Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South. By Anne Loveland. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986. $22.50).
By Rose Gladney
Vol. 9, No. 1, 1987, pp. 13-14
Before she died in 1966 Lillian Smith was contacted and sometimes interviewed by several prospective biographers. Because she knew her worth, Smith cooperated and compiled a rather extensive collection of autobiographical notes, chronologies, and lists of significant friends and references. After Smith’s death Paula Snelling, as executrix of her literary estate, continued the process by preparing and selecting Smith’s correspondence and other papers for deposit in the University of Georgia Libraries. Students and friends of Smith have waited twenty years for a serious, thoroughly researched biography. Anne Loveland is to be congratulated for being the first to master the sheer volume of material in the Lillian Smith papers and for placing Smith’s life in the mainstream of twentieth century American social and intellectual history.
Because she wee publicly praised and honored for her work with the civil rights movement during her lifetime, Smith knew she would be remembered for her early and continued call for a complete end to racial segregation. However, what Smith most wanted was to be valued as a creative writer and thinker. Accordingly, Loveland chose as the informing theme of her biography what Smith had called the struggle to relate the “Mary” and “Martha” aspects of her life, the conflicting impulses between her writing career and her work for social reform. While the use of this theme in her analysis provides important insights into some of Smith’s works, Loveland fails to establish her own aesthetic criteria for evaluating Smith’s writing. Instead, after offering little more than reports of the critical views of Smith’s contemporaries and noting Smith’s own acknowledged appreciation of other philosophers and theologians such as Tillich and Teilard de Chardin, Loveland concludes: “Regrettably, her philosophical thinking was generally derivative and superficial and her literary effort unexceptional. Her primary significance lies in the role she played in the Southern civil rights movement of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.”
Although Smith’s contribution to the Southern civil rights movement should not be underestimated, the value and significance of that contribution cannot really be separated from the quality of her writing and thinking. Behind Loveland’s assessment of Smith’s literary and philosophical capabilities lies a seemingly unexamined acceptance of the necessity of separating creative writing and social activism. This failure to examine the implications of Smith’s choice of self-definition is one indication of the absence of an essential ingredient in Loveland’s analysis: a consciousness of the power of gender in shaping a life and in influencing one’s perception of life in general.
Without that awareness, Loveland fails to see the tension between the “Mary” and “Martha” aspects of her character as a function of gender and the frustration in Smith’s life as a product of seeking affirmation and validation from the very forces she rebelled against–the patriarchal structure which perpetuates a racist and sexist society.
Additional evidence of Loveland’s lack of feminist consciousness pervades her discussion of Smith’s analysis of the roles of Southern women. Although Loveland notes Smith’s “comprehensive challenge against sexual convention,” she seems to accept uncritically Smith’s rather limited definition of feminism. While observing that Smith “thought of herself as specially qualified to help break the long silence about women,” and that her challenge to white supremacy and racial segregation “inevitably threatened two major supports of sacred womanhood,” Loveland maintains that “[Smith] was clearly not a feminist writer, for lesbianism was only a minor theme in her novels and none of her works was written to promote women’s rights or liberation.” I question the logic of so
limited a definition of feminist writing.
Loveland’s lack of feminist consciousness is further demonstrated in her analysis of Smith’s personal relationships. While acknowledging that Smith’s closest friends were women, and that the strongest support and appreciation of her work came from women, Loveland devalues the significance of that support by implying that those female friends praised Smith’s work because they “recognized how much Lillian desired approval and praise.” Downplaying the effects of thirteen years of battling cancer, the 1955 fire which destroyed her home and most of her unpublished manuscripts, and the reality of patriarchal biases in treatment from male critics and friends, Loveland concludes the chapter on relationships: “She seemed to expect ill treatment from people, especially men, and purposely looked for indications of it to confirm her suspicions. At least some of the frustration and disappointment marking her life and career was of her own making and the result of an inability to take satisfaction in anything less than unconditional praise or loyalty.”
Although Smith’s tendency to resist identification as a feminist may be at least partially attributed to the absence of a well-developed, supportive feminist movement during her lifetime, it is not so easy to excuse Loveland’s adherence to an anti-feminist interpretation in light of the influence of feminist theory on recent historical scholarship. Whether or not Smith can be called a feminist writer, her biographer should recognize the power of patriarchal values in shaping Smith’s life. Smith knew that her sex made an important difference in her experience, perception, and treatment as a writer. She even associated the “Mary” or creative side of herself with her knowledge of women. Yet she wanted to be valued as though sex did not matter. The illusion that such approval can be “objective” is in itself a product of patriarchal thinking. Ironically, we finally learn from Smith’s life what neither she-nor Loveland could fully see–the power and the cost of self-creation and the necessity for self-validation in a woman’s life.
Loveland’s biography values in Smith what was acknowledged by the ruling males of her day and ours: Smith’s contribution to the civil rights movement. Correspondingly, the biography undervalues the importance of Smith’s life and work with other women. If Smith’s life is to be re-created so that its richness and complexity may be fully appreciated, her biographer must push the boundaries of patriarchal thinking even further than Smith did.
This carefully researched example of traditional scholarship has reported the facts of Smith’s life, but a full recreation and appreciation of her character remains to be written.
Rose Gladney is assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.