A Letter from Lillian Smith
Edited by Rose Gladney
Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 11-12
The following is the second of a series of letters selected from the correspondence of Lillian Smith to appear in Southern Changes. This issue’s selection is from one of her letters to Glenn Rainey, retired English professor at Georgia Tech, and was copied from the original in the Glenn Rainey Collection at Emory University. Mr. Rainey and his wife Dorothy were close friends of Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling. He was one of the initial sponsors of and a frequent contributor to their magazine.
Despite the often conflicting demands Smith faced as camp director, magazine editor, and novelist, correspondence from the late 1930s and early ’40s indicates a great deal of creative interaction between these seemingly different interests in her life. Her Laurel Falls Camp was an extraordinarily creative educational institution, known for its instruction in the arts, music, dramatics, and modern psychology. Through conversation and creative play, Smith helped campers and counselors question the world they lived in and begin to envision the possibility of change in that world The camp was also a laboratory for many of the ideas informing her analysis of political and cultural events in her published writing. It is not surprising that camp activities often reflected concerns similar to those expressed in her magazine. For example, one of the plays, “Behind the Drums,” written by Smith for her campers, explored 300 years of Afro-American history through music and dance and was published in the 1939 fall issue of North Georgia Review.
The following account of another camp play in the summer of 1940 demonstrates even more explicitly how current political events, specifically the anticipation of war, affected the creative activities of the camp and Smith’s perspective on her work as writer as well as camp director. She knew then that war, like other forms of human segregation, is most destructive to our minds and hearts.
September 19, 1940
We had a good summer, smooth as far as the mechanics of camp were concerned. Less encouraging to me as I watched War creep into our midst and twist feeling and thought. Our girls talked more about God, about hell, about believing every word of the Bible than in all my camp experience I have heard before. They were less tolerant of the Negro this summer (some holding bravely to their decency but others wavering) more inclined to defend the
South…America…to hate Hitler and Germans…Even so, we had good talks, good evenings together…until I wrote a little play called 1940, A Play for a Young Girl. They wrote that play, not I,–I only put it down on paper. It came out of evenings when together we did not discuss war and peace, regimentation and death, but acted it out in singing and dance and impromptu chanting. Gathered together as we have done before in the library we spent several evenings doing this…first playing on the drums then beginning to talk about today, this year, what it meant to us,–election year–child refugees-Finland-propaganda– regimentation–then suddenly some one would get up and chant their feelings or dance them out. You would have felt the same thrill that I did, I believe, in seeing them express through their bodies, their feelings. And then one night, some girl spoke of conscription, of regimented youth camps and to my astonishment their feelings of fear and panic poured out. Then I wrote the play. We were to give it–the girls were thrilled–we went to its first reading and rough “walking through” of the scenes. And suddenly my counselors turned against me. The play was unpatriotic they told me. Furthermore, it was not the kind of thing young girls should hear about. A first-year callow young counselor told me that “it wasn’t good for children to hear about such things…they were too young.” In all of my experience I have never felt so much resentment against me, such a refusal to work with me on a project. I bowed my head to the storm and stopped work on the play. Not because I was afraid to give that play but because I was afraid of seeing all the other values of summer destroyed by dissension and suspicion. But I gathered my children up one night and we went to the library and Esther read it to them. [Esther Smith, Lillian Smith’s younger sister, taught dramatic arts at Western Maryland College, and was in charge of the camp’s theatrical productions for many summers.] In all her life she must not have read so beautifully and so movingly. The children were deeply touched and profoundly impressed. A few counselors had straggled in–I had invited none of them–and some told me afterward that they regretted that we had given up the idea of producing the play…But that was Esther’s magic, and they did not really believe what they said.
Well… I confess that I was awed by the incident. It has always been so simple and easy to hold the group in the “hollow of one’s hand,” so to speak, to win them over to almost any kind of project. But War’s beat me. I had no more influence during that brief dissension when my loyal staff turned into a war mob than if I had been the cook.
But…I quickly got our minds on fun again–on the banquet and the barbecue and the children’s surprise for the counselors–and so the summer ended in peace. I suppose you’d call it my appeasement policy. The children went home saying it was their happiest and best summer; the counselors went home saying the same. And believing it. But the director saw them all off feeling sadder than ever in her life she had felt about a summer…
Sometimes I feel so distressed, so perturbed about what is ahead of us that it is difficult to hold on to those values one cherishes. It is not the physical part of war that sickens me as it is what is happening to our minds and feelings.
Rose Gladney is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.