A Letter from Lillian Smith

A Letter from Lillian Smith

Edited by Rose Gladney

Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 17, 19

Lillian Smith’s friendship with Carson McCullers and her husband Reeves may be dated to the late 1940s. After the Broad way production of Strange Fruit closed in 1946, Lillian kept an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, dividing her time between New York and Clayton, Georgia, and maintained a number of friendships in New York’s literary circles until the spring of 1953 when she discovered she had breast cancer and returned permanently to her mountain home. Still recuperating from a radical mastectomy, she had just completed her second work of nonfiction, The Journey, when Carson came to visit her November 17, 1953. Having recently left Reeves in Paris because of his alcoholism, Carson was working on an article about Georgia for Holiday magazine. Her visit with Lillian ended tragically only hours after it had begun when Carson’s sister called to say that Reeves had killed himself.

The following letter differs in tone from some of the more public letters selected for this series of Lillian Smith’s correspondence. Yet, it is equally important to our understanding of Smith’s life and work. Her attention to physical detail and personal feeling reveals what is most powerful about her writing. Furthermore, Smith makes the mundane occasion of writing a thank-you note the opportunity to express not only solace for a friend’s grief but also profound wisdom for living.

Her advice to Carson about heeding her inner knowledge concerning the reality of her relationship with Reeves, letting go what had ended in order to create something new, reflects the spirit and style of The Journey. Because of her fight with cancer, from 1953 until 1966 Lillian Smith would write very consciously under a death sentence. At her best, she would do so by using her past to speak and write about the future–the future of the South, of the world, of humanity itself.

Undated {January 1954)

A new year has begun. I hope it will be good, very good for you.

Dear Carson:

It is cold and bright like glass, today. Winds have stripped the trees clean and pale winy smoke color is drifting down on the mountain.

The kind of day when my tongue says “beautiful” and my heart mourns. Always those winds blow harder on my memory than on the mountain and I am driven back to an empty house and empty rooms that greedily spread over my whole life, sometimes; refusing to budge. Just taking over as if they have a right to stay. What happened on windy days long ago, I have no faint idea; but when such a day comes, I have to go back, like a ghost, to my childhood and wander it. Without map; without destination.

So, I write you from Clayton but really from a lonely corner somewhere in the past, to say hello and thank yow and wish you well. It would be nice to talk. I have never talked to you. Always we begin and there are–interruptions. Small ones, most of them; and the one big one which I pray you have somehow made your peace with. A hard six weeks you have had. I know this. I know there have been terrors and regrets, and sudden revelations, and grief, and a sadness that has no name. Always, if we could name the sadness, if we could find the word, we feel the sadness would lift. It is like stumbling across an old grave stone with no name and no date. Sorrow is like that. One cannot name it. If one only could…name it and find a little date in time for it. Then we could drop a small flower, a tear, and compose our life around it.

All of this you have felt, I know. And more. And I have been glad that you were compelled to work hard; to write “about Georgia”; to meet a deadline; to “make a little money.” It is harsh and right, this having to do the practical things when the deep breaks come. It glues us together; it drives us and pinches us back into some kind of shape. And while we are hardening ourselves, finding order in the chaos, we are at the same time growing within us new possibilities for life.

But it has been very hard. And I know this. I have thought of you, often. Paula has. We have talked about it with a profound dense of the pity of it, the sadness but, also, knowing a time comes when a relationship has ended. Death did not end it. You told me that, before you knew. It had ended before Reeves’ death. You felt this; saw it with a clarity; felt it in the honest regions of your self; and I hope that you have not forgotten. For no circumstance, even so hard a one as the event that occurred, can break what was already broken. To forgive another and one’s self; to accept all in another that one can and hold on to that. I feel you have done this; will do it; will cherish the bright moments; the gay, absurd, ridiculous and warm days; the tragic, too; and out of it all you will weave a new pattern, something real and Reeves will be a pert of your words; and all this will hold that common past close and make you glad of those years. I feel that you are wise enough to be grateful for those years; and not to regret them.

The flowers were lovely. And there is a funny quirk to it which will amuse you, I hope. The florist called from Toccoa, misery loading down her voice. She had an order from New York for an old fashioned bouquet for me. But she did not really have the right flowers for an old fashioned bouquet, she said. And how on earth could she get an old fashioned bouquet to me in Clayton! Could I perhaps come over for it? The voice was troubled. Was I going to wear it Christmas day? No, I said. There was no special occasion. Then, she sighed in relief, would it be all right to send me simply cut flowers? Yes, I assured her. But how could she get them to Clayton? She thought over long distance, too miserable to count her dimes. Finally she said while I held the silent phone, Oh yes; the paper truck came through Toccoa and went from there to Clayton. She’d just put those flowers on

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the paper truck and he would leave them at the drugstore. Would that do? Yes, of course, I assured her. So the flowers came bouncing in on the paper truck Saturday; the drugstore call e d to say “Miss Lil, we have some flowers for you;” Paula went to town for them and that night beautiful red carnations and blue irises were all over my dining room and looked very gay and very Christmasy too. Thank you for thinking of me in such a very nice way.

Please give my love to your dear mother, to that very nice sister Rita, and my warm affectionate wishes for the New Year.

My love, dear, Lillian

NOTE: This letter was copied from the original in the Carson McCullers collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Rose Gladney is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.