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TransyPods: Interview with Dr. Martha Billips

Anna Brailow ’17 interviews Professor Martha Billips

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[MUSIC PLAYING] NARRATOR: Welcome to another Campus Conversation, discussions with Transylvania University faculty highlighting their interests, passions, and pursuits. Here is Anna Brailow.

ANNA BRAILOW: I’m here with Dr. Martha Billips, and we are talking about Kentucky women. Your work has been published in a collection called Kentucky Women– Their Lives and Times, a work to which 17 scholars have contributed their writing on influential women from across the state. What do you feel is it that makes this work so essential among literature about Kentucky’s history?

MARTHA BILLIPS: I do think it is essential. In part, of course, because of the focus on women. But it also has the broad focus chronologically about women from settlement times till the contemporary times. It has a broad cross-section of geography, as the introduction makes clear, from the mountains to the [INAUDIBLE]. So it’s very, very deliberate.

And it offers in one place essays on a variety of important women across the Commonwealth, and that is unprecedented. We have only one previous book, interestingly, written by a former Transy professor. [INAUDIBLE] was a Transy professor, Kentucky Women from 1977, I think. So that’s the only other book devoted solely to Kentucky women, a wide assortment.

The other reason I think this is important– it’s part of a series on Southern women writers’ lives. And the fact that Kentucky was not represented was problematic. There were three books from South Carolina, for instance, one or two from Tennessee.

So it was a pretty glaring exception. So I think it’s very important that the University of Georgia Press wanted to bring out the [INAUDIBLE] section on Kentucky, too. Of course, we occupied this position as border state. [INAUDIBLE] still fits in the geography of Southern women.

ANNA BRAILOW: Just to follow up on your response, how does this book tie in with its predecessor?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Only in the sense that I know Professor McEuen, who was the co-editor of this book was aware of that book. I was aware of it, because as a Transy alum I knew Helen Irvin, the author. She was one of my professors.

And I remember when she had sabbatical to work on that book. So it’s always meant a lot to me. But I don’t know that any of the other authors are necessarily aware of it.

It was a much more slender volume that was brought out by the University of Kentucky, single author instead of multiple author. [INAUDIBLE] Dr. McEuen thought that Helen Irvin was in the story. And I said, no, no no. She was a literature professor, one of my favorites– small world.

ANNA BRAILOW: Indeed. Now you specifically wrote about fiction author Harriet Simpson Arnow, someone whose work you’ve discussed in previous essays, such as “The Demise of Mountain Life.” Now in this essay, you talk about how the culture of the hills in Southeastern Kentucky heavily influenced three of her novels. How does your previous research for this publication tie into your work on Kentucky Women?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Well, I’ve done– that’s a good question. I’ve done a lot of research on Arnow. In fact, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her work. And I’ve spent a lot of time amongst her unpublished papers, which fortunately are at the University of Kentucky. It’s a wonderfully, meticulously catalogued collection.

So I’ve found a lot about her. But I’ve worked with those published novels, but also unpublished novels. A lot of what I’ve written before comes in here. All the authors in Kentucky Women are experts on the person they’re writing about.

I do know a lot about Kentucky history, at least parts of it. And I certainly know about Arnow’s relationship to it. And something that just intrigues me about her and about her work is she draws from the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky in a very turbulent time in American history, roughly the years leading up to and through World War II. So the Depression– there’s a continual from the area out migration, people leaving to go work. And that intensifies in the build up to World War II.

So I recognized that pattern. And what fascinates me and troubles me, honestly, that’s where she gets her inspiration. That’s what she loves to write about. That’s what she’s very, very good at doing.

But she sees it as being ultimately destroyed by industrialism. A way of life, she says, it’s vanished like Pompeii– in a 1963 piece that she wrote. We know that’s not true. But that’s how she saw it.

And once she doesn’t write anymore about that way of life, the power of her fiction declines. So she lived in Rome for many years. And her greatest novel was The Dollmaker, but struggled to find a subject. And the other thing, she drew her inspiration from the hills, but she couldn’t write there.

She found that she had to go to the city, first Cincinnati, later Detroit, then outside Ann Arbor. That’s where she did the writing. But her life influences were from the mountains, from Pulaski and Wayne county and other places.

The other tension that she dealt with once she’d married and had children was the classic link that women feel between their art, their work, and their family responsibilities. And that was a struggle for her.

ANNA BRAILOW: What do you feel is Arnow’s relationship with the other women spoken about in Their Lives and Times?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Well, she’s the only fiction writer. There are other artists. There’s a sculptor named [INAUDIBLE].

But she’s the only fiction writer. So in that way, she’s different. There are other wonderful female fiction writers from Kentucky that could have been represented. But personally, I think, and that the editors did, as well, that if you can only have one, it needs to be Harriet Simpson Arnow.

I put in the essay she’s arguably the greatest Kentucky woman writer. People would argue maybe that Bobbie Ann Mason has taken that position. But she is.

And she’s undoubtedly the greatest chronicler of the lives of these people who’ve been in the mountains. Subsistence farmers, because of economic forces and the draw of big money to the industrial Northeast or industrial Midwest, left. And also there’s environmental damage [INAUDIBLE] that makes it hard to farm on a hillside. It was never an easy proposition.

So she charts that exodus. And it’s a people that usually are stigmatized or stereotyped in literature. Hers aren’t, so that’s very important, too.

But her relation to the others– she’s the only fiction writer. She probably knew of many of these people. But back to the idea of geographic diversity, she is one of the Appalachian representatives. And she’s a native. Some of the others are not.

Actually, there’s another really good essay by Melanie Beals Goan about Mary Breckinridge, who’s the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, who went in– and actually, Arnow writes a lot about horrible conditions for women, frequently pregnant, home deliveries, high child mortality. She’s very aware of that.

Well, Mary Breckinridge went into address that. But she’s a Bostonian, and one of the best, one of the very best. She went in and did a lot of good. But she’s not a native. She spent most of her life there, but was not there originally.

The same with two other reformers, Katherine Pettit and May Stone. So there are other people from the region represented, but Arnow’s one of the few native born. Now there’s an irony there. She lived most of her adult life in Michigan. But she always had strong, strong Kentucky roots.

ANNA BRAILOW: Why exactly did you choose Arnow as a subject for your research initially?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Initially, when I went to graduate school, I did a master’s thesis on Edith Wharton, who, as you may know, writes about the late 19th, early 20th century society in New York. So very, very different– they’re actually not entirely different in other ways– within a different time. Certainly a different class that she writes about generally, although not always the upper class. She has two Wharton novels about the rural who are in New England, which, I would actually argue, there is some relationship with some other Appalachian writers.

So I’m drawn to Edith Wharton, and I still really like her. I teach her work all the time. And I’m working on an article on Edith Wharton of Mountain Rider now.

But I’ve wanted to get away from anything my own– that reflected my own experience. I’m from Eastern Kentucky. I’m from Whitesville, Kentucky. And a lot of people do this. They don’t, at first, want to study what they know.

And I reread The Dollmaker, and was just so powerfully moved. And I also learned more about American realism and naturalism, and I wanted to put her in that context. So I let myself be drawn to– it was familiar. And, of course, she writes about a time before I was born, primarily, World War II. But still, the people and the way of life I had some familiarity with and those stories.

Another reason I did my work at the University of Kentucky, and there was a treasure trove of unpublished material there. Including the fourth novel, an unpublished novel, which is also set in Southeastern Kentucky. It was brought out posthumously in 1999. [INAUDIBLE] it was written in the ’30s.

And that said, in itself, publisher made a fascinating story about why it wasn’t published. And it has a lot to do with regional prejudices. Her editor had said don’t write another hillbilly novel like her first one.

But she had her subject matter. And she was a very strong-willed person. She wanted to publish, but she did not, so called, sell out.

ANNA BRAILOW: So a particularly interesting excerpt from one of your earlier essays on her, “The Demise of Mountain Life,” states that– and this is a direct quote– “To understand Arnow’s analysis of mountain life then we must understand, first, farmers’ distinctively American concept of the land and of agriculture, a conception suggested by certain of her firmly held, although seldom articulated, beliefs and assumptions about her world.” And The Dollmaker, as I understand, is one of Arnow’s most well-received novels. What place does the theme of agriculture and the theme of the generosity of nature have in Arnow’s work, specifically, The Dollmaker?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Backing up a little bit, first, in her nature is not necessarily generous. It can be very, very difficult to draw a living from the natural world, the role of nature and the role of agriculture. What she sees her farmers practicing is called subsistence farming. It’s making a living, growing one’s own food, and preserving one’s own food, caring for the land.

And there have been a lot of people in her fiction– there’s a lot of devastation of the land, where people have plowed the hillsides in irresponsible ways. But she’s writing about people who are not yet dependent on industry. It draws from the Jeffersonian idea of the independent farmer. And that’s [INAUDIBLE] very much a part of it, that the earth can offer, literally, sustenance and nutrition.

And the conflict she has– most of her characters are very happy with this way of life, or many of them are. But at least, in two novels, she puts a husband and wife at odds. One of them wants to say on the farm. In the unpublished novel, Between the Flowers, it’s the husband, who’s a natural born farmer and wants to stay. And his wife wants to go to the city.

In The Dollmaker, it’s the wife, her greatest character, Gertie Nevels. She was a consummate farmer and works in tandem with nature, not against it. There’s a wonderful scene where she’s feeding her five children.

She says it was supplied– everything was a product of her own farming, even the meal and the flour. And they’re having an abundance, if plain, dinner. And then there’s a scene– after the Nevels family moves outside Detroit, where the father gets a job in the factory– where she makes a terrible dinner of spaghetti with tomato soup on top, the industrial, wealthy industrial model.

And another theorist, later, much later, but Wendell Berry argues for this kind of agriculture. We’ve seen, I think, it’s quite a resurgence in things like family farming and farm to table. Certainly one of the things that, I think, she would approve.

And Arnow actually always gardened and she was very good at it. And she preserved her own food. But right after they married, she and her husband moved back to the mountains to an isolated old farm. And they wanted to– they wanted to subsistence farm and writes what she said was the work was so hard that you didn’t have much time for writing. But she [INAUDIBLE] experienced this, and she also later said they were the original hippies. But they really practiced. They tried it.

[INAUDIBLE] too, in part because she was worried about her children’s health and her father’s. She had one child and she’d lost two babies while they were there to stillbirth or shortly after birth. So that was a trying experience.

She did not romanticize [INAUDIBLE] it’s something I really value in her work. She did not romanticize any way of life. But she saw how it could be valuable as opposed to being modern. That adds to the question. If people can be self-sufficient– if not, and more or less [INAUDIBLE] a cash economy.

ANNA BRAILOW: Do you have a particular portion of your section of Kentucky Women that you are the most proud of or probably answers a question that you’ve been trying to answer throughout your research?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Actually, I don’t know that I’ve answered any questions. But I think I’ve identified the central paradoxes, at least to me, of her writing. I don’t know if you’d want to look at something, in particular. But I do think–

ANNA BRAILOW: Well, go ahead.

MARTHA BILLIPS: I think that she’s– one thing that I wanted to really, really do with this essay is to make clear that she was not a one novel author. She was often very, very frustrated with that, when people would know The Dollmaker and nothing else. That frustrated her very, very much.

So I wanted to really– I think that’s a contribution, if people– and most readers of this essay that I’ve encountered– and I’ve given a lot of talks about it– who had read Arnow at all, had read The Dollmaker. So I think that was a valuable contribution. So people, I hope, will read more of her fiction, or at least be aware of it.

The other thing I think I’ve identified are the central paradoxes of her career. She drew inspiration from the Kentucky hills. But she couldn’t write there, and she didn’t see it as still being exterior to the system, the way of life that she had written about.

And she’s a realist. So she’s not going to write something that she doesn’t think exists. So that, I think, is rather important. [INAUDIBLE] honestly, after 1954, which was the publication of The Dollmaker, she turned increasingly to history and historical fiction. In an effort, at least in part, to recover the basis of the lost mountain culture. It’s what she heads to in the ’60s, what she called their histories.

But they’re wonderful histories of the Cumberland region. They talk about, not only the flora and fauna, a flowering of the Cumberland [INAUDIBLE], but also the social organizations, the people. Not the big events, not the [INAUDIBLE]. So they’re very wonderful.

And they show very egalitarian frontier society. And they’re very good. They’re very award-winning, important books. But they’re not fiction.

Her remaining fiction is only one novel set in Michigan, which is interesting, but lacks the visceral power of her earlier works. And then a historical novel, The Kentucky Trace, about the Revolutionary War [INAUDIBLE] in Kentucky. So she could go back and writes historical fiction, but not [INAUDIBLE] fiction. She just said, it’s not appealing anymore for her.

She also– when she died, and she never, never, ever quit writing, she was working on a Civil War novel [INAUDIBLE], set in Kentucky. So she was looking back, in either– in the histories or the historical fiction, what led up to, basically, the subject, the greatest were. And these tensions are reflected in her life. She felt a constant tension between staying and leaving, and lived in city and country, and spent most of her life on a farm outside Ann Arbor, where she always had a big garden about which she expressed much ambivalence.

ANNA BRAILOW: If you were to meet Arnow today, what would you want to know from her?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Well, I wouldn’t want to say anything. She did not suffer stupidity lightly. And she’s very– could be very cut and very biting, and also very, very generous and, at the end of her life, very self-effacing.

I never met her. I wish I had. She died in 1986. But a good friend of mine, Sandra Ballard, who’s working on a biography of Arnow– she’s at Appalachian State and the editor of Appalachian Journal– she met Arnow and told her she might write a book about her. And she said, oh, don’t write a book about me. Write it about that Joyce fellow, the Irish one.


So she was just very, very self-effacing. And part of it’s very, very sad. I’ve read her journals again, and she disparages going to talk at conferences and so forth like Literary Lady. I might like to ask her, because this comes up a lot, why did you continue to feel such a tension between motherhood and marriage and writing, long after the children had grown? Because it did seem to continue. But people didn’t ever ask her, that I know of, anything that direct. People asked her if she did feel a tension between mothering and marriage and writing, and if she wanted to be known as a woman writer. And she was just very distrustful of all of it, the labels, being [INAUDIBLE] of Appalachia, the region, and so forth. And I think you can see why. Most of those things kind of diminish the male writer.

ANNA BRAILOW: Definitely.

MARTHA BILLIPS: So yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to ask her about how she wrote. I’d like to ask her about all her cooking that she’s known for.


You know, about canning, about things that I don’t know mostly.

I’d like to talk to her about her reaction to the Vietnam War, which was very, very strong, very negative. Of course, she was a little older for the campus protests. But she, living in Ann Arbor, was very, very much aware of them. But she was very strongly opposed.

She was very left-leaning, politically, to say the least, and consistently. Probably would want to talk to her about those things, as well as fiction. I feel like I know more about that.

ANNA BRAILOW: So what was this particular experience, just generally, of collaborative writing like?

MARTHA BILLIPS: Well, really, we put together– everyone wrote her own essay, or his own essay. So in that sense, it wasn’t like– a few were co-authored, actually, I shouldn’t say that. But I worked in isolation, really, until the editorial process, when we sent the manuscripts in and worked with editors to revise.

Where I have collaborated more was since the publication. I’ve spoken several times, and often with somebody else who is representative of– they were reading it at Morris Book Shop, actually, the May after it came out. And there were four of us. So people I had met– and some of them I’d met, others of whom I hadn’t. I do know several of the authors included here. So that’s where there was a lot of collaboration that came in.

I’ve talked with Dr. McEuen and the co-editor, Thomas Appleton, multiple times. Now they had, at the beginning, the editors had a very challenging task of deciding who to include. And then, finding someone, an expert to write, who would, who could. There are people who– and there’s also [INAUDIBLE] the University of Georgia [INAUDIBLE] so many.


So that was where– and I know they collaborated a lot, and really– and with the editor, too, to decide and then to find the authors to write the essays. I know Dr. McEuen has talked in very many forums that I’ve attended or participated in, but they wanted to have an article on Rosemary Clooney, who you may know, from Maysville, who’s really a great star of the mid-century. Of course, well-known now as aunt to George Clooney. But they couldn’t find anybody who did a very good job. And there’s– I know enough to know how [INAUDIBLE] interesting that could be, because she was covered in all the fan magazines, had a tumultuous marriage that was always in the news, children– four or five children in rapid succession. So there would be a lot to look at through the lens of celebrity. But anyway, Loretta Lynn is another obvious [INAUDIBLE] they couldn’t find anybody willing under the time constraints to do that. And then there are all kinds of issues with writing about a living person. There are living people in here, Martha [INAUDIBLE]. The majority were no longer.

ANNA BRAILOW: I can’t wait to read it myself.


Thank you so much for being with us and joining us on Campus Conversations.


NARRATOR: You’ve been listening to another in our series, Campus Conversations, one-on-one discussions with Transylvania University faculty.