Lillian S.

Here’s an early (and really rather different) version of the introduction to the chapter on Lillian Smith in Literary Obscenities.

Lillian Smith

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 [1954], One Hour [1959], 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 [1946].”  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.

[ix] Ibid.

[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.

Naturalizing the Purges

This is a talk I gave at the Historical Materialism Conference a few years ago. It represents a first approach of sorts to some of the issues raised in my current book project, The Intellectuals Who Failed Better.

Attentive as always to the capacity of style and idiom to embody ideational content, Theodor Adorno infamously took aim at the late works of György Lukács in the 1961 essay, “Reconciliation under Duress,” by affiliating Lukács’s latter-day infelicities of compositional form and expression with his capitulation to real existing socialism.  After reviewing a number of instances of slovenly writing in Lukács’s 1958 book, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Adorno confessed that “one may well wonder whether a man who can write like this, in such obvious ignorance of the craft of the literature which he treats in such a cavalier manner, has any right at all to an opinion on literary matters” (154).  Clearly, Lukács had taken too much “Soviet claptrap” to heart because by the 1950s the “brilliance and profundity” evoked by his remarkable early essays—specifically those collected in Soul and Form, The Theory of the Novel, and History and Class Consciousness—had become twisted, impaired, and degraded, leading Adorno to insist that “in the stylistic amalgam of pedantry and irresponsibility to be found in Lukács, who was once able to write well, one senses a certain malice aforethought, a truculent determination to write badly, evidently in the belief that this sacrifice on his part will demonstrate by some magic trick that anyone who does otherwise and who takes pains with his work is a good-for-nothing.  Indifference to style, we may remark in passing, is almost always symptomatic of the dogmatic sclerosis of content” (154).  To read Lukács after the 1920s, in other words, was to be a spectator to the crushing transformation of one of the most significant dialectical materialists of the early twentieth century into the undialectical apologist of Stalinism and, later, Cold War Communism.

Consequently, to speak in any way for Lukács today, as the title of this panel asks that we do, presupposes that, despite what Adorno once trenchantly claimed, not everything has in fact been decided about or by Lukács in advance, least of all the relationship of his style of writing to its political content.  Nor does this deferral of Adorno’s peremptory judgment require we merely take Lukács at his word instead.  After all, according to his own retrospective account of his development as a thinker and writer following the late 1920s, Lukács’s eventual reconciliation with the reality of Stalinism comprised something far more than an act of uncritical submission before inexorably totalitarian constraints.  If anything, this reconciliation was said to be predicated upon his continued expression of principled dissent with Party policy in his essays of the 1930s, thus at the height of the Great Purge and Moscow Show Trials.  As Lukács put it at the beginning of his revised 1970 Preface to Writer and Critic, “It is not hard to see today that the main direction of these essays was in opposition to the dominant literary theory of the time.  Stalin and his followers demanded that literature provide tactical support to their current political policies.  Accordingly, all art was to be subordinated both in the positive and negative sense, to these needs. [. . .] As everyone knows, no open polemics were possible during that period.  Yet I did protest consistently against such a conception of literature” (7).  Far from being the stooge of Stalinism that Adorno made him out to be, Lukács would have us know that the aesthetic theory intimated in his writing of the 1930s was in fact “rich in contradiction,” suggesting that a properly applied dialectical method was required in order to disclose the clandestine dissidence of his position with respect to the Party line.  In this view, it seems that Lukács’s compositional techniques were so subtle that no less eminent an interpreter of texts than Adorno ended up mistaking his subversions of Stalinism for tokens of complete acquiescence.  Thus, we seem to be left with a situation in which Party functionaries were better readers of Lukács than the co-author of The Dialectic of Enlightenment happened to be:  “As many documents attest,” Lukács goes on to write, “those I criticized were well aware of what I was doing” (7).

The way in which we have come to reconcile these two views of Lukács (for and against) is to concede that he did in fact make regrettable (though exigent) compromises with an omnipresent Stalinist reality while nevertheless managing to carve out a space for himself in which a legible project of protest against and critique of that same reality could be effectively mounted.  For Ferenc Fehér, Lukács’s incessant attempts “to reveal the ‘ideal type’ of the system as he opposed its empirical reality, a procedure barely tolerated by the system itself [. . .], also entailed the acceptance of the final principles of the regime.  This critical distance was necessary, and at the same time sufficient, for Lukács to elaborate his classicism, to build up his personal Weimar, an island of culture in a world of power relations that were unambiguously hostile toward the outspokenness of any democratic culture” (77).  Alternatively, in the words of Rodney Livingstone, “We may conclude that if the authoritarian features in Lukács himself were powerful enough to induce him to submit to Stalinism, they were also strong enough to enable him to stand up for his own—bourgeois-democratic—version of Stalinism” (11).  Thus, in the opinions of these two tough-minded readers of Lukács, and in spite of what Adorno’s scathing criticisms might have contended, Lukács ought not to be spit out by us precisely because he managed the singularly tricky feat of somehow being neither cold nor hot in a situation in which no one could have possibly been lukewarm.  Or, to use the simile that Adorno’s “Reconciliation under Duress” applies to the post-Stalinist Lukács, the Hungarian critic was “like a parfait or a sundae—halfway between a so-called thaw on the one hand and a renewed freeze on the other” (153).

While the interpretations of Feher, Livingstone, and Michael Löwy from more than three decades ago have done an estimable job of giving us a more nuanced (indeed, dialectical) view of Lukács, not only in Moscow during the 1930s and most of the 1940s but also in Budapest following World War II, they nevertheless tend to leave unexamined the properly Adornian component in the evisceration of Lukács carried out by “Reconciliation under Duress,” which (after all) focused a great deal on the relationship of form to content in his later essays.  The opening up of a conceptual space in which an oppositional Lukács could finally be disclosed to sight among Western readers has been all well and good, but what does that have to do with the apparent badness of his writing after he threw his lot in with the Communist Party?  Rather than dispute Adorno’s gruff assessment by insisting, counterintuitively, on the shapeliness and roundedness of Lukács’s Stalinist and postwar essays, I want to concede that point to Adorno while nevertheless arguing that he failed to discern the degree to which his own critical methodologies offered (and continue to offer) a lens through which Lukács can be viewed in a way that gets us beyond his mere arraignment and prosecution for crimes against literature and humanity.  In particular, I want to suggest that what Lukács’s essays from the period criticized by “Reconciliation under Duress” provide us with are exemplary instances of a “late style” that Adorno cussedly refuses to recognize as such.

Interestingly, Adorno’s first articulations of what “late style” means were roughly contemporaneous with the objectionable turn in Lukács’s writing and thinking that was continuing to take place while the Hungarian writer and critic was in exile in Moscow following the rise to power of German National Socialism.  In the 1937 essay, “Beethoven’s Late Style,” Adorno tries to account for the apparent absurdity of the claim that the last works of the great German composer are both subjective and objective at the same time.  That is to say, Beethoven’s final compositions are often simultaneously claimed to be instances of unrestrained free personal expression and of the meticulous working through of materially given principles of construction.  Rather than resolve these two opposing tendencies into a melodious synthesis, however, the aged Beethoven is said by Adorno to have made the proto-modernist gesture of leaving these subjective and objective qualities of his last works in a state of unsettled dissolution.  In turn, Adorno understands this fluidization and dissociation of the integrity of the formal structure of the work of art to be one of the hallmarks of “late style” itself.  Thus, all sorts of unmetabolized conventions (like polyphony, in the case of late Beethoven) return in the final works of great artists, but they do so in ways that seem “bald, undisguised, untransformed” (565).  What the crudity of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major (1821) anticipates, then, is the twentieth century’s crisis of representation and the modernist compositional solution of Bruchstück, of the fragment, of incomplete art objects that, by virtue of their broken and unfinished form itself, resist the totalizing claims of rounded works of art:  “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which—alone—it glows into life.  [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis.  As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal.  In the history of art late works are the catastrophes” (567).  Therefore, far from being the unimpeded expression of an artist’s subjectivity, the fragmentary nature of Adornian “late style” refers us to works of art in which an imminent confrontation with mortality produces objects in which creative subjectivity as such gets temporarily rendered expressionless during those fleeting moments when the concatenated fragments are allowed to speak for themselves directly.

Obviously, to apply such a notion of “late style” to Lukács’s writing from the 1930s onward is to read him very much against the grain, for it would seem to suggest that lurking beneath the surface of his essayistic works from this period were a variety of unrealized modernist impulses that were otherwise smothered in his larger-scale works, like The Historical Novel, published the same year as Adorno’s essay on “late style” in Beethoven.  Although he was careful to distinguish his career as a dialectical and historical materialist from the early sociological writings that Adorno admired so greatly, it is useful to bear in mind here Lukács’s essay on the genre of the essay itself in Soul and Form, where the occasional and fragmentary mode of essayistic composition indicates its role as precursor to a fully fleshed-out account of art.  The incompleteness of the essay as such does not speak for itself but rather calls out for the value and form only achievable in the prospective elaboration of a system, precisely of the sort embodied in The Historical Novel, for instance.  Thus, even if Lukács’s essayistic writing from the 1930s may appear to be incomplete from time to time, that need not belie the teleological relationship sketched in by Soul and Form, where essays as such are merely means to an end, are only stops alongside the road leading to a destination, to a system that will retrospectively abolish and preserve the makeshift quality of those stops, of those means, of those essays through its fulfillment of their implicit values, hierarchies, and desires for order.  Adorno’s trajectory for “late style” is thus preemptively reversed in the early Lukács:  instead of going from mastery of form to a deformation of mastery, the Lukácsian arc from essay to system would seem to indicate a far more familiar Bildung of growth and integration, whereby the probing efforts of essayism give way ultimately to the totalizing organization of an aesthetics as such.

To be sure, the actual trajectory traced by Lukács’s career does seem to approach a developmental model very much like this.  Bracketing for the moment the rather evocative fact that they were all left in various states of incompletion, his final ambitious works (the aesthetics, the ontology, and the ethics) do indeed adumbrate a system of values not yet fully satisfied by the essays produced throughout his career.  However, what reading Lukács along the grain in this way omits are two key features of his essayistic writing.  The first is the social context in and by which his literary criticism for much of the 1930s was shaped: on the one hand, by his recantation of the “Blum Theses” in 1929, which marked Lukács’s abandonment of political theory for art and culture; and on the other, by the Great Purge and the show trials, which made a confrontation with one’s own mortality due to the potential or inadvertent expression of ideological errors an impending feature of any Party intellectual’s life, especially of a dogged survivor whose essays were perhaps staging an occulted resistance to the Party line, as we have seen Lukács retrospectively claim with respect to his own work from this period.  Thus, what the richness in contradiction self-attributed to his 1930s essays suggests is that in these thoughts indirectly occasioned by the all-pervading experience of death and sacrifice in Moscow and beyond there persisted an unyielding negativity, a refusal to be co-opted or synthesized into any grand totalizing scheme.  In fact, another feature of Lukács’s early sense of the essay genre itself suggests that perhaps such an attitude of irresolution and such a refusal of reconciliation can be extended beyond the aberrations of Stalinism as such toward Lukács’s own impulses or tendencies to totalize and systematize.  For after all, the essay, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” ends by de-instrumentalizing the role of essayistic writing itself in the gradual elaboration of an aesthetic system.  The essay, in other words, is not merely the application of a system that has yet to be found or that has yet to come into being but is instead “always a new creation, a coming alive in real experience [Erleben (34).  Thus, “The essay is a judgment [Gericht], but the essential, the value-determining thing about it is not the verdict (as is the case with the system) but the process of judging” (34).

Process, not judgment, is the specific intellectual activity performatively staged by the essay itself, which thereby calls forth from us a greater deal of attention to the forms made use of by essayistic writing than we might otherwise be accustomed to bring to bear on Lukács’s publications of the 1930s.  At the very least, it is from within the mortally threatening social context provided by Stalinism that the conceptual frameworks of early Lukács start to dovetail into those of Adorno on “late style,” and it is on such premises that I would now like to indicate what such an attentiveness to “late style” in Lukács might mean by looking more closely at one of his most notorious and totalizing polemics of the Moscow period, 1936’s “To Narrate or Describe?”.  After all, at first glance, this essay certainly seems to enact the same sort of sclerosis of dogmatic content polemicized against by Adorno in “Reconciliation under Duress.”  At the very least, the acerbic counterposing of realist compositional practices to literary naturalist ones would appear to suggest that, much like the show trials themselves, Commissar Lukács’s judgments had already been passed.  Hence the ruthlessly hierarchical nature of the essay’s oppositional structure, already contained within its title:  whereas nineteenth-century realist narratives once made a necessity of chance by dynamically developing the social relationalities to which contingencies give rise, naturalist descriptions represent chance statically through the abstract imposition of formalizations that are as arbitrary as the social content those descriptions seek to depict; whereas realist texts once provided autotelic norms and measures by which to assess the social significance of typical characters in a given text, naturalist works instead relativize such proportions, thereby eliding selective principles from their stock of compositional methods along with the possibility of perspectives able to credibly make the distinction between characters and inanimate objects in the first place; and whereas the objectivity of realism once narrated and modeled a sociability implicitly generative of a renewed vita activa, the naturalist attempt to make literature scientific succumbs to a total objectivization whereby the possibilities of just such a renewal devolve instead into passive suffering and atomized social anomie.

As we have seen, however, Adornian “late style” cues us to be on the lookout both for places where the integrity of such structural logics break down and for the return of conventions that remain unsynthesized or unintegrated within the late work itself.  Notably, then, even an essay as overtly polemical as “To Narrate or Describe?” refuses to solve the contradictions it raises about the continued distorting influence of naturalist modes of composition on contemporary Western bourgeois fiction and socialist realist writing.  Thus, rhetoricity and conceptuality do not manage to come together in a way that would resolve the incompatibility of a philosophical history of forms with an empirical history of forms, making this essay an unexpected re-inscription of the problems raised by Theory of the Novel.  In fact, with its opening words, “To Narrate or Describe?” directly evokes the epic traditions so forlornly depicted in Theory of the Novel:  “Let’s begin in medias res!” [“Gehen wir gleich in medias res!“] (197).  On the face of it, this opening seems not simply to ratify the precedence of narrative over description preemptively through its positing of epic form as a self-referential model for essayistic organization, but also to raise the question as to what the preconditions for offering a dialectical account of the genesis of narrative modes are in the first place.  If, as Lukács argues, naturalist novels can be understood to disrupt or impede the narrativity of forms as such, then from its opening sentence “To Narrate or Describe?” seems to make that disruption or impediment integral by means of epic narrative form itself.

In other words, the beginning of Lukács’s essay presents us with the meta-critical return of a convention (the epic) he once forcefully claimed was no longer available to us novel-writing moderns.  At one level, this return manifests itself in terms of characterization.  As Ferenc Feher puts it in his exegesis of Theory of the Novel, “‘Collective individuality’ offers great advantages to epic representation.  First of all, there is no danger of privatization:  Achilles’ wrath is just as much a public matter as a private one.  Secondly, as a result of the functional and ‘non-unique’ character of the epic hero, it is never a question how certain men become capable of fulfilling such and such tasks.  The question raised in the epic is always the following: is there someone to fulfill a certain function” (64).  Accordingly, in the opening section of “To Narrate or Describe?”, Lukács counterposes description and narration, naturalism and realism, Zola and Tolstoy, Zola and Balzac, Flaubert and Scott, etc. in terms of a civic function that remains unquestioned:  what art is for publicly is education, the making knowable of norms to social subjects.  Art, in other words, models the historically situated standards by which we can measure our actions against proportionate effects in the world.  However, given the gap that exists between historical processes and individual life in modernity, there does not seem to be any popular mode of writing that can fulfill this function today.  The slavish reproduction of inhumanity in naturalist writing does not afford an adequate picture or model of that inhumanity but instead reconciles itself to it because the compositional methods of naturalist description attempt to encapsulate in mortifying tableaux the actively unfolding degradations that exceed their capacities of representation altogether.  Such methods reify partial views on reality.  Literary naturalism (along with its twentieth-century subjectivizing complement and heir, modernism) therefore carries out the degeneration of the novel’s ability to play socially regenerative roles.  The model they provide instead for their readers is finally that of a submissive acceptance of (and identification with) horrors that fitfully subsist and reproduce themselves beyond any one person or perspective’s ken:  “We do not watch a man whom we have come to know and love being spiritually murdered by capitalism in the course of the [naturalist] novel, but follow a corpse in passage through still lives become increasingly aware of being dead” (146).  Consequently, the modeling that naturalist compositional methods present their readers is that of how to become a self-aware zombie.  Naturalism provides the means by which the zombie in-itself may reflexively become a cynical (or happy-go-lucky or obstinate or perverse or complacent or disaffected, etc.) zombie-for-itself.

It would seem, then, that much as is the case in epic narratives, everything has already been decided in advance for “To Narrate or Describe?”:  art has a clear civic function to fulfill, and the novel—be it bourgeois or socialist realist—ought to turn away from ambient naturalist methods and back toward legibly realist ones, a point that Lukács’s graphic evocation of epic narrative modes in his initial structuring of the essay is meant to convey self-referentially (there are still normative and active public roles to be fulfilled by creative writing, the form and content of the opening sections seem to be insisting, despite what naturalist models might suggest to present-day readers in the West and in the U.S.S.R.).  However, Lukács’s initial epic emplotment of the relationship of naturalism to realism does not work itself out consistently; the empirical history of forms does not get brusquely subsumed by the philosophical history of forms by the essay’s end, when Lukács turns his attention to the socialist realist novel.  Instead, “To Narrate or Describe?” climaxes with the corruption of Soviet novels by naturalist premises that are impeding the cultivation and reproduction of new men.  Just as the narrative content of the socialist realist novel often hinges upon the revelation of the saboteur in the factory or the collective farm, so too the form of the socialist realist novel is sabotaged by unreconstructed naturalist compositional elements.  The kulak in the woodshed, then, is the embodiment or objective correlative (if you will) of the naturalist remainders to be found in the form of the socialist realist novel itself.  Yet despite these regrettable holdovers, Lukács still manages to end the essay affirmatively:  such a naturalist remainder in Soviet writing “can and will be overcome” (242).

Yet, even as “To Narrate or Describe?” passes absolute judgments such as these, its epic structure breaks down completely.  For if we start in medias res, then we end in medias res as well, suggesting that the argument elaborated here is not in the service of exalting the prospective fulfillment of normative expectations but of leaving them pointedly in suspense.  The self-referential model provided by the epic, in other words, remains unmetabolized by Lukács’s essay—it exists there as an unredeemed convention or tradition, a naturalized, descriptive fragment that may speak for itself but certainly not for Lukács nor for the fully realized socialist realist novel.  What Lukács’s “late style” in “To Narrate or Describe?” performatively enacts, then, is the transformation of epic certainty into the disquieting ambivalence of early twentieth-century novelistic forms, which cannot be assuaged or resolved by dictatorially resurrecting the characters, forms, and functions specific to the classical epic and the harmonious community that made it possible in the first place.  At the height of the Great Purges and the beginning of the Moscow Show Trials, what Lukács’s deformation of epic mastery in this essay indicates is that, despite the apparent certainty of the judgments being passed within (and, later, on) it, the jury was in fact still out as to whether bourgeois-democratic culture could be reconciled with Stalinism without literary naturalism coming to the rescue.