Smedley, Agnes

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Born 1892, Missouri; died 6 May 1950, London, England

Daughter of Charles and Sarah Rails Smedley; married Ernest Brundin, 1912 (divorced)

Agnes Smedley's life began in the drab rural poverty of northwestern Missouri. She grew to maturity in the squalor of Colorado mining towns, where her father, an uneducated, hard-drinking, defiant man, had hoped to find his fortune and where her mother took in laundry and died of overwork when Smedley was sixteen.

Determination to avoid her mother's fate led Smedley to leave home, work at odd jobs throughout the Southwest, and supplement her grade school education with a year at Tempe Normal School in Arizona. A brief "egalitarian" marriage ended in divorce.

Around 1917 Smedley began a decade of deep involvement, in New York and Berlin, with the efforts of Indian nationalists to free India from British rule. At the same time she wrote in support of socialist and feminist causes, established birth control clinics, and studied Asian history and Marxism. A relationship during the 1920s with exiled revolutionary leader Virendranath Chattopadhyaya drove Smedley to a nervous breakdown; she wrote her autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth (1920, reprinted in 1973, 1986) in an attempt to reorient her life.

Smedley went to China in 1928 and dedicated the rest of her life to the Chinese revolutionary cause. She developed friendships with Communist leaders, traveled with the Red Army as it fought Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang and later the Japanese, and worked unstintingly to secure medical treatment for the wounded. Smedley wrote prolifically, producing three books during the 1930s and a profusion of articles for European, American, and Asian periodicals.

Ill health forced Smedley to return to the U.S. in 1941, and in 1943 she published her widely acclaimed Battle Hymn of China. Although she had never joined the Communist Party, the forces of McCarthyism hounded Smedley out of the country in the late 1940s. She died in London en route to the new People's Republic of China; her ashes were buried there.

Daughter of Earth, Smedley's only novel, tells of a working class woman who develops a feminist and a class consciousness as she pits her determination to be a free person against the traps society lays for women and the poor. Marie Rogers, the narrator of this first-person account, attains and preserves her independence—the book's plot is taken from Smedley's own life right up to the moment of its writing—but the emotional cost is high. Marie must cope with the persistent guilt, confusion, and pain of a woman who refuses to fit into expected roles.

Smedley's novel differs from standard proletarian fiction in its outspoken feminism and its emphasis on the psychological. Although it is not reliable autobiography, especially in the concluding sections, the book suffers artistically from its close identification with the still-unfolding events of Smedley's own life. But what this startlingly up-to-date novel lacks in balance and perspective it makes up for in emotional power.

Chinese Destinies: Sketches of Present-Day China (1933), the first of Smedley's five books about China in upheaval, is a collage of articles, stories, and impressions; it communicates a vivid sense of the corruption and utter wretchedness of life in the old China and the revolutionary fervor of those who hoped to build the new. Smedley focuses on individual lives, often women's lives; the tales are well told and the effect is moving. China's Red Army Marches (1934) follows a similar but less kaleidoscopic format, its sketches relating loosely to the Red Army's historic progress as it widens and secures its territory in inland China. In China Fights Back: An American Woman with the Eighth Route Army (1938), Smedley becomes an active participant in her story, using her journal entries to give the Western world a rare inside account of what life was like in the Red Army as it battled the Japanese invaders. Smedley's zeal and haste sometimes lead to simplistic characterizations and inelegant style, but at their best these books display stirring narrative power.

In Battle Hymn of China, history, autobiography, war reporting, and story telling intermingle as Smedley tries to tell wartime America all she had experienced and learned during her 22 years in China. This most comprehensive of Smedley's China books is also Smedley's comprehensive autobiography. Like all her books, this one is strongly partisan, but its very fervor helps promote an understanding of modern Chinese history by capturing and communicating the spirit that made revolution possible.

The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh, Smedley's enthusiastic biography of the peasant who became commander-in-chief of the Red Army—and Smedley's personal friend—was begun in the 1930s and published posthumously in 1956. Despite stylistic inadequacies, the book is strong in its depiction of rural Chinese society and its detailed look at life and politics within the Red Army.

Smedley saw herself as an interpreter of the Chinese revolution to the West. Her vivid and sensitive observations from the center of one of the century's great dramas constitute her most important professional achievement. But Smedley also saw herself as a woman who, as she once wrote, refused to "live the life of a cabbage."

Other Works:

Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution (edited by J. MacKinnon and S. MacKinnon, 1976).

The papers of Agnes Smedley are housed in several locations, yet the Hayden Library of Arizona State University in Tempe, is the primary repository.


Howe, F. Afterword to Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution (1976). Huberman, L., and P. M. Sweezy, Publisher's foreword to The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh by A. Smedley (1956). Lauter, P., afterword to Daughter of Earth by A. Smedley (1973). Lovett, R. M., preface to China's Red Army Marches (1934). MacKinnon, J., and S. MacKinnon, Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical (1988).

Reference works:

CB (1944, 1950). DAB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (Jan.-March 1975). Chinese Literature (Oct. 1980). Monthly Review (April 1978). Nation (19 Feb. 1949). NR (29 May 1950, 14 Dec. 1974). New Statesman and Nation (20 May 1950). NYT (9 May 1950, 6 April 1978). Playbooks (adaptation of Daughter of Earth, 1986). Survey (Autumn 1974).