Here’s an early (and really rather different) version of the introduction to the chapter on Lillian Smith in Literary Obscenities.
In the fall of 1965, the Georgia writer and civil rights activist Lillian Smith received a $500 check in the mail from the Artists and Writers Revolving Fund at the National Institute of Arts and Letters. According to the “most courteous letter” accompanying the check, the Institute was honoring her with this sum in order to express its “appreciation of [her] accomplishments.”[i] At the time, Smith was approaching the final months of her thirteen-year ordeal with breast cancer, to which she would finally succumb in September 1966. Regrettably more taxing to her during many of these post-war years, however, had been the efforts of her fellow Southerners, writers, liberals, and—such was Smith’s latent propensity to leapfrog from particular to universal—human beings to stifle both her and her writing. In a 1956 letter to the American Civil Liberties Union requesting their legal advice regarding the decision of Dell Publishing to recall paperback copies of her essay collection, Now Is the Time (1956), on the landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Smith had confided that “[s]ince the banning of Strange Fruit, the approach to me has been the one of smothering. It is much more efficient; you can keep a person from being heard much better by not selling her books, never mentioning her in the papers than you can by banning” (HH, 186). According to Smith, her books—composed in a variety of genres and modes, ranging from occasional essays, fiction, and lyrical memoirs to documentary writing and new journalism—never stopped being suppressed after her first novel was banned in Massachusetts for obscenity in 1944. All that had changed in the years since were the tactics of her suppression. Smith’s putative censors, it seems, had conspiratorially begun to opt for a media blackout regarding her work instead of the public notoriety of obscenity proceedings, which as often as not simply made the charged text a hot commodity, as the publishing company of Reynal and Hitchcock well knew and effectively capitalized on in their advertising campaigns for Strange Fruit following its initial proscription by the Boston police commissioner.[ii] In the mid-century United States, silence was turning out to be a far more effective means of censorship than law had ever been.
Smith thus handled the check from the National Institute of Arts and Letters somewhat doubtfully, for rather than breaking the silence on her writing it appeared to be enforcing it all the more categorically. In her reply to the Institute regarding the letter and money, she wrote:
The check is obviously not an award; it is essentially “charity.” A charity given to me by a group whose members have never accorded me recognition for my literary achievements. No one of my seven books—Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream [1949/1961], The Journey , One Hour , etc.—has been given award or citation by the National Institute nor have I been invited to become a member because of my general level of writing achievement. I do not, therefore, “belong.” How could I then accept aid, an aid I have not asked for, from a group who has in no way acknowledged my worth as a writer? I just couldn’t. It would humiliate me on levels where I could not find the strength to deal with the hurt. (HH, 326-27)
Because she interpreted it more as an attempt to keep her in her place than a gesture of institutional recognition, Smith refused to accept the Institute’s check and struggled throughout the remainder of the letter to get across her sense of the tolls this lack of acceptance had taken on her and her work:
You see, what hurts is not having had cancer for thirteen years nor is it the struggle to meet heavy hospital bills etc.; what hurts is that my fellow writers have not read me and have made no serious attempt since Strange Fruit to see what I am trying to say. A stereotype has formed by both enemies and friends that walled off the view of me as a serious or talented writer. “Oh, of course, she’s brave,” (actually I’m a scary cat); they said, “it is fine of her to do so much to help Negroes to get their rights.” They said more—and then came the inevitable: “So we do not need ever to read her because we know what she is saying.” It has been a Kafkan experience, all right; I’ve wandered around in a curious labyrinth, and I was condemned without trial. (HH, 327)
Arguably even more Kafkan than Smith’s labyrinthine persecution here is the unlocalizability of the parties responsible for it. Of course, this is not to say that she was unable or even reluctant to put names to her enemies and friends. Beyond the obvious examples of white supremacists like Dr. Samuel Green (Georgia Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan) or Southern demagogues in the mold of Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, the more formative enmities in Smith’s life are quickly enough discerned in her public and private writings.
These antagonisms tend to run the gamut from popular Southern writers whom she found to be ideologically suspect (e.g., the Agrarians, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner) all the way to Southern journalists and editors who were moderates or gradualists in debates over desegregation.[iii] As for Smith’s friends, they always ran the risk of turning into enemies, as is perhaps best illustrated by her relationship with Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1931 to 1955. A frequent correspondent with and enthusiastic supporter of White in the early 1940s, Smith eventually came to question his loyalty to her after he expressed concerns and criticisms to her in private regarding Strange Fruit and her disastrous adaptation of that novel into a stage play, in which White’s daughter played the lead female role of Nonnie.[iv] Although in his 1948 autobiography White would convey a more affirmative, if qualified evaluation of both the novel and play, a break between the two nevertheless seems to date from White’s criticism of Smith’s work as a writer.[v] In response to this putative betrayal, Smith began to treat White as an enemy, continuing to attack him in print even after his death in 1955. Almost scornful in its critical assessment of White’s posthumous book, How Far the Promised Land? (1955), Smith’s review-essay in The Progressive dwells upon the significance of White’s sins of omission in narrating the story of the civil rights struggle in the South up to Brown v. Board of Education. Because White was merely “a super salesman,” in the words of Smith, “he wanted to make big sales for his product and he wanted his firm (the NAACP) to get the credit for the sales.”[vi] Accordingly, in his rush to claim the profits of integration for the NAACP, White is said to have smothered many important African-American (like those of Charles Houston and Charles S. Johnson) and white (such as those of Will W. Alexander and presumably Smith herself) contributions to the struggle for civil rights in the South, to say nothing of his apparent erasure of other important group efforts (especially those of the Congress for Racial Equality) from his evocative retrospective account.[vii] Consequently, silence was not simply a means of censoring obscene or otherwise objectionable material, but also an exemplary way of writing people out of history altogether, according to the written-off Smith.
Even more objectionable to Smith in her review of How Far the Promised Land?, however, is what she perceives to be White’s tendency to essentialize racial difference:
[A] few of us were working for something much bigger than “the Negro Problem”—and Mr. White knew it and feared it. He was fighting a battle for the Negro group’s civil rights; we were, and still are, engaged in a never-ending war for an open society for all people everywhere. . . . Because we believe this we are as concerned about the segregation of an idea, of a crippled or blind child, of a new dream, or an old or new poem, as we are about segregation of people who are different in color. We think the act of withdrawal injures the segregator as much as it does the segregated.[viii]
The real harm of segregation, Smith argues, exceeds that inflicted by racial segregation on oppressed and oppressor alike. If anything, the fight for racial desegregation constitutes a timely, but limited engagement with the much more expansive war on segregation itself, a category which functioned for Smith by the mid-1950s on a more figural and totalizing level than it ever did for White. Because he was apparently only able to see the need for addressing the type of segregation pertaining to skin color, White is said to be incapable of offering either to the NAACP in particular or to African Americans in general anything more ennobling than the right to turn a profit: “The urgent question in Mr. White’s mind was, ‘How soon can we get every Negro into a gray flannel suit and traveling down the middle of the road shoulder to shoulder with all the other gray flannel suits?’”[ix]
Two points bear stressing from these encounters between Smith and White. First, Smith had little time for those who would pose the struggle against segregation simply as a fight for formal equality or civil rights because such approaches offered the segregated-against little more than the opportunity to conform to the way things already were. Second, uncertainty as to her literary merits seems to have been sufficient cause for her to discern enemies where before there only used to be friends.[x]
Consequently, in Smith’s 1965 letter to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the claim that the people who have prevented the public from viewing her as “a serious and talented writer” are “both enemies and friends” threatens to implicate not so much particular friends and enemies as it does everyone who happens to not be Lillian Smith. Thus, the fraught matter of the enmities and rivals in Smith’s public life—whether they be white supremacists, black nationalists, or gradualists in the desegregation debate—tells us nothing about what she understood her work to be doing. Hence the properly Kafkan quality of her silencing: someone must have been telling lies about Lillian S. because, without her having done anything wrong, a label congealed around her that made her something less than “a serious or talented writer.” To the public she was, if anything, just another activist. As a result, if the money from the Artists and Writers Relief Fund did anything, then it surely honored her longstanding work with the civil rights movement in the South, but not her writing, which the members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters had never bothered to read in the first place.
Whereas her friends and enemies assumed her work with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee univocally dictated what her writing could think to say, Smith simply reversed the direction of this one-way street, attempting instead to reveal to her few readers and even fewer critics the extent to which they had neglected to grasp the novel manner in which her writing had been representing contemporary civil disobedience in the United States as more than a matter of black and white. In fact, Smith observes in her letter to the National Institute of Arts and Letters that these critics and readers
have failed to see that I am involved—all my creative abilities are involved—in the dehumanization of our times; I am involved with segregation that is symbol and symptom of this dehumanization; but this “segregation” is bigger than race, [sic] (conformity is also a form of segregation); it has to do with numberless relationships that are necessary not only to bind men into one world but necessary for their increasing complexity of mind and spirit as they continue to evolve themselves into human beings. I am talking about the things Teilhard de Chardin talked about, not the things Walter White talked about in his day or James Baldwin and Le Roi [sic] Jones are talking about now. (HH, 327)
For Smith, “segregation” symptomatically and symbolically refers to a truly sublime set of associations, ranging from the localized and ephemeral matters pertaining to the prospects of desegregation in the mid-century U.S. South all the way up to the cosmic evolutionary destiny of the human being as such. Perhaps even more strikingly, however, she insists here that if the struggle for racial desegregation has any meaning at all, then that meaning must be understood to derive from the small part it plays in the further integration of man’s species-being. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955)—but not LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (1964)—was the key to conceptually reorganizing the repugnant contingencies of racial segregation in the United States into a totalizing and compelling whole because the stakes of Smith’s writing and activism are said to be nothing less than the development or the regression of the entire species.
The racially coded significance of segregation is undeniably present in Smith’s work from the very beginning of her writerly career in 1936 when she founded the regional little magazine Pseudopodia with her partner, Paula Snelling. The cosmological transcoding of segregation into dehumanization, by contrast, is a relative latecomer in her writing that can be traced back to Smith’s attempts in the 1950s to work her way out of the cul-de-sacs into which her first essays and books on segregation had led her. Preoccupied with the peculiarities of the Jim Crow South, Smith’s early texts tend to present the “decent” (i.e., middle- and upper-class) Southern liberal as existing in an almost parodically naturalist vision of hell. As she confesses in her first memoir, Killers of the Dream:
We know [segregation] has woven itself around fantasies at levels difficult for the mind to touch, until it is a part of each man’s internal defense system, embedded like steel in his psychic fortifications. And, like the little dirty rag or doll that an unhappy child sleeps with, it has acquired inflated values that extend far beyond the rational concerns of economics and government, or the obvious profits and losses accruing from the white-supremacy system, into childhood memories long repressed.[xi]
Throughout Killers of the Dream, racial segregation in the U.S. South appears to be an ineluctable result of malevolent environmental forces that no existing human agency seems capable of ever changing. Figured initially as a weave impalpably distorting minds, it metamorphoses here into a steely component of Southerners’ mental fortresses and then into an obstinate fetish object threatening to undermine altogether the possibility of the South’s ever getting around to rationally considering race matters. Mixing an assumptively hard determinism with her enthusiastic readings of Sigmund Freud, Smith’s writing confronts her activism with a vision of segregation that takes the form of a protean puzzle: how exactly does one go about working through the harmful fetish, dismantling once and for all the steel castle in one’s mind, and untangling the knot of fantasies all sustaining white supremacy?
Reviewing and evaluating the anti-Jim Crow campaign begun in 1942 in the pages of Smith and Snelling’s little magazine, South Today (formerly known as North Georgia Review and Pseudopodia), Richard H. King detects a similar pessimistic tendency to overstate the insoluble nature of the South’s problems: “Nor did Smith and Snelling suggest specific measures or structural reforms which would accompany or bring about change in this situation. The social, the psychological, and the ethical aspects of the issue were confused with rather than illuminating one another.”[xii] For these “therapists of the Southern psyche,” the odds against even minor reform in the South were insurmountable given the implacable determinist framing in which Smith presented the region’s most pressing predicament.[xiii] The problem, as even Smith herself admits later in Killers of the Dream, seemed to admit of no real solution save that of death. Again, it was downright Kafkan: “We [Southerners] never knew our crime, we never saw the Authorities face to face, but we knew that we would ascend from court to court to higher court, like Kafka’s Joseph K., and only death would yield up the final verdict” (KD, 94).
Unsettlingly, smothering Smith’s writing and institutionally maintaining white supremacy prove to be comparable Kafkan experiences. Written threats against her life and fires set at her mountain home in Georgia notwithstanding, the analogy rankles insofar as Smith’s “backdoor treatment” at the hands of the National Institute of Arts and Letters does not on its face appear all that homologous to the violence (both legal and extra-legal) looming over African-Americans in the U.S. South in the inter- and immediate post-war decades.[xiv] At first view, Smith’s Trial allusion in response to the Institute’s $500 check seems to be crudely self-aggrandizing, insofar as her travails as the writer-who-does-not-belong are made to appear retrospectively commutative with the quasi-totalitarian subjugation of racial difference to Southern white supremacy so forcefully described in Killers of the Dream.[xv]
Though moralizing criticism in this vein is perhaps warranted, such a reading nevertheless misses an essential point insisted upon again and again in Smith’s letter to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which is that her peers stopped reading her a long time ago. At a second glance, then, her re-purposing of the Trial analogy is a canny act of self-citation, insofar as it effectively underscores the willful ignorance of her presumptive benefactors, who likely do not know of her writerly preoccupation with casting the South as Kafka-land par excellence. Furthermore, Smith’s almost compulsive deployment of Joseph K. as symbol for both Southerners in general and one Southerner in particular (Lillian S.) captures the allegorical capacities and transpositions that she increasingly thought had been operative within her writing all along.[xvi] From her perspective in the mid-1960s looking back over her writerly accomplishments for the benefit of an organization wholly ignorant of them, it became clearer to Smith that in her texts “segregation” really had been a code-word for dehumanization, that race always had stood in for species-being, and that the South was at bottom just herself all over.[xvii]
Against this backdrop of conspiratorial silence said to be surrounding her work as a writer since Strange Fruit and the first edition of Killers of the Dream, Smith insisted to any and all who would listen that it was her essays and books that would really make a difference in the world, if only people would finally getting around to reading them. In the penultimate paragraph of her 1965 letter to National Institute of Arts and Letters, Smith dramatically declares, “What I need, and yet how can one ask it?—is that this literary committee read my books; read them and let themselves see what I am trying to do. This understanding I do need desperately, this I would cherish more than a million dollars” (HH, 328). Inverting a binary she saw traversing her very identity as a writer and activist, Smith attempted in her final speeches and letters to plant the dormant seeds necessary for a salutary reassessment of her writing she was confident would follow her fast approaching death.
Twenty years after Smith died, however, her biographer offered a peremptory demurral to such dreams and hopes. “Regrettably,” Anne C. Loveland confesses in the epilogue of Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South (1986), “[Smith’s] philosophical thinking was generally derivative and superficial and her literary effort unexceptional. Her primary significance lies in the role she played in the southern civil rights movement of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.”[xviii] This stunning final judgment, for which almost nothing in the 261 pages preceding it quite prepares the reader, effectively out-Smiths Smith. Approaching the writer/activist binary as if it were in fact the agonistic coupling Smith had assumed it to be all along, Loveland curtly demotes Smith’s writing as unexceptional, superficial, and derivative in order to elevate her activist achievements within the brief history of Southern liberalism. One need never read any of Smith’s books, therefore, to find out what she was trying to say or do. Instead, one has merely to peruse Loveland’s to get a proper sense of what actually count as Smith’s accomplishments—namely, her work for civil rights, just as Smith feared. In effect, her own biographer turns out ultimately to be not at all a friend to Smith, but rather yet another enemy in an already endless list of them. More troubling still, smothering Smith’s writing is presumably no longer just an effective means of censoring her but also the only way of telling her story in the first place. Smith, Loveland insists, is someone to be admired, but not read.
Unlike Smith’s biographer, I do not feel quite so cavalier about dismissing her writing tout court. Over the last twenty-five years, the life’s work of the writer and civil rights activist Lillian Smith has proven to be a generative object of study for scholars of twentieth-century Southern literature and culture, particularly as these relate to ideology, liberalism, whiteness studies, racial conversion narratives, temporality, the grotesque, and same-sex desire. For the most part, this critical interest has tended to focus on Smith’s two major works of the 1940s, her first novel Strange Fruit and her first memoir Killers of the Dream. Even in those cases where her later texts—composed in a variety of genres and modes, ranging from occasional essays, fiction, and lyrical memoirs to documentary writing and new journalism—come into consideration, these works have often been treated in isolation from or in pointed contrast to her earlier writings. My aim here is to use Strange Fruit’s legal troubles with obscenity in the 1940s as an occasion for re-conceiving of all of Smith’s writerly output as a unified whole in order to disclose to sight a body of work that is variously stimulated, provoked, disgusted, and haunted by the unmanageable appeals that words can conceivably make on bodies, appeals that seemingly thwart the efforts of reformers like herself to persuade others that their very lives and their modes of organizing life itself must change. As they develop between the 1930s and 1960s, Smith’s responses to this power of certain “obscene” words to do rather than to merely mean come not only to inform her later shift in attention from region to cosmos (and from racialist race to the human race) but also to highlight her specific contributions as a significant transitional figure in the history of 20th-century Southern liberalism.
This chapter thus constitutes a first attempt among Smith’s admittedly few literary critics to work through the messier material relationships her early conceptualizations of segregation proposed, long before it came to be blown up by her into the parsecs-sized problem named “dehumanization.” Prior to becoming cosmically vast, segregation was simply and quite literally obscene for Smith. In what follows I offer a discursive account of segregation’s and obscenity’s respective—but often overlapping—fortunes in her two major works of the 1940s, Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream, in order to get a better grasp on just what it is they may be understood to refer to in her post-war Southern milieu. Instead of simply assuming Smith’s writing is worth all this effort, however, I would like to begin the next section by considering the venerable opinion of perhaps the most attentive, if unlikely critics of her entire career as a writer: the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
[i] Lillian Smith, How Am I to Be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith, ed. Margaret Rose Gladney (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 326. Hereafter abbreviated HH; further references provided parenthetically.
[ii] Smith complained of this to her editor, Frank Taylor, at Reynal and Hitchcock in a May 1944 letter:
I think it is very important, Frank, that we create in our advertising a new image of the book and its author. The banning has received more newspaper publicity than everything else put together. People say STRANGE FRUIT and nudge each other in the ribs. [. . .] They aren’t considering the racial problems laid bare in the book, nor the hypocrisy of the church; nor the strains in the family life; they are focussing [sic] entirely on the dirt. The book is cheap in the eyes of the middle classes—the very people whom we wanted to read the book and take it seriously for these are the very people who can do something about both race and the church in the South—and indeed in our whole country. We can’t dismiss them as the rabble, the fools. They are “our people” whether we like it or not; and they are the people who determine the quality of our national life. I think it is very important that we change their idea of the book. (HH, 83)
As discussed in the body of this chapter, the ascription of political agency here to the middle classes (“‘our people’”)—distinct from “the rabble, the fools” (the poor whites?)—often gets positively valued and coded by Smith under the keyword “decency.” Therefore, in Smith’s view the charge of obscenity or indecency in Massachusetts threatened to compromise the rhetorical efficacy of her work in motivating consequential reforms in family, religious, and race relations in the South. Moreover, despite Smith’s later strident insistence that Strange Fruit was not a “problem novel” about race, this 1944 letter to Reynal and Hitchcock urgently expresses her concern that the “dirt” of obscenity would adversely affect the ability of her first novel to address itself to just such problems.
[iii] In the Winter 1939-1940 “Dope with Lime” column of her North Georgia Review, Smith reduces the topography of the contemporary Southern literary scene to eight well-worn ruts, among which she includes “The Manicurists” (Agrarians), the “Dixie Dirt Dobbers” (Caldwell), and the “Finger Painters” (Faulkner). See Helen White and Redding S. Sugg, Jr., eds., From the Mountain: Selections from Pseudopodia (1936), The North Georgia Review (1937-1941), and South Today (1942-1945) (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1972), 11-14.
[iv] See Anne C. Loveland, Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 75-76.
[v] In his autobiography, White in fact goes out of his way to praise Smith’s novel and theatrical adaptation over the “minstrel Negro” stereotypes on offer in Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps’ “sordid moving picture called St. Louis Woman .” See Walter White, A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White (New York: Viking Press, 1948), 339.
[vi] Lillian Smith, “Negroes in Gray Flannel Suits,” The Progressive 20 (February 1956): 33-35, here 34.
[vii] Ibid., 33-34.
[viii] Ibid., 34.
[x] Smith was quite adept, however, at presenting her resentments toward old friends and present enemies in superficially objective, but nevertheless negatively evaluative terms. For instance, see HH, 188: “I did not criticize the NAACP [in the review of How Far the Promised Land?]. I pointed out certain failings, certain philosophical dead-ends of Mr. White’s. I had only one reason for doing so: I want the NAACP to live, and to live it must grow, and to grow it must shake off certain small identifications, certain trivial enmities, which I honestly think Mr. White was guilty of. It must find magnanimity of spirit. Success can destroy an organization more easily than can failure.”
[xi] Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), 65. Hereafter abbreviated KD; further references provided parenthetically.
[xii] Richard H. King, A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 183.
[xiii] Ibid., 184.
[xiv] For Smith’s analogy of the critical neglect of her writing with the “backdoor treatment” of African Americans in the South, see especially her 1965 letter to George Brockway in HH, 334-36. Statistically, lynchings gradually declined during the first three decades of the twentieth century, falling to single digits a few years after the onset of the Great Depression. Of course this is not to say that violence against African Americans ceased by World War II. If anything, the civil rights movement called forth new forms of institutionally supported violence (like attacks on black protestors with police dogs and fire hoses) to replace those of lynching. See Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in American, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
[xv] In one of Killers of the Dream’s imagined/remembered dialogues with a young camper at Laurel Falls Camp, the Georgia summer camp for girls and young women that she ran for almost twenty-five years, Smith makes the connections between German National Socialism and the Jim Crow South quite explicit. She even goes so far as to assert that the South’s atrocity exhibitions are not only comparable to but also worse than those of the Holocaust: “‘Yet [Southern lynching] is different in quantity and quality from the six million Jews killed so quickly in Germany. Different and in a way more evil. For we used those lynchings as a symbolic rite to keep alive in men’s minds the idea of white supremacy and we set up a system of avoidance rites that destroyed not bodies but the spirit of men’” (KD, 54). Later, Smith makes a similar comparison between the South and Stalinism in order to account for the ideological lures of communism for a small segment of Southern youth (KD, 60). According to Smith, the operative political enmities following World War II are not between fascism and communism with liberalism squeezed to a pulp somewhere in the middle, but rather between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, be it fascist or communist. She was, in this respect at least, a fairly typical Western liberal ideologue of the Cold War era.
[xvi] Arguably, the use of Kafka at all already suggests nascent allegorical impulses in Smith’s work. After all, György Lukács had notoriously excoriated Kafka and other notable modernists for their negation of realism and typicality through allegorical processes of alienation and abstraction. See esp. Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John and Necke Mander (London: Merlin Press, 1963), 17-46.
[xvii] Smith’s prefatory letter to the 1961 re-issue of Killers of the Dream makes this last point indelibly: “I realize this is a personal memoir, in one sense; in another sense, it is Every Southerner’s memoir” (KD, 11).
[xviii] Loveland, 262.