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  • Lillian Smith, Cold War Intellectual
  • Thomas F. Haddox (bio)

Over the past four decades, scholars in southern studies have constructed images of two different Lillian Smiths.1 The first is Smith the liberal humanist, moralist, and therapist, whose worldview derives equally from a secularized vision of Christian brotherhood and a spiritualized vision of psychoanalysis. She believes in a universal human nature, affirms the aesthetic value but not the ontological reality of difference, and regards equality as a human birthright, something that would be self-evident had not neuroses and oppressive social structures—above all, “the race/sex/sin spiral” endemic to southern culture (Killers 121)—poisoned otherwise spontaneous and healthy relationships. Fond of tributes to the human spirit and possessing what Jay Garcia calls “transnational dimensions” (60), Smith frames the South’s predicament within global anticolonial struggles and, more abstractly, within the imperative that she calls “the Twentieth Century dialogue . . . [of] relationships not systems” (Killers 233). Though committed to the civil rights movement and possessing indubitable moral courage, she believes that lasting social change will come neither as a result of pragmatic efforts to seize power, nor as the consequence of a more accurate theory, but rather as the sum of individual awakenings, as oppressors and oppressed discover their mutual humanity and learn to form constructive relationships. This is the Smith [End Page 51] portrayed by Richard King, who finds in her work “a moral authority that far outweighed her institutional connections” (176), and from a different vantage point by Mab Segrest, who lauds her as an important lesbian precursor to a contemporary “Southern women’s literature of wholeness” (40). And while this Smith, assimilable to the mainstream liberalism of the mid-twentieth century, is undoubtedly appealing, she also stands accused of essentialism, naïveté, and platitude. Moreover, the moral and therapeutic lens through which she views sexuality threatens to render it unsexy, as does the soporific earnestness of her prose style.

The second Lillian Smith, on the other hand, is savvy and transgressive, a dissector and connoisseur of the grotesque who anticipates the obsessions of the early twenty-first century academy and reveals, even against her intentions, the ideological charade of liberal humanism—all the while secretly suspecting, like an appropriately disillusioned post-1968 intellectual, the futility of any alternative political program. This Smith, McKay Jenkins claims, is “fully engaged with notions that are now considered staples of postmodern racial thought, that constructions of ‘Otherness’ . . . are not only not apart from the subject but are located specifically within the subject, are indeed something on which the subject depends for its very existence” (123). One implication of such a claim is that Smith resembles Cathy Caruth more than Freud, refusing the fantasy that one might ever assimilate one’s traumas or be “cured” of one’s neuroses. No matter how often her writing waxes universal and holds out the possibility of a healed humanity, she does not transcend the horrific particularity of the South, for her experience—indeed, her body—cannot permit it. In Patricia Yaeger’s words, “For Smith, to be a white southerner is to know and be the grotesque—to overwrite, overread, and participate in an economy of cruelty, defensiveness, reaction formation, and overcompensation” (246–247). However one might strive against one’s immersion in a racist system, there can be no escape from the grotesque as a “self-stunting habitus” (247), a “delicious, frightening riddle,” a space of “permeable, ongoing disturbance” (249). Whereas the first Smith seems like a Church Lady, this one seems like an S&M enthusiast.

Both of these versions of Smith draw much of their justification from Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream, which remain her most widely-read texts. Their popularity is understandable, for the interlocking problems at the center of the two works—racism, segregation, sexual repression, misogyny and its mirror image, gyneolatry—may indeed be investigated either as the crimes that arise when difference is elevated to an “essence” [End Page 52] and made to obscure a common humanity, or as illustrations of how differences, no matter how “constructed” they may be, remain intractably vexing, alluring, and as “real” as a blow to the spine. In this essay...