A Life in Letters

A Life in Letters

Reviewed by John Egerton

Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 15-16

How Am I to be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993, 384 pages).

One of the most striking—and consequential—changes in the modern culture of the South and the Nation is the demise of letter-writing. Just fifty years ago, it was the principal means of long-distance communication; now the telephone, the fax, audio and video recorders—and, strangely, what appears to be a declining interest in communicating at all—have made lengthy and informative letters a curiosity, if not an artifact.

Too bad for us all, not only now but later. For one thing, it’s going to mean that when someone like Margaret Rose Gladney comes along to gather up the correspondence of a fascinating and influential figure long since departed, there’s not going to be much to go on—certainly nothing like the abundant wealth of letters written by Lillian Smith, who was without a doubt one of the most fascinating if not influential figures of the mid-century South.

The bare outline of Smith’s seven decades as a Southerner is intriguing enough in itself. Born and raised in an upper-class merchant-farmer family in Florida and the north Georgia mountains (their summer home), she aspired to a career as a pianist and received some conservatory training. But a more conventional life as a teacher pulled her away, and after a brief teaching experience at a Methodist mission school in China, she returned to the home near Clayton, Georgia, where her parents had moved permanently to operate their summer camp for girls. By 1930, after her father had died, Smith became the owner and manager of the camp—and she began, at about the same time, to express her thoughts and feelings on paper.

She also had entered by then into a personal relationship with Paula Snelling, a part-time counselor at the camp and a teacher the rest of the time at a school in Macon. For all of four decades, Smith and Snelling maintained a stable and intimate partnership that both they and their family and friends tacitly acknowledged as a de facto same-sex marriage. They founded a literary magazine in 1936 that changed names twice (the last being South Today), grew to a circulation of ten thousand, and lasted until the mid-1940s. They also ran Laurel Falls Camp, a substantial enterprise, until 1948. Smith in the meantime wrote two books that brought her a measure of both fame and notoriety: Strange Fruit, a 1944 novel about a love affair between a white man and a black woman in the South, and Killers of the Dream, a nonfiction work of Southern social criticism, largely autobiographical and confessional, published in 1949.

From the time of her emergence as an observer and essayist on the ills of Southern culture in the late 1930s until her death in 1966, Lillian Smith wrote about white-black and male-female relationships in the South with a depth of insight and candor that few others could equal, then or since. When I first encountered Killers of the Dream in the 1960s, at least fifteen years after its publication, it had an immediacy and a degree of revelation that struck me as powerfully as if it had just been written. I still think of it as one of the most meaningful books about the South that I have ever read.

At times, her books and articles betrayed a tone of preachiness, of lecturing if not scolding. That was probably inevitable and unavoidable; she was an idealist, an outspoken liberal activist, and she had deep feelings about the wrongs that privileged Southern whites had inflicted upon their brothers and sisters of another color or class. She yearned to “understand everybody,” to explain their behavior. Few people have ever studied the sickness of racism as deeply as she did. If she sometimes sounded a bit pedantic, perhaps it was because she knew what she was talking about

But her letters were also an integral part of her effort to influence others—to inform, to persuade, to incite—and reading them now is more engaging and stimulating to me than, say, re-reading Killers of the Dream or Strange Fruit. As she did in her personal encounters, which were numerous and varied, Smith showed in her letters another side of herself: informal, responsive, collegial, warm and witty. She clearly had a way with words—and when she focused her verbal energies on one listener, one reader, she was at her best as a writer.

Rose Gladney skillfully displays all of those Smithian attributes in these pages, not only in the letters she has chosen to use but in her own amplifying notes and commentaries that put the letters into context. Gladney, who teaches American Studies at the University of Alabama, began her work with the Smith correspondence fifteen years ago. More than mere compilation informs the finished product; Gladney shows an understanding of Lillian Smith and her times that is as thorough as it is open and

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These letters reinforce and expand the image of Smith that emerges from a reading of her books. She practiced, in race relations, precisely what she preached: a comprehensive sharing of life with others on the planet as equals, and an understanding of integration as the achievement of unity and wholeness, whether among individuals or within a community or a society. She didn’t retreat into silence or equivocate or mince words when she talked or wrote about the great ideas that energized her—race in particular. The anonymous threats and the real acts of violence aimed at her (arson most especially) did sometimes terrify her, but she gave no public hint of her fear.

What she dreaded more than men with torches was the feeling of being dismissed as “just a nice woman helping Negroes,” not a serious writer with creative talent. The “little humiliations” were the worst. In her never-ending battles with white moderates and liberals-men, usually—she seemed unable to get on equal footing. Ralph McGill and Hodding Carter in particular drove her to distraction with their cutting remarks. “Why can’t I be heard?” she demanded to know. No answer she ever got put her mind at ease.

But history has a way of evening things. Before World War II had ended, Lillian Smith had taken “a firm and public stand in opposition to segregation”—this in declining an invitation to join the board of the newly-formed Southern Regional Council, which would not take such a stand until 1951. McGill and Carter, on the other hand, would not come around to her point of view—and history’s—until after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954.

There can be little doubt that she got less recognition than she deserved while she was living. But as her letters and Rose Gladney’s supporting text make clear, Smith got the ultimate and decisive nod: She was right.

Nashville author and Lillian Smith Award winner John Egerton’s newest book about the South, to be published by Knopf in 1994, covers much of the period during which Lillian Smith wrote, the years from Roosevelt through Brown.