Smith, Lillian

views updated May 11 2018

SMITH, Lillian

Born 12 December 1897, Jasper, Florida; died 28 September 1966, Atlanta, Georgia

Daughter of Calvin and Anne Simpson Smith

Lilian Smith was the seventh of nine children. She tasted the "strange fruit" of racial segregation early in her childhood, when her well-to-do, genteel Methodist parents took in an apparently white orphan found living with a black family. The Smiths welcomed the girl until they learned she was part black; then the children were hastily separated, leaving Smith in conflict over the paradox of a culture that teaches hospitality, democracy, and Christian charity at the same time it violently denies the humanity of blacks.

Smith's traditional Southern upbringing led her to value literature, art, and music and to want to be socially useful. Her education (at Piedmont College and Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music) was repeatedly interrupted by declining family fortunes, which had forced the Smiths to move to their summer home in Clayton, Georgia, in 1915. Smith joined the Student Nursing Corps in World War I and, after the Armistice, taught for a year in an isolated mountain school in Georgia. She spent three years teaching music at a Methodist mission school in Huchow, China, and then returned to help run Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, the exclusive summer camp her father founded at their Georgia home, and to act as secretary to her brother Austin, the city manager of Fort Pierce, Florida. In 1928 she attended Columbia University's Teachers College, adding to her already considerable knowledge of child development and Freudian psychology. After her father died in 1930, Smith assumed heavy family responsibilities including the care of her invalid mother. And, in the next five years, she wrote five novels, never published and all lost in a 1944 house fire.

Along with her lifelong companion, Paula Snelling, another young liberal Southern intellectual hired to help run the camp, Smith founded Pseudopodia, a little magazine heavily influenced by the editors' Freudian persuasion and their antisegregationist political and social views. At first the magazine concentrated on reviewing works by and about blacks and took a literary stand against, among other things, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and the Agrarians. It was renamed twice—as the North American Review (1937-42) and South Today (1942-44)—as the editors broadened their liberal crusade against the consequences of caste in the South and in other countries and as it became a forum also for Smith's fervent views on sexuality and childrearing.

Strange Fruit (1944, reprinted most recently in 1992), Smith's first published novel, sold over 3,000,000 copies and was translated into 16 languages. It was banned from the bookstores and libraries of Boston and from the bookstores of Detroit; Eleanor Roosevelt intervened to remove the Post Office ban. Much of the uproar stemmed from the realistic language and the ironic treatment of miscegenation, sexuality, and abortion. Set in racially segregated Maxwell, Georgia, in the years following World War I, the plot traces from its youthful beginning the secret interracial love affair of Tracy Deen—a war veteran, son of the town's respected white doctor and his aristocratic wife—and Nonnie Anderson—a black college graduate who can only find a job as a maid in Maxwell.

As in Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy and Richard Wright's Native Son, Smith's fictional world is deterministic. Characters breaking a taboo in this segregated society must suffer violence. Tracy Deen is murdered by the brother of his pregnant lover. A mob lynches the black servant Deen had paid to marry Nonnie so he could marry as his mother and the town expect him to. Smith handles the stream-of-consciousness technique well, aptly combining it with the sensational plot and subject matter to create a strongly moving, finely detailed picture of the tragedy of racism for both black and white Southerners.

The furor over Strange Fruit created the national publishing and speaking outlet Smith needed to wage her campaign against racism. She published a second novel, One Hour (1959, 1994), and five nonfiction books that preach racial justice and denounce any person or organization that did not seem as liberal as she. Each book contains eloquent stories about her personal life and the lives of those she encountered on her travels through the South and abroad. Her ability to recreate atmosphere through physical detail allows her to carry out the psychological, social, and political analysis that is her purpose.

Smith also wrote a column for the Chicago Defender and articles and book reviews for such widely read magazines as New Republic, Saturday Review, Redbook, the Nation, and McCall's.

Smith's contribution to the cause of racial justice in the U.S. won her the reputation as the most liberal white advocate of civil rights in the South in the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s, despite recurrent battles with lung cancer, Smith continued to fight against the evils of segregation by championing the nonviolent movement of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Her conviction was deep and sincere, but her view of literature and art was limited by the intensity of her belief in the perfectability of mankind. She took daring stands against segregation, but the impact of her writing is diminished by her moralizing. Smith is justifiably recognized as a minor literary figure and a major social reformer.

Other Works:

Killers of the Dream (1949, 1994). The Journey (1954, 1964). Now Is the Time (1955). Memory of a Large Christmas (1962, 1996). Our Faces, Our Words (1964). From the Mountain (writings from South Today, edited by H. White and R. S. Suggs, Jr., 1972). The Winner Names the Age (edited by M. Cliff, 1978, 1982). How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith (1993). Lillian E. Smith Papers: 1920-1980 (archives of the Library of Congress, 1980). Now Is the Time (1955).


Blackwell, L., and F. Clay, Lillian Smith (1971). Brewer, P. B., Lillian Smith: Thorn in the Flesh of Crackerdom (dissertation, 1983). Camacho, R. V., Woman Born of the South: Race, Region and Gender in the Work of Lillian Smith (dissertation, 1992). Hill, S. W., "The South Today: A Critical Study of Lillian Smith's Little Magazine" (thesis, 1991). Jenkins, M., The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s (1999). Loveland, A. C., Lillian Smith, a Southerner Confronting the South: A Biography (1986). Miller, K. A. Out of the Chrysalis: Lillian Smith and the Transformation of the South (dissertation, 1986). Morehouse, L. "Bio-Bibliography of Miss Lillian Smith" (thesis, 1956). O'Dell, M. D., "Sites of Southern Memory: The Autobiographies of Katharine DuPre Lumpkin, Lillian Smith, and Pauli Murray" (dissertation, 1997). Sosna, M., In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue (1977). Sullivan, M., A Bibliography of Lillian Smith & Paula Snelling (1971).

Reference works:

CB (1944). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Great Women Writers Read Their Work (audiocassette, 1974, 1986).


Lillian Eugenia Smith

views updated May 23 2018

Lillian Eugenia Smith

The Southern writer Lillian Eugenia Smith (1897-1966) was recognized as a passionate critic of white supremacy and segregation. Her main concern was that the traditional pattern of race relations, which she knew intimately from her own experience growing up in Florida and Georgia, was harmful to the humanity of both whites and African Americans.

Born December 12, 1897, in the small, racially-divided north Florida town of Jasper, Lillian Smith was the seventh of nine children. Her father, Calvin Warren Smith, was a successful local businessman and civic leader, while her mother, Anne Hester Simpson, was a descendant of wealthy rice planters. Her parents introduced her to music and literature, but she also was exposed to the accepted views of white supremacy. She later rebelled against the prejudices of her culture, era, and region, and as a writer became recognized as one of the most outspoken opponents of segregation in the South.

Smith graduated from high school in 1915 and spent several years studying, running a hotel her father operated, joining the Student Nursing Corps, and teaching at a rural high school in Georgia. In 1919 she resumed her piano studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Beginning in 1922, Smith spent three crucial years as the music director of an American Methodist school for Chinese girls in Huchow, China. The experience introduced her to Chinese philosophy and the impact of Western imperialism. It also revealed a new perspective on social relations in the South.

Smith, who never married, returned in 1925 to take care of her ailing parents and to help run the Lauren Falls Camp for Girls in Clayton, Georgia. Purchased as a summer home in 1912, the family had moved there permanently in 1915 when the father's business had failed. Under her direction, the camp, which she operated until 1949, became nationally acclaimed for its creative and educational approach.

When the camp was not in session she returned to writing. After producing several manuscripts about her family and her experience in China that went unpublished, in 1935 she and her friend Paula Snelling launched a magazine devoted to Southern politics and culture. It first appeared in the spring of 1936 as Pseudopedia (later renamed The North Georgia Review and then The South Today) with 200 subscribers, and reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time it ceased publication in 1945.

The magazine, which printed the work of African Americans and women, was also a forum for Smith, who criticized racism by appealing to the self-interest of middle-and upper-class whites. She had spent winters in 1927 and 1928 studying psychology at Columbia Teachers College, and her interest in Freud and such other writers as Karl Menninger was evident in her writing. She was interested primarily in the psychological harm of segregation on whites.

Her ideas found wider expression in the controversial and best-selling novel Strange Fruit, published in 1944, which was a story about an ill-fated love affair between a young white man from a respected family and a college-educated African American woman working as a housekeeper. It was set in a small town based on her native Jasper. Banned in Boston as obscene, it eventually sold over three million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

The success of the novel gave her financial independence and established her reputation as a critic of segregation. She lectured, wrote for national magazines, and contributed a column for the Black newspaper The Defender (Chicago).

Her second major book, Killers of the Dream (1949), was nonfiction, blending autobiography and psychology to analyze her upbringing and the pathology of a Southern culture based on white supremacy and segregation. In her view the sickness of the Southern way of life transcended race relations and symbolized the human experience.

Shortly after being treated for breast cancer for the first time, she wrote The Journey (1954), which was based on her travels and interviews in the South and investigated the idea of human dignity. The book focused on suffering and pain in the lives of many individuals in the South and expressed her discovery of a religious outlook that replaced the early evangelical Christianity she had rejected in her youth.

After the 1954 historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (which outlawed segregation in schools), Smith wrote Now Is the Time (1955), which urged the South to accept the decision. She published another novel, One Hour (1959), which focused on the hysteria of the McCarthy era.

In the changing climate of the early 1960s, Smith gained a wider audience, publishing a revised version of Killers of the Dream as well as writing for such mass circulation magazines as Life, McCalls, and Redbook, and such major newspapers as the New York Times and Atlanta Constitution. Her final book was a pictorial essay on the civil rights efforts, Our Faces, Our Words (1964).

Throughout her career Smith was one of the most out-spoken white Southerners on race issues, and she criticized the timidity of moderates and liberals. She had always preferred appeals to white self-interest and personal change, but beginning in the mid-1950s she supported the nonviolent civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although she had been an early member of such African American organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), by the mid-1960s she became critical of the increasingly militant tone of some African American groups.

As a writer Smith never felt appreciated as a creative artist. She was bitter that critics judged her work in terms of social problems rather than viewing it as a metaphor for the alienation of the human condition. Yet from the mid-1930s until her death on September 28, 1966, she was a respected, uncompromising, and influential advocate of desegregation in the South.

Further Reading

Smith's major writing includes the novel Strange Fruit (1944) and the nonfiction works Killers of the Dream (1949) and The Journey (1954). An anthology of her writing from her magazine The South Today can be found in From the Mountain, Helen White and Redding Sugg, Jr., eds. (1972). Another collection of her writing is The Winner Names the Age, edited by Michelle Cliff (1978). A good biography of Smith is Lillian Smith A Southerner Confronting the South by Anne C. Loveland (1986). How Am I To Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney, was published in 1993.

Additional Sources

Smith, Lillian Eugenia, Memory of a large Christmas, Athens:University of Georgia Press, 1996. □