Lillian Smith: Poet Among Demagogues

Lillian Smith:
Poet Among Demagogues
By Margaret Rose Gladney

Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 8-9

Internationally acclaimed as author of the controversial novel, Strange Fruit (1944), Lillian Smith was the most liberal and outspoken of white mid-twentieth century Southern writers on issues of social, and especially racial, justice. Her writing explored the interrelatedness of her culture’s attitudes towards race and sexuality and the ways in which the South’s economic, political, and religious institutions perpetuated a dehumanizing existence for all its people. When other Southern liberals such as Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter, Virginius Dabney, and Jonathan Daniels were charting a cautious course on racial change, Smith boldly and persistently called for an end to segregation. For such boldness she was often scorned by more moderate Southerners, threatened by arsonists, and denied the critical attention she deserved as a writer. Yet she continued to write and speak for improved human relations and social justice throughout her life.

Smith refused to separate the seemingly conflicting roles of artist and activist. Calling the Supreme Court’s ruling on school desegregation “every child’s Magna Carta,” she wrote Now is the Time (1955) to urge compliance with both the letter and spirit of that law. Although she rarely identified herself with any organization, Smith was deeply respected and sought after by those who actively worked for justice in the South. She played a major role in supporting, advising, and criticizing the work of such national and regional organizations as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Southern Regional Council. One of the most insightful portrayals of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Smith’s last published book, Our Faces, Our Words (1964), reveals her personal knowledge and experience with the young civil rights activists.

Born December 12, 1897, the eighth of ten children, Lillian Smith grew up in Jasper, Florida, where her father was a prominent business and civic leader. Some of the richness of that childhood is beautifully told in Memory of a Large Christmas (1962). The more conflicting aspects, “the hard lessons dealing with sin, sex, and segregation,” form the basis of her most perceptive critique of Southern culture, Killers of the Dream (1949, revised 1961).

Smith’s life as a daughter of upper-class whites in the small-town Deep South ended rather abruptly when her father lost his turpentine mills in 1915 and moved the family to their summer home in the mountains of Clayton, Georgia. Financially on her own, Smith attended nearby Piedmont College one year, helped her parents manage a hotel, and taught in two mountain schools before she was able to pursue her chosen career in music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1922 she accepted a three-year position as director of music at a Methodist school for girls in Huchow, China. But her ambitions for a career in music ended when her parents, in ill health, asked her to return to direct the summer camp for girls begun by her father in 1920.

Under her direction from 1925 through 1948, Laurel Falls Camp became an outstanding innovative educational institution, known for its instruction in the arts, music, dramatics, and modern psychology. At least part of her intent was, as she wrote one camper’s mother, “to wake up the little sleeping beauties that our Anglo-American culture has anesthetized, or rather put in a deep freeze.” Encouraging emotional and psychological as well as physical development, Smith helped the daughters of white upper-class southerners 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 Smith’s analysis of Southern culture,

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especially her understanding of the effects of childrearing practices on adult racial and sexual relationships.

Through the camp Smith also met Paula Snelling, a native of Pinehurst, Georgia, and began the life-long relationship that encouraged and sustained her writing career. As intellectuals, keenly interested in the political and literary ferment that began in the South in the 1920s, Smith and Snelling entered the public arena as writers in opposition to the Agrarians with the publication of a small literary magazine, Pseudopodia (later changed to North Georgia Review and finally South Today), which they co-edited from 1936 to 1945. Publishing and reviewing the literary work and opinions of both black and white women and men, their magazine addressed a wide range of political, social, and economic issues and quickly achieved acclaim as a forum for liberal ideas in the region.

An equally far-reaching and perceptive analysis of the South informs Smith’s record-breaking best-seller, Strange Fruit. Set in the post-World War I South of her youth, the love story between a black woman and a white man—banned for obscenity in Boston—was translated into fifteen languages and produced as a Broadway play. But Killers of the Dream, an even more insightful exploration of the inter-relationship of racism and sexism in Southern society, brought strong criticism from fellow Southerners and the beginning of Smith’s isolation from the mainstream of American letters. Writing confessionally and autobiographically, frequently from the perspective of women and children, about racial and sexual fears in American culture, neither her style nor her subject matter was acceptable to the literary establishment and the general public of Cold War America. Thus, although Smith received national and international acclaim for her courageous fight against segregation, none of her subsequent books achieved the popularity or financial success of her first novel.

Her more philosophical works, The Journey (1954) and One Hour (1959), demonstrate the extent to which Smith’s concerns extended beyond race relations in the American South to include all aspects of human relationships in the postmodern world. In The Journey she wrote, “I went in search for an image of the human being I could be proud of.” Through this moving spiritual autobiography she found the true measure of the human spirit to be the individual’s creative response to ordeal. After two young white boys set fire to her home in November 1955, destroying her personal belongings, thousands of valuable letters, and unpublished manuscripts, Smith wrote One Hour. Addressing her own questions about why her ideas about social change and human relationships were so strongly resisted, in One Hour Smith explored the relationship between what she called “mob thinking and mob acting.” The novel brilliantly depicts the destructive effects of mass hysteria and censorship associated with the McCarthy era while probing the dynamics of personal relationships of white upper-middle-class intellectuals, especially the power of their unacknowledged fears concerning taboo sexual relationships.

While challenging the fundamental assumptions of her culture, Lillian Smith chose to remain in her north Georgia mountain home to write her books and live her life. After thirteen years of battling cancer, she was buried there, among the remains of Laurel Falls Camp, in September 1966. Since her death three additional volumes of her work have been published: From the Mountain (1972), selected articles from her magazine; The Winner Names the Age (1978), a collection of her speeches and essays; and How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith (1993).

Margaret Rose Gladney is a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.