Keith, Agnes Newton

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KEITH, Agnes Newton

Born 6 July 1901, Oak Park, Illinois; died March 1982

Daughter of Joseph G. and Grace Goodwillie Newton; married Henry G. Keith, 1934

Reared in California, Agnes Newton Keith graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1924. Her brief career with the San Francisco Examiner ended when she was brutally attacked by a frenzied drug addict. A prolonged incapacitation, including the loss of eyesight, followed. Surgery eventually restored her to health. Married to an English tropical forestry expert, she found the materials for her sensitive and evocative books about Asia and Africa in their subsequent travels.

From 1934 to 1952 the Keiths lived in North Borneo and four books are based on this experience. Land Below the Wind (1939), a bride's sunny report on her Eden, examines the life of westerners in an outpost of Empire, describes her experiences there, and characterizes her native friends. Like most of Keith's books, it is illustrated by her own sketches. Three Came Home (1947) is the story of imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II. Keith and her young son were interned together, her husband in a neighboring camp. Despite its subject, the book is strangely affirmative: she shows brutality and humanity in both jailers and prisoners, stressing that war, not race, has dehumanized them all. Her depiction of the heroism of many prisoners and their Asian friends outside the camp is moving, and throughout she stresses the courage and endurance enabling them to bring all 34 interned children through alive.

White Man Returns (1951) rounds off this series by showing the return to North Borneo after the war; the beginning of the process of rebuilding is central to this book. Similar to Land Below the Wind in approach and structure, it lacks the happy idealism of the first book; the war experience had destroyed Keith's Eden. Much later came yet another work based on the Borneo years, this time a novel, Beloved Exiles (1972). Only loosely autobiographical, it is less successful than the nonfiction works.

Having retired from his government's service, Keith's husband was, in 1953, prevailed upon to go to the Philippines for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Bare Feet in the Palace (1955) resulted. Like her first and third Borneo books, it is a mixture of personal experiences, sketches of people, and information about the society and its history. A central theme is the creation of democracy in Asia; the title refers to the coming of poor natives to the 200-year-old former palace of Spanish governors, now the residence of a democratically elected president.

Children of Allah (1966), Keith's only non-Asian book, tells of their following assignment in Libya. Keith used her previously successful formula here, and this work is particularly notable for its studies of Libyan Moslem women in various stages of subservience to and liberation from the veil and all that its wearing implies.

A more recent book, Before the Blossoms Fall (1975), must be paired with Three Came Home, which had been widely admired in Japan. In 1973 she was sent by the Japan Foundation on a six-week visit to Japan, the goal being to write something to increase understanding between Japan and the U.S. Important themes here are the young, the aged, and women's changing status and attitudes. Like her other books, it is a perceptive and sympathetic study, though Keith admits she is unable completely to understand or trust these people, whom she nevertheless loves.

Throughout her career, and hinging on her imprisonment experience, Keith's attitude toward her Asian subjects altered subtly. While she was always sympathetic and even admiring, the earliest book also sometimes seems patronizing, and the idea of the white man's burden is not totally absent. The later books reveal a truer sense of equality and a surer stress on the values of alien cultures, along with a more open admission of inability thoroughly to understand them. All of the works, however, are both informative and absorbing.


Reference works:

CA (1967). TCAS.

Other references:

Atlantic (March 1966). NYHTB (6 April 1947, 5 Aug. 1951). NYTBR (12 Nov. 1939, 26 March 1972). SR (5 April 1947, 13 Dec. 1955).


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Keith, Agnes Newton

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