A Letter from Lillian Smith to Gerda Lerner
By Lillian Smith
Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 10-11, 14
Today Gerda Lerner is celebrated as a pioneer in women’s history and a leading scholar in U. S. history. Before she began her academic career in the mid-1960s, however, she had published several short stories and a novel, a story, about her adolescence in Vienna, Austria, of 1934-38, and she was struggling to find a publisher for her second novel.
Lerner first wrote Lillian Smith after reading Smith’s December 24, 1960 Saturday Review essay, “Novelists Need a Commitment. “While expressing her appreciation for Smith’s writing, Lerner wrote that her personal experience as a writer indicated that more than a commitment was necessary to get her work published. She described her second novel, which she had been told was out of tune with the literary market, as being in keeping with Smith’s concepts of dehumanization and fragmentation in human relationships. Feeling blocked as a writer and in need of affirmation, she asked Smith if she would read the manuscript.
Smith’s response not only documents one of the many instances of her willingness to help younger writers; it also provides an excellent example of her understanding of the relationship of the artist to the world in which she lives. Significantly, just as her support of political activists included challenging their understanding of the process of working for social change, so her support for other writers included both networking effort and theoretical discussions about writing and the creative process. Such reflective discussion as is contained in this letter illustrates clearly why Smith refused to separate her work as artist and citizen and why theory and practice, art and politics are consistently interrelated in her life.—Margaret Rose Gladney
Sunday [January] 22, 1961
Dear Gerda Lerner:
I was deeply moved by your letter. Warmed by your appreciation; hurt by the sudden glimpse you gave me of your own frustration; troubled and brightened, shocked and encouraged by vistas your words opened up. I am going to answer now, for fear that things, THINGS THINGS will keep me from doing so, later.
This sharp edged, cutting, upthrusting age we are living in makes inhuman demands on human beings. I think this about my own life. I am by nature shy, quiet, withdrawn; every move I have made in my life toward people, toward relating myself to my external world has hurt behind it; something pushes; sometimes, my conscience, my awareness of the hurt of others; sometimes, my own blazing rebellion against the false, the hypocritical; sometimes, my simple, almost childlike curiosity
about people, things, customs, defenses—I want to read, to brood, to study, to think. I want simply to look. Just look. At mountains. At a face. At a painting. I want to listen to the music that was the only real joy I had for the first twenty-two years of my life. I was absorbed in it, covered by it, hidden in it, exalted by it, excited—All my life was involved in music, except my two sharp eyes that kept staring at people. Then, in my own life, things happened; parents crumpled with psychic burdens and financial ones; I had to come out of myself and help them, take over. This call on me from them gradually spread and became a call[,] a silent call from the South on me for my help. Only the poor South did not know it needed me. I felt it did. Not southern people. And so, a conflict began which has never for one year let up: the conflict between my deep desires, my instinctual needs, my hunger to create something, to make a thing—and this crying, pleading but even now silent cry of my people, Come over to Macedonia and help us. The tragic knowledge that they have not known they were crying for help and resented the help I have tried to give is one of the wounds of human life.
What I mean when I say an artist, a writer must have a sense of commitment (by the way that title was not mine, but the Saturday Review’s: my title was more accurate: Out of Creative Tension Comes Peace. They subtly altered my real meaning by that title which they used without my permission.) is that the artist must have a sense of vocation, a sense of being “called” to his work; it is something he must do; he must listen when he is told to “make a new thing.” This is what I meant, truly. This is my belief. But since this artist lives in a world of people a world of surging life, ambivalent life, aching, passionately hurting life, he must make his “thing” his “new thing” out of this life, out of his own personal experience of life. Because my experience of life has to do with chasms and walls, with “a trembling earth” which literally was true since the earth near the Great Swamp of my childhood does actually tremble when one walks on it—because my experience was in the actual living a kind of metaphor of the white race, of all his grandeurs and all its errors; because I also lived with Negroes, close to them, not as problems but as people, because I saw the cruelties, felt them abrade me as well as my Negro friends, I could write of nothing else. How could I! I had to explore the meanings of the trembling earth beneath my feet: the philosophical and ethical meanings, the psychological meanings, yes—the esthetic meanings too. I have always looked at racial segregation as something that has spelled out a doom for white people that black people may escape. I have always seen our human dilemmas from the point of view of the corroding effect of arrogance and hate, of moral blindness and intellectual obscurantism rather than from the point of view, “Let’s help the poor Negro.” The Negro has had a hellish time: he has been bound outwardly by many bonds, but the white man has bound his soul and mind and heart until they are abject slaves to this sick worship called White Supremacy. Always, I have looked at things this way.
As for problems: There is neither a white nor Negro problem. There is no racial problem; no “problem” of racial relations. These matters are not simple, sharpedged problems which can be solved. The only thing that can happen is for us to “make a new thing,” to do, as does God the artist “create the new.” We abandon human dilemmas, we never solve them. And that is why I say even the young writer (although I did not say this in the Sat.
article) must have a commitment: a commitment to make something new of the life around him. But does he see this life? I don’t think Faulkner, for instance, really sees the life around him or even inside him. He has made something new, something interesting; but nothing great, nothing that can find its place in the future of mankind. As I said of him, twenty-five years ago, he is truly a great finger painter. That was the term I used then; today, I’d say, Faulkner has tried to do with words (but has not succeeded because words have set meanings) what Pollock and de Kooning have tried to do with the drip method. With him, not quite abstraction for words are symbols not abstractions and he cannot make pure abstraction out of them. But he has used a method something like theirs. But there is a fallacy here: The writer and the painter are not in the same creative category; they can never be equated with each other. Not even the poet can be equated with the painter. The painter is much closer to music and when he tries to achieve pure abstraction as music does often achieve, then he is on solid ground. But the writer can never do this. He cannot take a word and drain all its old meaning from it, mash it into pulp and make “something new out of it.” He can try as Joyce tried but he cannot do it. The word is there. In the beginning was the Word. It has meaning; it has ten thousand layers of meaning, maybe; but meaning which human beings know is there; and so you cannot begin as if you were God and make the material, too, with which you work. Your subject matter can be personally yours, and should be. If it also happens to affect the whole world as my material does, then that is both good and bad. Good because it is important. Your treatment of it may not be; but the subject matter is important. It is “bad” for the writer because readers are always reading into your words and your subject matter what they want to see there; or what they fear to see there. You cannot get esthetic distance from subject matter that involves “race” for instance. When Melville wrote Moby Dick, no one read him; reviewers sneered at the book. Why? Because whale hunting was an actual business at that time; they couldn’t get esthetic distance. They felt he was dealing with a “problem” although actually he was not as every reader today knows. But then, it seemed so; and only Hawthorne grasped his real intent. But never said so publicly. Only privately to Melville.
As a citizen, I have sometimes used my writing talent my talent for finding a simple way to say something that is hideously twisted and complex, to help view a fragment of “race relations” more clearly. I have even suggested, as a housewife might during a thunderstorm, that there are ways to shut windows, and doors, and put pans under the bad leaks; and call the children in out of reach of lightning, etc. But as a serious writer, as I think of myself in Strange Fruit (yes, even that first book) and Journey and Killers of the Dream and One Hour, I have always tried to make something new out of what was before hackneyed, trite, and false; I have always tried to show invisible things (in this sense, I am a realist. I do like to dredge up what even my own eyes have never seen before). I have tried. I do not think I have quite succeeded in making a new, wondrous, shining thing out of the big Nightmare. And I want to do this. I want to do as Auden and poets before him have said, “teach my terrors to sing.” When I do this maybe I can take a nasty, obscene, hating, panting monstrosity and show it in a way that even it, even it, takes on some of the luminous quality of first creation.
I am sorry that your books have been lost in the awful, crazy shuffle of our times. Yes, I’d like to read your book. Our reviewers and critics are to blame. They are men lost in the present; talking of nihilism as if they had discovered it. It would make us laugh, except it is no laughing matter for serious writers. They now talk of “total rejection”—and one moans, Oh God. Dostoevski did all this 80 years ago and did it so well, always setting the nihilism cleanly against the great shadowy Affirmation. But they have nothing to affirm. Why? Because these critics and reviewers do not see the actual life we are living. They see what the 19th century saw; they see even what was seen up to 1940; but they don’t really see the invisible things. This kind of realism is the realm of the creative writer: to show the invisible things actually present in contemporary life. This is one duty; one that we can commit ourselves to. Then we have another duty, another commitment to make. And that is to show it reflected against the future; and the past. Then we have a third commitment: to show these visible and invisible things as they look to each of us, in the dim depths of our own heart and mind, as they link on to what they find there. This is art as the writer deals with it. Art as the composer deals with it is something different; art as the painter and sculptor deals with it is different, too. And the painter’s art is clearly different from that of the sculptor. Actually, writer and sculptor are closer together in their needs, their materials, their actual results.
Thank you for writing me. And thank you for letting me write you.
This letter is in How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney and published in September by University of North Carolina Press. The letter is from the Smith collection at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.