Considered by many the foremost white southern liberal writer of the mid-twentieth century, Smith devoted her life to challenging her culture’s fundamental assumptions: that by divine decree, white males are superior to blacks and males are superior to females, that a racially segregated political and economic power structure must be maintained at all cost, and that nothing about the system of segregation should be questioned. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s when even those whites working for social change in the South, such as leaders in the Southern Regional Council and the so-called liberal journalists Ralph McGill and Hodding Carter, could speak only of improving race relations on a separate but equal basis, Smith boldly and persistently called for an end to segregation. For such boldness, she was often scorned by both moderate and conservative southerners, was threatened by arsonists, and was denied the critical attention she deserved as a writer. Yet she continued to write and speak for improved human relations and social justice throughout her life.
Born December 12, 1897, the eighth of ten children, Smith grew up in Jasper, Florida, where her father was a prominent business and civic leader. Her life as a daughter of upper-class whites in the small-town Deep South changed abruptly when her father lost his turpentine mills in 1915 and moved the family to their summer home in the mountains of Clayton, Georgia.
Financially on her own, Smith attended nearby Piedmont College for one year, helped her parents manage a hotel, and taught in two mountain schools before she was able to pursue her chosen career in music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1922, she accepted a three-year position as director of music at a Methodist school for girls in Huchow (now Wu-shing), China. But her ambitions for a career in music ended when her parents, in ill health, asked her to return to direct the summer camp for girls begun by her father in 1920.
Under her direction from 1925 through 1948, Laurel Falls Camp became a highly popular, innovative educational institution known for its instruction in the arts, music, dramatics, and modern psychology. Through her work with the young women of Laurel Falls Camp, Smith found emotional access to her own childhood and awareness of the socialization process so crucial to understanding herself as a white southern female and to her strength as a writer. There she began systematically to examine and then confront her society’s concepts of race and gender. There also she came close to creating the world she wanted to live in, a world where every child could experience esteem, where individual creativity could be encouraged by a supportive community, where old ideas were questioned and new ones explored, and where differences could be appreciated. Encouraging emotional and psychological as well as physical development, Smith helped the daughters of white upper-class southerners question the world they lived in and begin to envision the possibility of change in the world. Thus the camp became a laboratory for many of the ideas informing Smith’s analysis of southern culture, especially her understanding of the effects of child-rearing practices on adult racial and sexual relationships.
Through the camp Smith also met Paula Snelling, a native of Pinehurst, Georgia, and began the life-long relationship that encouraged and sustained her writing career. Their relationship grew beyond their work at camp as they pursued mutual interests in psychology and literature, in people and ideas. Although Smith never acknowledged publicly the intimate nature of her relationship with Snelling, closeted sexual relationships between women appeared in her fiction in significant though peripheral roles and the destructive nature of her society’s generally rigid and repressive attitudes toward sexuality became a frequent subtheme in her writing.
Keenly interested in the political and literary ferment that began in the South in the 1920s, Smith and Snelling entered the public arena as writers with the publication of a small literary magazine, Pseudopodia (later changed to North Georgia Review and finally South Today), which they co-edited from 1936 to 1945. From the first issue, its editors favored social and economic reform, generally supported realistic appraisals of Southern life, and sharply criticized those who romanticized the Old South while ignoring its poverty and social injustices. Publishing and reviewing the literary work and opinions of both black and white men and women, their magazine quickly achieved acclaim as a forum for liberal thought in the region.
With the publication of her novel Strange Fruit in 1944, Smith suddenly found herself the famous and then infamous author of a “big” bestseller. Selling at the astonishing rate of 25,000 to 30,000 copies a week even before it was banned in Boston, the interracial love story set in the post-World War I South of Smith’s youth sold a million copies in hardcover and over three million copies during her lifetime, was translated into fifteen languages, and was made into a Broadway play.
Although Strange Fruit brought Smith international acclaim and greatly expanded her sphere of influence as a social critic, Killers of the Dream, published in 1949, affronted too many Southerners—including powerful moderates—to be financially or critically successful. After an initial 30,000 copies, sales dropped dramatically, and when reviewers and critics refused to accord it critical notice, Smith was effectively silenced as a writer. Written confessionally and autobiographically, combining personal memoir, allegory, and direct social commentary, no other work so effectively psychoanalyzed the South’s rigid commitment to racial segregation. This subject matter and Smith’s innovative style were met with hostility, or deliberate silence, by the literary establishment, the New Critics, and the general public of Cold War America.
The spirit of unity and optimism that had hovered temporarily over the country at the end of World War II was now replaced by growing conservatism, resistance to reform, and a tradition-bound defensiveness. Fear of fascism had given way to a virulent anti-communism, and Southern congressmen turned the largely northern-instigated anti-communist crusade into a witch hunt against anyone advocating an end to racial segregation. In such times few were open to Smith’s argument that white supremacy was as much a totalitarian ideology as communism or fascism. Even fewer shared her view that the greatest threat to democracy came not from the Russians, or from blacks or poor whites, but from the failure of moral leadership in white Southern pulpits, state houses, and the press.
After the largely hostile response to Killers of the Dream, Smith adopted a more direct philosophical approach in The Journey (1954) and One Hour (1959), explicitly demonstrating that her concerns extended beyond race relations in the American South to include all aspects of human relationships in the modern world. Yet, in whatever genre she wrote, she refused to separate the seemingly conflicting roles of artist and activist, and she was deeply respected and sought after by those who actively worked for justice in the South.
Even as her work during the 1940s and 1950s provided part of the yeast for the most significant movement for social change in twentieth-century America, so also the success of that movement helped create a new audience for her work in the 1960s. As white and black youth from across the nation joined Southern blacks in marching, picketing, and going to jail to end legal segregation, they, like Smith and her campers, asked again the old questions born of conflict between the democratic ideal and the realities of American life. Many found in Killers of the Dream a much-needed understanding of the complex reasons why white supremacy and legalized racial segregation took root in Southern culture and remained so stubbornly resistant to change in a nation supposedly built on democratic laws and values.
A decade later, as many of the civil rights activists became leaders in the women’s movement and began writing and teaching women’s history, they rediscovered in Killers of the Dream Smith’s sharp critique of the Southern-lady role and her clear analysis of the connections between racial and sexual oppression. For Smith, the passionless white woman on a pedestal and the black woman with child by the white man exemplified related and attendant evils of white supremacy. In a culture where marriage and motherhood were women’s primary roles, neither black nor white women were free to be fully wives or mothers, and neither were able to shield their children from the physical and psychic destruction of the racist society in which they lived.
Scholars today are beginning to recognize Smith’s historical significance not only as a courageous fighter for racial justice but also as a woman writer whose experimental style, as well as her choice of subject, deserves critical attention. But Killers of the Dream was not written for scholars; it was written for all who, like Smith, care deeply about the world we live in and the future of all the world’s people. In rereading Killers of the Dream, I am reminded that Smith’s questions led her repeatedly to reexamine childhood. “Even its children know,” she wrote in 1949, “that the South is in trouble.” At the end of the twentieth century, Smith’s words remain all too timely: today’s children everywhere know the world is in trouble. Indeed, as one of Smith’s best critics observed, “Smith wrote our past, our present, and a future we haven’t quite reached.”
Copied, with permission, from Margaret Rose Gladney
Miss Lil's Camp
Miss Lil's Camp was produced in conjunction with
The Documentary Institute at The College of Journalism and Communications at The University of Florida