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Hearing Lillian Smith

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

How Am I To Be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith. Edited by Margaret Rose Gladney. North Carolina. $34.95.

Near the end of her life when she was apparently thinking about doing some autobiographical writing, Lillian Smith told a friend that “to tell the truth I have so many selves that I wonder sometimes how I’d do an autobiography.” While Smith never completed this project—she died the next year, in 1966—she did leave behind a large number of letters that reveal the many selves warring within her. Many of these letters appear in print for the first time in an edition impeccably edited by Margaret Rose Gladney, How Am I to Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith. Despite the fact that a 1955 fire at Smith’s home destroyed many of her letters and that Smith and Paula Snelling (her longtime companion and coworker) in all likelihood destroyed most of their most personal correspondence, Gladney has put together a compelling collection, enhanced by her informative and insightful commentary. How Am I To Be Heard? goes far in enriching our understanding of Smith, particularly the tremendous internal struggles that underlay her conflicting commitments to personal fulfillment, social justice, and artistic endeavor.

If Smith saw a number of internal selves—or voices—vying to direct her life, she was well aware that the fundamental battle within her consciousness raged between her social conscience and her artistic aspirations, voices she identified as “Martha” and “Mary.” Martha was the voice of her conscience, the voice that compelled her early in life to return home dutifully to help her father run his girls’ camp atop Old Screamer Mountain (Smith eventually took over the camp) and then later to work so tirelessly for social justice, both in the South and throughout the world. Mary was the voice of art and creative endeavor, of a joyous instinctual life that Smith at times yearned to embrace wholeheartedly.

In almost all the work that she did, but particularly in her writing, Smith attempted to bridge the gap between social action and creativity, to bring, in other words, the voices of Martha and Mary into powerful harmony. Frequently, Smith characterized the tension between these contending voices as entirely healthy, the interplay prohibiting either voice from becoming authoritarian. To write entirely by the demands of one voice, she believed, was to court artistic disaster, the result being either propagandistic tracts or stilted aestheticism. Southern writers who wrote the former she called “Dixie Dirt Daubers”; those who wrote the latter, “Manicurists.” Smith, in contrast, worked both voices in an effort, as she wrote Paula Snelling in 1946, “to strike that beautiful delicate balance.” Two years later, happy with how well her work on a novel was proceeding, she wrote Edwin R. Embree, president of the Julius Rosen-wald Fund, marveling at what she saw as her novel’s successful “blend of fool narcism and shining idealism that only the artist can embrace ruthlessly together in his mind.”

As confident as she sounds here and elsewhere in her letters, Smith frequently complained, particularly in her later years when she failed to receive the recognition for her creative work she felt she deserved, about the overwhelming power of “the reform business,” the voice of Martha. Martha’s demands, she came to see, were doubly destructive, both pulling her away from the writer’s table to work for political causes and stunting her imaginative life when she was writing by insisting upon a literature of social action. A painful ambivalence about political work surfaces late in Smith’s life, particularly in regard to the Civil Rights Movement. Despite her unswerving support of and work for the movement, Smith at the same time saw her efforts on its behalf as enervating, a tiresome drain on her creative writing. To her editor, Smith wrote in 1961 that she had been actively helping with the sit-ins in the South, but added that “it was like helping one’s family: one is glad to, one wants to, one wouldn’t do anything else, but one’s own dreams, one’s own life just sort of dwindles away. As I have told you before, Martha and Mary have been fighting inside me since I was fifteen; it is a losing battle for Mary (with whom I am more deeply identified) I am afraid, but I always keep hoping that I can be myself, write the way I want to, do what I want to—and not what everybody else seems to need of me.”

Fueling her artistic frustrations was not only the generally lackluster critical response to her works throughout the 1950’s but also her failure to finish her novel, Julia, a work with which she struggled for years and for which she had such high hopes. Unlike most of her other writing, fiction and nonfiction alike, Julia focused not on race and segregation but on womanhood and matters of gender. Clearly she saw “Julia” as Mary’s work, not Martha’s. To an editor at Saturday Review, Smith in 1962 classified her writings by subject matter and artistic voice: “I am part Mary and part Martha: as Martha, I have written about segregation, the South, etc., etc.; as Mary, I know best girls, women, artists.” As her words here suggest, Smith late in her career revised her views on artistic endeavor, seeing it not as the merging of the conflicting voices but as the freeing of the creative voice from the demands of social commitment—a liberation, she makes clear time and again in her late letters, she was never entirely successful in achieving. To Paula Snelling, she wrote in 1952 that “tellfing] the world to be good . . . is my vice, creatively,” adding that “I hope I can finally stop doing it… . Yet I seem compelled.”

A certain preachiness does indeed underlie almost all of Smith’s writing, including her two novels, Strange Fruit (1944) and One Hour (1959), her many books of nonfiction, including Killers of the Dream (1949), The Journey (1954), Now Is The Time (1955), Our Faces, Our Words (1964), and her many essays, many of which were collected posthumously in The Winner Names the Age (1978). Smith’s preachiness stems in large part from her belief that her writings could be powerful weapons for social change, particularly in the struggle to end the South’s system of segregation; she hoped their effect would be profoundly therapeutic, a means to help heal the psychological brokenness from which she felt all people, including herself, suffered. Smith’s conception of the therapeutic power of writing in part explains the autobiographical cast of so much of her work and points to the profound connections she saw between the brokenness of individuals and that of modern society. For Smith, self-analysis was a model for social analysis; the rifts of the mind mirrored those of society, and it was the ordeal of creative, imaginative endeavor that helped bring about wholeness of self and world. Smith typically characterized her works as quests outward from the walled-in confines of the individual mind into the rich complexities of life. Speaking of One Hour, Smith wrote to Paul Tillich in 1959 that “it was difficult for me, yet seemed almost from the beginning a search I must make. All my books are journeys, searches, explorations into the unknown complexities of human nature and human relationships, into the depths of our spiritual life.” Creative endeavor, with its motion outward, worked against segregation (understood, in the psychological sense Smith typically used it, as the withdrawal from life), with its motion inward. “Segregation is not merely a Southern tradition, a result of poverty, of certain economic patterns, etc. etc.,” Smith wrote to Guy B. Johnson in 1944. “Segregation is an ancient, psychological mechanism used by men the world over, whenever they want to shut themselves away from problems which they fear and do not feel they have the strength to solve.”

Smith insisted throughout her career that while the ostensible subject of her writing was the segregated South, its true subject was the psychological illness of segregation, an illness that, as she indicated above, she saw as universal. It rankled her to be seen merely as a courageous and outspoken critic of Southern injustice; her field of vision, she insisted, was much wider, one that looked toward a new order of living for all humanity, not merely Southerners. Indeed, her excitement about the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the leadership of Martin Luther King, stemmed in large part from what she saw as the strides in humanity’s spiritual evolution (Smith was profoundly influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin late in life) that she saw the movement catalyzing and embodying. In another letter to Paul Tillich, Smith wrote that “as we relate the racial crisis here in our country with the new African nations, we tie these in turn, to nuclear war or the possible chance of it, this attempt on the part of the young to use nonviolent techniques of dramatic acting-out, verbal persuasion, with insistence on conciliation and the redemptive power of suffering for others, reveals itself as a spiritual catalyst. The people involved are bound to become different, bound to grow in spiritual awareness; and this, in turn, is bound to have an effect on international affairs for here is a way, a technic, an attitude that can be used in a larger framework.” Not long after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Smith wrote the Atlanta Constitution stressing the broad implications of the decision, focusing not on the issue of racial segregation but on the rights of children, particularly disabled children. “It is every child’s Magna Carta,” she declared. Children represented for Smith the hope of the future, the possibility for humanity’s spiritual evolution. From her early days as a teacher in China, through her many years running her girls camp, and finally into her late life as speaker, writer, and activist, Smith remained a committed advocate of children’s well-being—their needs, their nurturing, and their rights. Not long after World War II, she called for the establishment of not only a world peace center at Hiroshima but also of an international center for the welfare of children. She envisioned the latter as a place where mothers from throughout the world would gather to discuss methods of raising and nurturing the young.

While Smith consistently downplayed to her correspondents her work toward ending segregation in the South and heralded her larger spiritual mission, she nonetheless stands as a leading light of the Civil Rights Movement. Smith was one of the earliest and most outspoken white Southern critics of segregation. Her assaults on Jim Crow, particularly those from the 1930’s and 1940’s published in her and Paula Snelling’s journal, Pseudopodia (later renamed The North Georgia Review and then South Today), dramatically contrast with the stances of most other Southern liberals of her day, such as Hodding Carter and Ralph McGill, whose gradualism Smith saw as a profound failure in leadership that was a disastrous impediment to change. Whereas almost all Southern liberals up through World War II believed in the necessity of segregation for social order and worked not to end Jim Crow but to make it more humane (for instance, by abolishing lynching), Smith stridently called for segregation’s complete dismantling. Her criticism of Southern liberals who refused to take their stand against segregation was bitter and ongoing. “They have blocked every step of the way by their doubts, spoken out loud always, by their negativism, their doleful shaking of head, and their actual arousing, oftentimes, of anxiety in quite decent, well-meaning people,” she wrote to a campaign worker for Adlai Stevenson in 1956. “These men have held the South back, have made it harder to change than it would have been had they spoken out bravely, hopefully and calmly.” In a later letter, she compared the silence of liberals in the South to that of liberal Germans in the 1930’s who refused to take a stand against Hitler.

Smith’s reference to Nazi Germany points to the profound impact that developments overseas, particularly those in China, then Nazi Germany, and finally the Soviet Union—had upon her understanding of Southern society. A three-year stint as a music teacher in China in the 1920’s opened her eyes to the ugliness of cultural imperialism and racism, and she began almost immediately making connections between the racial inequality in China and that in the American South. The South never again looked the same. “Seeing it happen in China made me know how ugly the same thing is in Dixie,” she later recalled. “For the first time in my life I was ashamed of my white skin. I began almost to believe that ‘whiteness’ cast an evil spell over all that it came in contact with.”

If her experiences in China spurred a re-envisioning of the South, her conception of the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and then of the postwar Soviet Union provided her with a political framework for interpreting Southern politics and demagoguery. During the 1930’s and into the war years, a time when few white Southerners were making any connections between the South and Nazi Germany other than the occasional suggestion equating the Klan with the Nazis (arguing that the rest of the South was free from racial injustice, Southern segregation representing, in contrast with the Nazis’ system, the humane way of handling an inferior race), Smith time and again pointed out that the tyranny abroad was not all that much different from the tyranny at home. (Smith later admitted that she had underestimated the atrocities of the Nazis.) Once the nation was at war, she feared the war effort would distract the nation and divert its energies from creating a true democracy in the South. In a 1942 letter to Walter White, she said the time was right for President Roosevelt to grant full citizenship to blacks, a call that flew in the face of Mark Ethridge’s comment that same year, backed by many other prominent Southern liberals, that “there is no power in the world—not even in all the mechanized armies of the earth, Allied and Axis—which could now force the Southern white people to the abandonment of the principle of social segregation.” Smith angrily attacked those who followed Ethridge’s lead in condemning wartime black protests against segregation. It was an old argument she had heard many times before—”the time is not right.” “Is the war more important than the things the war is being fought for?” she wrote in a 1943 letter to the editors of PM magazine. “If we are fighting this war to secure racial democracy for all people then why is it wrong for the Negro to use democratic means within his own country to win this democracy for himself?” There is no Gestapo in America, she wrote in a 1944 essay, “yet we make a Gestapo of our fears and become cowards at the sound of our own heart-beat, mistaking it for the heavy clump clump of disaster.”

During the Cold War years, Smith’s fear and hatred of totalitarianism, now embodied both in the fallen Nazi Germany and in the ascendant Soviet Union, increased dramatically. Totalitarianism, by her thinking, was the most threatening manifestation of institutionalized segregation, a system that by smothering dissent made its citizens psychic and moral slaves. The South, she came to see, while not a police state was a totalitarian society nonetheless, ruled not by a dictator but by a dictating idea—white supremacy—so powerful that a “magnolia curtain of silence” enshrouded the region. In a 1948 letter to the editors of the New York Times, Smith wrote that “Georgia, U.S.A., still has a lot in common with Georgia, U.S.S.R. Totalitarianism is an old thing to us down home. We know what it feels like. The unquestioned authority of White Supremacy, the tight political set-up of one party, nourished on poverty and ignorance, solidified the South into a totalitarian regime under which we were living when communism was still Russian cellar talk and Hitler had not even been born.” But she saw hope for change: unlike the Iron Curtain, the magnolia curtain had a door in it—”The Constitution of the United States guarantees that we Southerners cannot be cut off completely from the rest of the world”—and she called for Southern liberals to end their silence and apathy, and to push as hard to keep the door open as the demagogues were pushing to close it.

Certainly Smith pushed as hard as anybody in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s to keep that door open. In the face of threats to her life and property, declining health (she suffered from cancer from 1953 until her death in 1966), and scorn from liberals and conservatives alike, she unflaggingly worked to break the stranglehold of Southern authoritarianism. In her letters and other writings from the last 15 years of her life one word anchors her thinking: creativity. She believed that the only way to break down the barriers of segregation that were crippling the minds of Southerners—and indeed people throughout the world—was to act boldly and imaginatively. Creativity was the opposite of silence and apathy. “Dreaming, talking, acting,” she wrote in a 1951 speech: “this is the way that free men bring change about, whether it is change within themselves or within their culture or laws.” Near the end of her life, influenced heavily by the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, she looked hopefully toward a new era of humanity’s spiritual evolution, an age in which people committed themselves not to ideologies but human relationships. Relationships fostered growth, a unity built upon difference, and, as she wrote in 1966 in her last speech (an acceptance of the Charles S. Johnson Award; Smith was too ill to deliver it), the search for creative “ways of relating ourselves to one another . . . is the big job of our age: a purpose we should commit ourselves to, whether we are artists or scientists or technicians or teachers or religious leaders. As one writer I have tried, only to work toward this end.” Smith’s words here reflect not only her vision of the pathway toward humanity’s spiritual fulfillment but also her attempt at resolving the frustrating split within her between Mary (creativity) and Martha (social conscience).

Smith’s hopeful agenda, however, was always shadowed by her frustrations with achieving happiness and fulfillment and with the intransigence of the powerful forces of society resisting her calls for wholeness. As the title of Gladney’s edition, How Am I To Be Heard?, itself suggests, doubt and anguish dogged Smith throughout her career, most obviously late in life when she worried that her books were going unread and she would be forgotten. Though she shared more with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose writings helped prepare the nation for a profound shift in racial attitudes, she began to compare herself in her late letters with Melville, whose work was ignored for years after his death and only later resurrected to classic status. She declared forthrightly that a similar resurrection awaited her writing, particularly Strange Fruit, which she said in one letter was “an American classic and will in literary history and social history be considered so.” Doubt of course underpins this and other similar declarations about her literary reputation.

Although Smith’s dream of being canonized as a writer of the first order will almost certainly never be realized, it’s nonetheless clear that she will not be forgotten and that her work will continue to be read, particularly Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream. If her writings were not as creative aesthetically as they might have been without Martha’s demands, in the end they were, because of her social conscience, powerful tools in the cultural work that paved the way for a more just society and an enriched human spirit. This ushering us along toward a richer vision of ourselves and a more humane construction of our culture is perhaps Smith’s most revolutionary and far-reaching achievement. Few in her time did so much.


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