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The Old Days In Jasper: A Reminiscence

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

This recollection of her childhood by Lillian Smith was made orally on June 14, 1966 in Atlanta, Ga. She was seriously ill at the time, and that is why it took this form. She died on September 28 of the same year. The setting is Jasper, Fla. , where Miss Smith was born and where she lived until 1915. Her memories of Jasper were tape-recorded by Joan Titus, who is working on a biography of the Southern writer entitled Trembling Earth. Miss Smith’s works include Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream.

I was thinking of old days in Jasper this morning. It’s funny how your mind goes back and stays and you don’t realize it’s there. You are planning things with your conscious mind and sometimes even reading a book; and yet this old memory is like a ghost just flitting around from the big camphor tree to the banana shrub, on to the big oak tree and the magnolia and so on. And suddenly I saw two little feet and one of them was mine and one of them was Marjorie’s, and they were wiggling up and down in the sand and each of us was digging a hole with our hands but we were also half-digging with our toes and making what is called a toad-frog house. And we’d dig and dig and dig. This is strange land down there in North Florida. If you dig 12 or 14 inches you always come to very wet earth and sometimes even at six inches you do, so it’s wonderful to play with. There we were digging away and these little toes just flipping, flapping up and down and we made a hole and then we took the dirt and dried it out with some dry sand and built it all around our feet. In other words, each of us used her foot as an armature and built up a house that was actually more like a little Eskimo house than anything I can think of. But this was our way of building what we called toad-frog houses. Then after it had dried a little bit around our feet we’d slip the feet out and there would be this nice mysterious dark hollow place inside. And then that night we were sure a toadfrog would come. I don’t know why we called them toadfrog—we didn’t say frog and we didn’t say toad, we said toadfrog. Somehow that made it more important and more mysterious, too. And then we’d look inside, hoping to see two little glistening eyes staring back at us next morning. It’s a wonder we didn’t find a little snake staring at us instead. But we didn’t. And Marjorie and I would play like that by the hour or stringing red seeds out of the magnolias. After the petals have fallen there is something that looks almost like a pinecone, I suppose you’d call it a magnolia cone, and it has these beautiful, beautiful clear red seeds in it. And we’d string them and wear them around our necks.

But Marjorie and I did things more important than stringing magnolia seeds together and making toad-frog houses and climbing the great trees around us. We told each other stories. And for years I thought we actually told each other stories. I didn’t know that I told the story and Marjorie was that important person, the listener, and in that way we made the story together. That came as a surprise to me, although of course I had learned it the hard way as a writer—a book is nothing until you find the reader who can listen and really hear everything you’re saying in the book. And most readers hear very little of what you’re saying. But Marjorie was apparently the perfect listener and when I was five, six, seven, eight, nine years old, according to her memory and mine to a more dim extent, I told the long stories and she listened and in that way we collaborated. What these stories were about neither one of us can remember for the life of us today. I think they were about a world that was better, though, than the one we had; and of course we had an enormously good world compared to most children—full of fun and full of things and full of comforts. But each of us was growing the hard way, and there were times when we were furious with our families and with our sisters and brothers and with everybody but each other. I don’t remember that we ever got furious with each other. And we were friends from the time we were four years old until she left Jasper at 15. Then I left there at 17, and since then we have seen almost nothing of each other.

But coming back to these stories. Apparently she and I would walk down the railroad track walking the rails, falling off, but stopping to pick wildflowers—violets, irises: the irises grew down there by the thousands in the ditches, along every railroad track and along every path and road. We’d be stooping, picking flowers and here I would be going on and on and on with this continued story, which I don’t think stopped at the end of our play day but was picked up the next time we were together. And yet neither of us remembers very much about it, except she said that she was always just hypnotized by it and I think it was because it was her story, too. I think I rather remembered her as collaborating, I would say, more actively than just listening because it was her story. I was telling the story of two little girls who loved each other very much and yet were lonely children somehow: surrounded by big families and yet each of us cut away from those families by our fantasy life I suppose and our dreams.

Anyway, it was like that. And I’ve often thought of it since then, this collaboration of the dream: how no one—no writer, no painter, no sculptor, no musician even can perfect his dream or even carry it out or create it in full until there is a listener or a looker to collaborate with him. How we find these dreamers who can collaborate with us is a strange and wondrous and magic sort of thing. I don’t know how we find them; we never know. I write a book, say a book like Strange Fruit, and it sold into the millions; and I would say that maybe, just maybe, not more than fifty thousand of its readers really collaborated with me as listeners on that book. The rest thought that the book was about something it wasn’t about; they had heard these fantastic tales of how scandalous it was and how obscene and how controversial and that it was written to help Negroes and so on and so on. So all kinds of people came to that book to read it; and it was almost as if they were deaf and blind because they never saw what the book really was about. They had already created a book in their minds before they picked up my book, and my book was just a hunk of pages to them. They whiffed over those pages never really knowing what they were reading, never listening, because there’s so much more to a book than the printed words on that white paper, so much more. Every word casts a shadow and every word makes an echo. Sometimes a word casts ten shadows and sometimes it makes ten echoes, and a good listener, a good looker will get all of this, and when he does, or when she does, the collaborator has been born that the writer needs. But if that doesn’t happen then your book has been read by a deaf and blind person. He has gotten only the sounds that he had already heard from gossip and in book reviews and newspapers and he never knows what your book’s really about; and that leaves you feeling very sad and lonely. And that is the way I felt as a very grown-up, sophisticated person when Strange Fruit was published and not read but bought and the pages turned by millions of people. Some of them were looking for a four-letter word, as though they couldn’t find four-letter words scrawled on the sidewalk. There was a four-letter word—one—in the entire book if I remember rightly, if we are using that word to mean something that has to do with the body and sex. It’s something so pitiable to me about the hunger of many Western people, especially Anglo-Saxon people, who were restricted by Puritanism from really understanding the hungers and needs of the human body. This is another form of segregation which has always seemed to me even more important than racial segregation: we have segregated the body into evil and good parts, into dark and light, and there are some things about the body that we think of as being sinful and wrong when nothing could possibly be sinful and wrong about the body.

Well anyway, as I thought about Strange Fruit, I remembered Marjorie, the little listener who did collaborate with my dreams because her heart was lonely for what my heart was lonely for. Her mind was very keen and I think mine was, and she could reach out and understand my vocabulary and what I was trying to say even as a small child, so we did have that beautiful collaboration and it was the strongest part of our friendship. It was an enormously rich and creative friendship for two little girls to have had. There was nothing nasty or mischievous about it. It was a very natural thing. Itwas tremendously mental and spiritual and also it was physical. We loved to play the same games; we adored not so much group play as we did what you would call lonely play. Each of us liked to dance around. Each of us loved to do acrobatic things and we were always risking a cracked skull by doing wild and awful things on the high limbs of the trees and then daring each other to try it too. We’d climb as high as we could and get out on little tiny limbs where we were really dizzy and we couldn’t admit our dizziness—daring the other one to do the same. Then sometimes we’d climb out of the window of her grandmother’s house-—a big big house— and creep over to a giant-size chinaberry tree whose limbs overhung the roof. Then we’d swing up to those limbs and get on and then keep climbing. And there were tree houses in all the big oak trees and chinaberry trees and we’d play in those. And we both read at the same time but not the same book. I would go over to spend the day with her and we’d read all day long. She would read one book and I would read a book and we were having another community of the daydream there, in that we each knew the book that the other one was reading and had we not already read it we were going to read it immediately when the other one finished with it, and therefore our reading was shared on a deep level just as my storytelling was shared with her.

This collaboration of the dream is such a strange, strange kind of thing. And yet there’d be no art without it. And without art I can’t imagine there being such a thing as the human being, the person. We think of many important things about being a person and we tend in this political age we live in to think about our civil rights and our so-called human rights. But in a way the most important right we have, I think, should be the freedom to collaborate in each other’s dreams. And that means the freedom to look at a painting and see there what we want to see. Sometimes the critic tries to keep us from seeing what we want to see. That’s an interesting thing: how there’s always a segregator around trying to block off a view. And maybe when I look at a modern painting I see something a little different from the abstraction that the critic is talking about. Well, that’s good, that I see something different. But if I’m not careful I shall feel a little uneasy about it because he has told me that I should be seeing what he’s seeing. Well, that isn’t true. Each of us should see what the artist has whispered to us, and there are all kinds of echoes in every painting. He hears some of them, I hear others. There are all kinds of shadows. He sees some, I see others. And that is the way it is, of course, with a book. Sometimes when you think about what creating really is and why it’s so needful, you begin to grope on those dark levels; you get into what we call the labyrinth of the spirit and of the mind and the memory and go down deep deep deep deep deep. I don’t know why we use the word deep because the word out out out is just as good. You go distances, anyway. Deep down or far out and into worlds that our ordinary senses don’t perceive easily. And there is where the creation is done by the artist. There is where the collaborator is born. And there are so many people who can’t paint and who say I don’t know anything about painting, I know what I like. Well, if you really know what you like, of course that would be the most important thing in the world. Sometimes, though, we are liking only what our five senses tell us because we haven’t gone down into those dark, deep or very very brilliantly lit places where we perceive something quite different. And when people ask me how I dream up some thing of course I don’t know. I know that I use materials that have accumulated in my life. I know that’s true of my own writing.

I was born in fabulous country and I’ve always been so glad I was, although I left there when I was 17 years old. But on that edge of Florida where it joins to Georgia and where the great swamp is it’s not very deep; it’s not a very thick piece of land. It really is just a thin little island that is hung on to the Okefenokee Swamp and hung on to the Georgia Islands and hung on to Alabama. But to have been born near the swamp was a wondrous thing to have happened to me. Actually I was born about 40 miles away from it, but little fingers and little driblets of it streak out in all directions and the land near Jasper was a part actually of this formation. There were lakes and ponds around and there was one called Shaky Pond. We’d go there for picnics—Sunday School picnics.

When I say the word, I see all kinds of images of beautiful damask linen tablecloths spread on the ground and with sandspurs almost poking up through them and on them spread a dozen different kinds of cake, baked ham, and roast chicken and fried chicken and sometimes even fried fish and deviled eggs and all kinds of sandwiches and chicken salad and ham salad and salmon salad and all the different kinds of salads that our mothers and grandmothers had learned to cook down in that area of our country. And that would be fun. I mustn’t forget the big barrel of ice lemonade that would have a two hundred pound block of ice in this huge barrel. It didn’t leak; I don’t know why but it didn’t leak. I remember that would surprise me. It would be full of lemonade with lemon slices floating all around in it, nice and sweet and acid and ice cold and a dipper there. We drank out of dippers and gourds and if you have never drunk out of a gourd there’s nothing quite like it. It has a little echo of a taste from the dried gourd material and they would scoop this out and leave an opening and it makes a beautiful thing to drink out of.

Well, aside from the food which all kids remember, what I remembered really and what drifted down into that area, that dark deep area of one’s creative life, was the trembling earth around the pond. One could get within 20, 30 feet of it and suddenly one knew that one was walking on earth that was probably no more than a few inches thick and that all this was floating on water of endless depth, a depth that could never be measured. I would walk softly and feel myself almost floating up and down—wondering. If you stayed still you would begin to sink so you didn’t dare stay still: you’d keep walking and wondering and you’d wonder about that. And you’d wonder: is the earth like this, and is all that we do—all I do and all my mother and father do and my sisters and brothers and my friends—is it on just a little thin level of something? I didn’t use the word reality then but later on, you see, this is what happens to you: you extend the sentence. You say first when you’re little, I wonder, and then you say I wonder if this is like so and so, and then you begin to extend that sentence. It gets longer and longer and longer and wraps around the whole earth—just around and around and around as you keep saying: I wonder if the whole, everything that happens to a human being is just like trembling earth? Is it all floating on something unknown and mysterious, and is this reality—this little thin floating thing that I’m now standing on? But as I said, you don’t think that at five or six; you feel it and you keep feeling it and you feel it more and more. You add word after word, sentence after sentence, until there’s no end to the millions of words as you continue to wonder what this thing is that we call human reality and where it extends to. And then what? And it tied up with my sense of time, that was really my sense of space—the beginning of how I began to feel about space. So I wasn’t really surprised to find that the planets and the stars were millions and millions of what they called light years away, because I had begun to say I wonder when I walked around Shaky Pond.

I also began to say I wonder about time. But that came to me in a different way. That came to me through the graveyard because I went to the funerals. It was the custom in our little town for little children to go out to the graveyard to the funerals. Death was not something that people then thought was dishonorable. They just thought it was sad and mysterious, and therefore they let children attend this sad and mysterious human occasion when someone seems to have gone to sleep and is not going to wake up any more. You know that there is more than that. You learn it the hard way, because in those days there was no way to preserve bodies and we lived in very hot country. So by the first day there was the slight odor of the dead and by the second day the odor was stronger and by the third day it was quite strong. It wasn’t repulsive, it was strange and mysterious and frightening. It didn’t smell like something spoiled; they had some ways of keeping the body a little bit. But the body would darken and the face would turn gray and so you knew in those days what death really was, that it was a disintegration. I didn’t know that word, but I knew that what had put us together and made us whole and alive was not keeping us together whole and alive but that we were going to pieces. And it frightened the very life out of me almost as a child. But at the same time it didn’t do to me what it has done to many children of today—make them feel that it doesn’t really happen and doesn’t have to happen. We knew more about death than we knew about birth, much more—which was of course due to our Puritan upbringing. Ridiculous that we were invited in to watch death take its full effect on the person who had once been alive. But I think this is when I began to think of time, when someone would die and I would hear that beautiful liturgy of the dead which the Episcopal Church has and which the Methodist Episcopal Church also has, and then you come to the dust to dust part which seemed elegantly beautiful to me as a small child. And so I tied up death and poetry together as being almost equally wondrous. I was afraid of death. I was not afraid of poetry but somehow they had much to do with each other, much to do. And so I began to think about time and why a life ends and what eternity means. Of course I drove everyone crazy when I was about nine or ten years old with my questions—my existential questions. I didn’t know that word at that time but every day I asked: when does eternity end? And my Sunday School teacher finally told me that if I couldn’t stop asking that question I couldn’t come to Sunday School any more, that she just couldn’t hear it any longer. Poor dear, what could she have to say to those two brown eyes looking at her? They weren’t going to accept any easy answer and she knew it. And who has ever been able to answer that question about time and eternity?

No one could read my books without finding these early signs of my childhood—the trembling earth, the moss swinging on the trees and making strange shadows, the enormous size of the trees so that you knew a lot about age and years and hundreds of years. All these things—Shaky Pond, the graveyard and the telling my little friend stories as we picked flowers down the railroad track or sat on a tombstone in the graveyard are what maybe turned me into a writer.

* Marjorie White, who died in 1980, was for many years a beloved high school English teacher in Gainesville, Fla.


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