Dollar, a recent PhD from the Southern Studies program down in Chapel Hill, a young man on fire with history: not only is he a re-enactor himself, but so are his wife and their baby Elijah! Ernie showed me a dusty diary kept by a young girl away at a boarding school in the 1870's. "You might be interested in this," he said, and I was, because I'd just been thinking that someday I might try a novel in the form of a young girl's diary....

Later I walked over to visit the Burwell School, one block away, where the admirable Anna Burwell started her academy for young women in 1837.

Famous for saying, "Young ladies, the best perfume is no perfume at all," and "Choose your associates carefully and your intimates with great care; do not have too many," Mrs. Burwell stood six feet tall, robustly built, pious and well read. She had twelve children and could recite the entire Paradise Lost by heart. She was, so site historian Katherine Malone-France told me, clearly the "dominant partner" in her marriage to the introverted Rev. Robert Burwell. Would I, perhaps, like to see her journal?

We trooped upstairs in the school building, past the boarding students' bedrooms. I found myself imagining their friendships, their conversations, their dreams, their lives.... Katherine spread the journals out on a table. There I read Superwoman entries such as the following: "Today I attended to my housekeeping as usual, went in school at eleven and taught the writing, then I heard three classes, but that time the Pork came. I changed my dress, went out and with my own hands trimmed sixty-six pieces of meat, then came in, washed and dressed up in my best, and went to town, later presiding at supper."

And this: "Mud and dirt are plenty as you can imagine. Tis really enough to give anyone the Blues to live in this mud hole---"

What hooked me, though, was learning that she was "nervous," "suffered from violent head aches," and "was depressed at my husband's coldness of manner to me... it is my sorest earthly trial." But she considered herself "vile" for harboring "such thoughts as these."

Well! It was easy to imagine how a repressed, unhappy, over-worked woman such as this might go right over the edge! What if she were to conceive a grand passion for someone else, maybe the father or guardian of one of her pupils? And what if she confused him with her intellectual idol, John Milton? Or better yet, with that old Arch-Fiend who pretty much steals the show in Paradise Lost (the devil is so much more interesting than God, after all, not to mention the Rev. Robert Burwell!)

I continued the journal in my mind:

I have awakened trembling yet filled with Resolve.
It has been far too easy for me to get caught up in the duty & detail of life, the minutial, the dross (the laundry, the hogs, the children, the marital duties, the money, the mud). Here I have been Praying Without Cease for acceptance of my Lot, yet to no avail, my Headaches grown worse & worse, my Vision all but gone, my Sufferings immense. Yet, as they say, it is never Too Late; for now it has come to me in a dream what I must do.
I must kick over the traces altogether.
I must follow wherever He leads, & damn the consequences!.....
After all these years of effort, God hath sent me finally his Arch-Fiend... He tempts me. Lord, yes, He tempts me ... I am ready to go with Him; "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

The worthy educator Anna Burwell had been completely transformed into my mythic madwoman Mariah Snow, Headmistress of the seminary for young ladies my main character would attend in this novel it was now clear I was going to write....

The rest, as they say, is Fiction.

Lee Smith