A Letter from Lillian Smith
Edited by Rose Gladney
Vol. 10, No. 5, 1988, pp. 22-23
This is the final letter in a series published over the last year by Southern Changes exploring the correspondence of Lillian Smith. The selection for this issue was written in the fall of 1955 after Smith had spent a month as writer-in-residence at Vassar College. While there she learned that her book The Journey had been selected by the Georgia Writers’ Association to receive an award for the best book of nonfiction with the most literary value written by a Georgian in 1954 In late November, shortly before her time at Vassar was scheduled to end, she also learned that her home in Clayton had been burglarized by two young boys and that a fire, resulting from their activities, had destroyed her bedroom and study. Almost all of her personal belongings, unpublished manuscripts, notes, and thousands of letters were lost.
The following paragraphs are taken from a thank-you letter to Helen Lockwood, who was head of the English Department at Vassar and responsible for Smith’s visit there. The selected passages reveal much that epitomizes Smith’s response to the circumstances which shaped her life and, in many cases, determined her perceived status as a writer. Lockwood and Smith had become good friends during their month of working together, and Lockwood knew of the Georgia Writers’ award as well as the terrible shock of the fire. With such a friend Smith shared the sense of humor and awareness of life’s absurdities that fueled Smith’s profound critiques of Southern culture.
This sixth and final selection in the Series of Lillian Smith letters was taken from a carbon copy of the original in the Lillian Smith Collection at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens.
Dec. 2, 1955
The award was an absurd occasion–full of the grotesque, the stupid, the sweet, the good in other words: it was “the South” giving Lillian Smith an award with a trembling hand. I laughed until I was weak; I wanted to cry and didn’t; and I suddenly felt proud, proud that these people had found somewhere the courage to do it. I did not attend the first day of the conference but came in the second day and attended the luncheon where Flannery O’Conner spoke; also attended a fantastic round-table discussion of booksellers who were telling writers “what the public wanted.” It was so bizarre that it was unbelievable, this talk. The high point was reached when the booksellers agreed most gravely that what the public really wanted was a book about “how to meet sorrow.” “A big book or a little book?” some one asked. They conferred about this, then the chairman said she believed that what the public wanted was “a dollar book on how to meet sorrow.” Paula was in the back of the audience; I was midway in the crowd; but I could not restrain myself from turning and looking at her. It was altogether wonderful. I wouldn’t have missed it.
The night I received the award there was a big crowd at the dinner. I had not been asked to speak; they feared I might drop a bomb of some kind, I suppose. I don’t know. Anyway, I had not been asked. Hyman (No Time for Sergeants) who is a Georgia boy had been asked to speak. But when they met me Thursday morning they said to each other and even to me “Oh, she’s nice; such a lady, isn’t she? Oh my, and dressed like Park Avenue; let’s ask her to speak; she must speak to us.” Well, I must admit I had on my Sunday beat and my Paris hat (the only one not burned) and my mother’s manners. Well, I spoke (without preparation) and I melted most of them down. Not all, by any means; but MOST. Fully two-thirds of them came up after the dinner and shook hands with me. A Baptist minister said he was going to use some of my talk for his Sunday sermon…. A young doctor said he had never read one thing I had written but now he was going to read everything. An old lady said I was so sweet and well bred, she knew I had the beat intentions in the world, no matter what I said in my books. It went on and on. Afterward, I went to a friend’s house (I don’t have but two or three houses in Atlanta now that I am welcome in, but I went to one of them) sank into a chair and weakly asked for the biggest drink she could get in one glass. It was truly a whale of an experience. Flannery’s talk was one of the funniest things I ever listened to. Do you know–I don’t believe she had the vaguest notion how she shocked the crowd. She told em off; told Georgia off; told the South off; told would-be writers off. She is a little on the grim side in personality and not personally very attractive but she gave a hell of a good speech. There were about thirty of us there–they might not feel I should be so cozy as to include myself in the number–who enjoyed every word of it. But the stuffed shirts and the would-be writer (the place was full of them) began listening and smilingly because they had heard she was “literary” and “talented” and nothing she wrote threatened anybody, certainly not on the conscious levels of their life. But after about two paragraphs they realized that a nice little snake was sinking her fangs deep into their little complacency and they began to look at each other and shake their coiffeured heads and whisper, “Well….what do you know….”
Next morning, Friday, the WSB-TV actually asked me to be on the noon news spot. I dashed down and did it. First time, since Strange Fruit that my presence in Atlanta has ever been acknowledged. Everybody said everywhere, “Why, you nice person, have you kept yourself hidden away all these years, making us miss knowing you?” Honest to God, they said it.
I smiled and said nothing during the first twenty times it was said to me (a new myth in this myth-making South is being created and that is that nobody knows me in the South because I have deliberately kept people away from me) but the twenty-first time it was said, I said “I’ll tell you why. It is because you have never invited me before. And Ill tell you why you have never invited me: it was because I write highly controversial books and you feared to do so. But now that you have, let’s forget why and enjoy each other.” The South cannot bear the truth–not even a teeny-weepy
truth, if there is any lie, any fantasy, any myth they can grab hold of instead. When I said the truth, in a very soft voice, the person’s eyes bugged out. She was as shocked as if I had said two dozen four letter words.
Well, it was fun. And I must admit it helped me get over the shock of the fire.
Rose Gladney is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.