Amidst the period backdrop of social injustice and discrimination, Anne Loveland has gracefully endorsed a biography in Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South published and printed by the Louisiana State University in 1986. Loveland’s mastery in placing Smith’s life endorsed a serious volume of biographical material that openly fought against racism, segregation and the roles of women in Southern society. Further, Loveland’s entire account of Smith’s life speaks of a veiled lament against the lost art of letter-writing that has seemingly lost its appeal in favor of the modern elements of communication.
Lillian Eugenia Smith was born on December 12, 1897 in Jasper, Florida. As the 7th of 9 children to Calvin Warren Smith and Anne Simpson Smith, Lillian dedicated her life to music and writing. She belonged to a prominent white family, Smith recalled being erroneously taught that a terrifying disaster would befall the south if I ever treated a Negro as my social equal (Loveland, p7). Oftentimes she felt baffled by the dichotomies of the southern way of life (Loveland, p. 7) that must have positively preached Christian brotherhood only to shun others due to their skin color. Lillian’s experiences during her teenage years must have left poignant memories that inspired views against discrimination when her family moved to Georgia when she was 15.
The American mentality had always divisively considered the home as the first school for learning the Southern values. With a strong desire to serve her country, she volunteered for the nursing corps. Her exposure to other cultures provided her a deep sense of responsibility after her work assignment as head of the music department in of the Virginia School in Huchow, Chekiang Province, China. It was at this time when she developed a passion for writing that spoke of human rights advocacy and equality.
Her book, Strange Fruit created a stir during the WWII which dramatized a love affair between a white boy, Tracy Dean and a black girl, Nonnie Anderson. Sentiments that evoked discriminative practices in the Southern part of the United States reflected Smith’s views against the narrow-mindedness of most people. Loveland provided that Lillian’s views of the south had also evolved to a point where she was distinctly at odds with most of the whites in the region (Loveland, p.37). Strange Fruit was published in 1944 which was praised by a few as “firmly and convincingly written, with great strength and feeling and power” (The Saturday Review of Literature; Mar 11 1944). Later this novel was banned in Detroit and Boston, after Catholic World chastised Smith for appealing to a vulgar multitude, and declared the book unfit for general circulation (Catholic World; May 1944).A few months later, the book came out as a number-one fiction bestseller that professed of a candid novel about interracial love, romance and race in the conservative period of the 1920’s. Considered inappropriate by a social system, the book screamed out for a social change.
Smith’s apparent passion for writing and desire for recognition as a literary artist is actually the reason for taking a vehement stance against racism in her writings. Reflecting on the risks taken in voicing out her opinions, Smith recognized the originality and uniqueness in an issue that had always been placed in the background that would seemingly demand the reader’s curiosity. Harrison claimed that Smith was a woman too long ignored for her influence and acumen as a literary artist as much as if not more than a civil rights activist (Women’s Review of Books; Dec 1993). The subject of racial discrimination was often traditionally left untouched, as the first white women who criticized southern racial attitudes and exposed the universal truth of the racial injustice committed at the time; this conveniently shifted political awareness to the issue. The Truman administration was forced to tackle this problem after liberal politicians began to question the bigotry of most southern communities. It is quite interesting to note however that Smith’s novels looked never contend civil rights as an economic issue but a moral issue that therefore lambaste the psychological attitudes towards the black minorities.
Southern children, including Lillian knew then at a young age that she needed to adapt to the social norms practiced at home by friends and family members towards their Black friends, and developed certain guilt at her own behavior against her black wet nurse. It is to distressing to ignore that Lillian did exhibit an apparent affinity to join the Southern racists. Thus, Loveland’s representation on the life of Lillian Eugenia Smith assumes a veiled lament against the lost art of letter-writing that has seemingly lost its appeal in favor of the modern elements of communication; after all, Smith’s letters was an integral instrument that influenced opinions. Further, it tries to fit together the dreams and ambitions of Smith to be recognized for her writing abilities than for her active stance against segregation and racial discrimination to package an appealing product for its readers. Loveland did conclude that, regrettably her (Smith) philosophical thinking was generally derivative and superficial and her literary effort unexceptional. Smith is better left recognized for her role in the civil rights movement and the enlistment of the active feminine.
Loveland, Anne C., 1986. Lillian Smith, A Southerner Confronting the South: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
The Saturday Review of Literature. Vol. 271 (Jan-June 1944).
Catholic World. May 1944.
Harrison, Beth. 1993. How am I to be Heard? Women’s Review of Books, 11:14, December issue.