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Anne C. Loveland. Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1986. 298 pp. $22.50.

Anne C. Loveland's book may well be the biography that Lillian Smith deserves—but it is not, probably, the one she desired.

For Smith (1897-1966), author of the controversial novel Strange Fruit (1944), wished passionately to be remembered as a writer and thinker of literary merit, "a creative writer, not a propagandist nor a reformer nor a person primarily interested in public affairs." Loveland, however, in her carefully researched and gracefully articulated volume, records most thoroughly the story of "the nice little lady who did so much to help Negroes." In spite of this biographer's noteworthy resolution, in her opening comments, to avoid perpetuating such a stereotype, she nevertheless approaches it in her conclusion: "Regrettably, [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." Although the reader of this statement may naturally be pleased that Loveland (unlike some critics of minor writers) has not offered inflated claims about her subject's work, he or she may also wonder, in this case, whether the biographer has listened quite faithfully enough to Smith's assessment of her own accomplishments.

Indeed, most often in this biography Loveland is a good, objective observer of Lillian Smith's private and public activities. The book's subtitle refers not only to Smith's struggle to end segregation but also to her considerable disagreements with other white southern liberals such as Ralph McGill and Hodding Carter about the means for reaching their goal. Although Loveland approves and emphasizes Smith's very broad definition of segregation ("a psychological mechanism used by men to shut out [any] alien or frightening ideas, people, or events"), the biographer also recognizes that Smith sometimes let "personal animosity" [End Page 684] cloud her vision. For example, Smith was an early member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality (among many other similar organizations); but near the end of her life, she severely criticized the SNCC and resigned from CORE because she felt "disregarded" by its leaders, who, she believed, had been influenced by communists and were too radically against the Viet Nam war. Thus, according to Loveland, she ultimately "engage[d] in the very red-baiting she had deprecated in earlier years."

Smith feared particularly the potentially violent influence of James Baldwin, who was even "more dangerous than Malcolm X and the Black Muslims. . . ." Ironically, in the '40s and '50s, the segregationist described herself as a "good, creative, loving extremist" who had no patience with the "gradualists," black or white, north or south. For Smith, the NAACP moved too slowly and in the wrong direction in its attempts to legislate equality, a condition she felt must spring from the hearts and minds of loving human beings. With the help of such influential friends as Eleanor Roosevelt, the spiritual guidance of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich, and, later, the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Smith sought to free her world from its bonds. In this book Loveland, but not Lillian Smith, seems well aware of the crusader's paradoxical "moderation" in supporting President Johnson and the Viet Nam war and in choosing to be "clearly not a feminist writer." (The biographer speculates that Lillian might have publicly joined the women's movement had she survived her final bout with cancer.)

In dealing with Strange Fruit and Smith's other novel, One Hour (1960), Loveland notes the frequently negative literary judgments of reviewers in periodicals where the southerner's journalistic efforts were not always welcome. Loveland's own critical examinations are more sociological and political than aesthetic. Perhaps this method is appropriate, because Lillian Smith was invariably "unwilling to dissociate art from moral perception" and seldom passed up an opportunity to lambaste the New Critics and the formal experimentation of such authors as Faulkner. Still, Loveland may not give Smith enough credit for the art in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 684-685
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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