I visited Colorado for the first time this summer in 2019. Although my wife has made numerous trips to Colorado, the state has been on my wish list for many years. I particularly wanted to see the Colorado Rocky Mountains, so we flew into Denver, rented a car, and drove southwest to the ski resort town of Breckenridge where we enjoyed several days of relaxing, shopping, eating great food, and taking a few sight-seeing side trips. Fortunately, my wife planned for us to take an out-and-back train excursion that runs from Leadville, Colorado, up the side of the nearby ridge.
The Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad climbs roughly 700 feet as it winds its way through the trees of the San Isabel National Forest and over steep ravines pointing toward Freemont Pass until it reaches an old water tank that was used by the historic mining trains many years ago. Then the train heads back down the track and ends up back where it started at the depot 2.5 hours later. The views of the Arkansas River are incredible from the train’s vantage point 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The conductor on our trip was fantastic, providing us with entertaining stories, facts, and figures on the way up the ridge, then letting us enjoy the ride back without commentary – only the magnificent vistas.
At an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. It still has the feel of a frontier mining town, with saloons that attracted legendary wild west characters like Doc Holliday and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Several of the highest peaks in Colorado, exceeding 14,000 feet, are visible from the small town and during the course of the train ride. There are many ways to experience the beauty of the Rockies: driving, biking, hiking, climbing, and more. I highly recommend the novel approach afforded by the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad.
I am a big fan of public gardens and visit them as often as possible, especially when traveling to new places. With the move to Missouri in 2018, my wife and I have taken opportunities as often as possible to explore some of the wonderful resources the state has to offer. One of the most remarkable places I have seen so far is the Missouri Botanical Garden just outside St. Louis. Founded in 1859, the 79-acre facility is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and is now a National Historic Landmark.
According to the Garden’s website, “more than 4,800 trees live on the grounds, including some unusual varieties and a few stately specimens dating back to the 19th century, when founder Henry Shaw planted them.” The Garden also features the nation’s most comprehensive resource center for gardening information, including 23 residential-scale demonstration gardens. There are various themed gardens throughout the site: Chinese, English, Woodland, Ottoman, and Victorian. There is a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, one of the largest in the country.
A notable feature of the Garden is the conservatory with a lush, vibrant tropical rainforest complete with waterfalls, tanks of fish, and a walkway winding through incredible exotic plants. I will most likely never visit South America or any other part of the world where I would see a tropical rainforest, so I am always grateful for the privilege of even seeing one in miniature. The one at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the best I have seen so far.
There are so many elements of the Garden that make it a destination. The trails are carefully constructed to take advantage of the landscape and lead visitors to one breathtaking vista after another. The plants are grouped and positioned throughout the property to appear as if they evolved there naturally. There are tree-covered byways with every shade of green imaginable; sunny sections with an explosion of color during the blooming season, including a rose garden; and terraces with mixes of perennials and annuals. There are natural lakes, running streams, and constructed water features. I was also fascinated with how well the flora is enhanced by statuary, glasswork, and structures.
St. Louis has so many attractions: Gateway Arch, Busch Stadium, a first-class art museum, and a zoo for starters. The Missouri Botanical Garden is every bit as impressive as any of these places. It is undoubtedly a point of pride for the city and for the whole state. I look forward to returning every season of the year to see what surprises the Garden has in store.
(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)
American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.
Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.
Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.
Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.
Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.
In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.
O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.
The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.
Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter. The old man’s damnation is sealed.
To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.
Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.
Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.
While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.
Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.
I have written in previous posts about the fond memories I have of my maternal grandmother, who lived with us and was instrumental in raising my sister and me while both of our parents worked outside the home. She was a faithful Southern Baptist with hardcore Biblical beliefs that could tame the hounds of hell, not to mention her only grandson out of five grandchildren. At the same time, she had an almost raunchy sense of humor. Flatulence could easily be summoned at just the right moment to break the wind of monotony.
My grandmother had a sister who lived in our town in middle Georgia. They adored each other and shared many lovable and peculiar characteristics. My grandmother didn’t drive, but her sister did. They were ever mobile, always ready for trips to the grocery store, the mall, church events, the farmer’s market, or the countryside to see relatives who had remained outside the city limits where the family’s roots were firmly planted. They both carried oversized, patent leather purses (think an inexpensive version of the Queen Mother’s favorite accessory) that could carry a week’s provisions while also functioning as a weapon that would give even a Central Park mugger pause. Middle Georgia can be miserably hot and humid in the summer, almost necessitating short pants; however, these were two ladies who clearly had not abandoned the practice of wearing hosiery to cover bare legs. They compromised by pairing their shorts with low-heal pumps and knee-high hose – ever fashion-conscious.
The matriarchal sisters were proud masters of the kitchen and faced the challenge of every major meal with the skill and determination of a battlefield commander. It started with the shopping. They didn’t have to give too much thought about what to put in the grocery cart – that would be referred to as a “buggy” in the native tongue of Georgia – because there wasn’t a lot of money to spend, and we generally rotated through a menu of about 5-6 major courses. They procured the staples from the only grocery store in town worthy of their discriminating patronage: Piggly Wiggly. They supplemented the store’s imported produce with indigenous fruits and vegetables from the town’s sizeable farmer’s market, where shoppers could find all the home-grown favorites such as corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, collards, turnips, and of course, sweet onions that are still the pride and economic bedrock of a south Georgia village called Vidalia.
Like all good commanding officers, the sisters would gather the troops, or in this case family members, to assist in the initial steps of the culinary campaign: shucking corn, snapping beans, hulling peas and butter beans, etc. At our house, my mother and sister were quite adept at these essential tasks. I am several years younger than my sister, and although I occasionally attempted to work on the peas and beans, if for no other reason than to be included, I was extremely slow and lost interest quickly. My grandmother took care of the most complicated and dangerous preparatory chores, such as wielding a sharp butcher knife to split the ears of corn on the cob, shear off the kernels, and magically mix them with ingredients to create the best creamed corn I have ever tasted. By the time she finished, her glasses and a good portion of her face and gray hair were speckled with little pasty globs of mutilated corn. She took no prisoners.
Many young boys approaching adolescence from my generation spent considerable time outdoors riding their bikes, playing in the yard, and finding ways to burn off energy. I was a skinny, short kid with long fingers and toes, shaded by the “shadow of forgotten ancestors” with all due credit to the late Carl Sagan. Summoning my recessive hominid genes, I was comfortable climbing small trees. It was fun. In our back yard, we had a small grove of plum and pear trees, and the ripened fruits of summer provided another incentive to defy gravity among the limbs and leaves.
With their keen awareness of all available resources and opportunities, my grandmother and great aunt wasted no time putting my arboreal dexterity to practical use. They both loved peaches. My great aunt had the telltale yellow-orange peach stain permanently emblazoned on the front of practically every blouse she owned. My father was unsuccessful in cultivating this fruit tree in our yard. The grocery store, roadside stands, and the farmer’s market had plenty of peaches available, but the freshest and sweetest ones were still attached to trees and ripened to perfection in several large orchards just a few miles away in the surrounding counties. When I was coming along, Georgia truly lived up to its nickname as the Peach State. Visitors to the peach farms could get the greatest value and the best fruit by picking their own.
Always on the lookout for a bargain, the savvy sisters drafted me to “help” them pick a bushel of peaches at one of the farms. We lit out for the territory in my great aunt’s Chrysler sedan. All the windows were rolled down to welcome in the thick, steamy air typical of a summer in Georgia. Wearing stringy cutoff jeans, my legs stuck to the vinyl back seat like chewing gum on hot pavement. We arrived at the farm wasting no time, marching toward the orchard with the singular mission of finding the most delectable peaches in the southeast. When the ladies identified just the right tree, its branches encumbered with fruit almost to the breaking point, they dropped their peck baskets to the ground and turned their sweet, smiling faces toward me.
“Son, if we point to the ones we want, can you get up in there alright and pick them?” My great aunt almost always called me “son.” Peach trees in a mature orchard are typically 8-12 feet tall, but they are trimmed and trained to have four or five major branches off the trunk a few feet from the ground. These branches project outward and upward from the trunk and support the many smaller branches that bear the fruit each season. So, you can climb into the cradle of the large feeder branches without too much difficulty, but then you must reach from that position to pick the fruit, which can get a bit precarious. Even a scrawny kid weighing 90 pounds soaked in summer sweat could easily snap a tree branch laboring under several pounds of peaches. Doing so would not only cause damage to the tree and ruin a peck of peaches, but it would likely send the tree climber crashing to the ground with scratches and bruises or a punctured eye.
“Sure,” I said with foolish enthusiasm induced by my pre-teen confidence. I vaguely remember taking my shoes off to improve my footing. Again, I embraced my primate taxonomy. I weaseled my way between the feeder branches, and carefully stepped up into the tree’s cradle. The analogy of “low hanging fruit” was not in my lexicon in the early 1970s, but even if it had been, the sisters would have promptly dismissed any suggestion of the kind. They had already set their sights on loftier specimens. After surveying the entire canopy, they began pointing at succulent globes just beyond my reach. Through unnatural contortions and absurd acrobatics that had been unnecessary for any of my previous adventures, I was reasonably successful in satisfying their quest for a bountiful bushel of goodness while managing to escape serious injury or banishment from the property.
My grandmother must have been pleased enough with my aerial harvesting abilities. More than once she sent me scampering up our trees at home to procure what she judged to be the best pears for making preserves that our family and relatives savored throughout the year. If the nuclear holocaust we all feared during those years had materialized, I would be forever grateful to my grandmother and her sister for preparing me to survive in the new stone age as a hunter-gatherer. They loved me more than I could have imagined. They were the sweetest Georgia peaches of all.
My wife and I moved to Springfield, Missouri in December, 2018. Her new job prompted the transition from Georgia, the state where I was born and lived for 58 years. We are now settled into a house just outside the city limits in a convenient location and are enjoying the features that a city of 250,000 people can offer, including some great restaurants, plenty of outdoor activities, and an incredible music scene. When we refer to Springfield as a “city,” some of the natives chuckle. They think of it more as a large town, and indeed it does have the feel of one. The people we have met so far have been especially friendly and welcoming.
Over the last few months we have taken the opportunity to venture out from the Queen City (a familiar pseudonym for Springfield) to see other parts of Missouri. I had never visited the Show Me State until we came to visit in the fall of 2018, when the leaves were turning brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. Over the last four months, I have been to St. Louis, Kansas City, Lake of the Ozarks, Columbia, and Branson. Those road trips have taken me from the state’s east border to its west, to the south-central lake district, through the capital to the town of the flagship university, and close to the Arkansas state line in the southwest corner. What’s left? The northern third of the state and the southeast quarter, which are both quite rural.
While I have spent some time and covered a few miles in the Midwest, I didn’t know much at all about the countryside of Missouri before moving here. I have been pleasantly surprised with the beauty of the landscape. Most of the area I have explored is considered part of the Ozarks geographical region. The Ozarks are among the oldest eroded plateaus in North America, and the wearing away of soil over the course of about 200 million years makes them look like a collection of deep valleys between elevated plains. The tallest peak in Missouri is just under 1,800 feet. Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia in the foothills of Appalachia, tops out at 4,783 feet. It’s difficult for me not to compare the unfamiliar with what I know so well, and I find myself frequently seeing similarities between my old and new environs. What I have seen of the southern half of Missouri reminds me a great deal of the piedmont region of Georgia, with gently rolling hills and plenty of vegetation.
St. Louis is in every sense a real city, and it has the tall buildings, monuments, parks, and museums to prove it. My wife and I have been there twice together. Once was a work event for her, but we stayed overnight in the historic Union Station Hotel with its signature spectacular music and light show projected on the ceiling of the Grand Hall. Our second trip was for a weekend getaway when we took in a Cardinals baseball game, spent a few hours at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and visited the Gateway Arch and historic courthouse adjacent to the Mississippi River. We also strolled through Central Library downtown with its impressive exhibit hall.
Our weekend in Kansas City was also associated with a work event, which gave us the opportunity to see a soccer match with Sporting. We also spent a half day shopping and wandering around Country Club Plaza, where the Spanish-style architecture is just as interesting as the stores and restaurants. Of course, no trip to Kansas City would be complete without a taste of BBQ, and we stuffed ourselves with some scrumptious pulled pork and sides at a local franchise called Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.
I took a solo weekend to work on a writing project at The Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks. The Lodge was built in 1965, and it clearly would have been a top-of-the-line resort in its day. After undergoing a $15 million renovation in 2016, The Lodge still offers respectable accommodations and several special features including a multi-story indoor cascading waterfall, a Japanese garden, an indoor/outdoor pool, and a sizeable marina with the largest boats I have ever seen up close. The main restaurant was surprisingly good, where I enjoyed some of the best scallops I have had in a long time. The Lake of the Ozarks was formed in 1931 with the construction of Bagnell Dam on the Osage River. It has a long history as a thriving source of recreation and tourism for central Missouri. A recent book by Bill Geist titled Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America is a laugh-out-loud memoir of his days working as a teenager at his uncle’s resort, Arrowhead Lodge.
I started working as a special projects coordinator at Missouri State University Libraries in June, and on my first day at the job I accompanied the Dean of Libraries to Columbia, home of the state’s flagship University of Missouri. Columbia is a classic university town with fine architecture, cultural institutions, athletics, and a charming downtown. Naturally, Columbia has a thriving nightlife, perhaps best represented by Booches, a pub and pool hall dating back to the 19th century. An interesting fact about the town: when it was originally designed, a tract of land was set aside specifically for a university. We traveled through Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, that had recently suffered considerable damage from a strong tornado. The whole area was also struggling with terrible floodwaters courtesy of the Missouri River that had completely covered the small airport, destroyed some local businesses, and left homeowners living on their own “islands” accessible only by boat. Missouri certainly has its share of violent, unpredictable weather.
When we first began to consider the move to Springfield, we were happy to learn how close the city is to one of the most popular tourist towns in the Midwest. Branson has been welcoming vacationers to the Ozarks since it was incorporated in 1912. Among the first attractions was Marvel Cave, one of many underground caverns open to the public in Missouri. In 1960 the operators of the site opened Silver Dollar City, a small park modeled after a frontier town. Over the next few decades the site grew into a family-centric amusement park with roller coasters, children’s rides, and various forms of entertainment. The first music theaters began to open in Branson in the mid-20th century. By the 1980s, the town was bringing in major music stars such as Roy Clark. Eventually, other big names would move in to build their own theaters such as Boxcar Willie, Jim Stafford, Ray Stevens, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, and Dolly Parton. In recent years, the theaters have reduced in number, but other attractions have taken their place, such as water parks, museums, wineries, and more. We have visited Branson twice thus far, and on our last trip we had a fabulous dinner at the Osage Restaurant at Top of the Rock, a resort built by Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which is headquartered in Springfield.
I had no idea how much Missouri would have to offer in the way of urban amenities, places of interest, and abundant natural resources. Our fair city also happens to be the official birthplace of Route 66, and Missouri is close to the heart of this iconic mid-20th-century roadway that linked Chicago to the west coast. Travelers through Missouri can still marvel at some of the quirky roadside attractions that are vestiges of the highway’s glory days: Meramec Caverns, a giant red rocking chair, Mule Trading Post, and Uranus Fudge Factory (pun absolutely intended). Our exploration of this diverse state has just begun, and I’m sure future blog posts will be devoted to what we find along the way.
(Based on a lecture presented at Reinhardt University on June 27, 2019)
Lillian Smith is certainly not the most recognizable writer from the South, and now the light from her star is practically imperceptible in a literary sky illuminated by the likes of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. I have written about her life as a writer and civil rights advocate in a previous post. During her lifetime Lillian Smith was a highly acclaimed author, successful businesswoman, a creative educator, and one of the most effective champions of human rights of her generation. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally featured in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Today, Lillian Smith is generally regarded as a respectable novelist who was among a handful of white liberals fighting racial discrimination in the South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. But it is a mistake to limit Smith’s interests, passions, concerns, and influence solely to these parameters. With brutal honesty she exposed and fought injustice everywhere she witnessed it, while maintaining her characteristic Southern manners and eloquence. I would argue that there is no writer from mid-20th-century America whose work is more germane to the crises we face in 2019 around the world than Lillian Smith.
Like most people of the South in the early 20th century, and even the nation at large, Lillian Smith grew up in a racially segregated society. She was well schooled in the paradox that characterized Christian teaching of her region and her time, including the Methodist denomination in which she was reared. Jesus loved all the children of the world, but white children were inherently superior to black children. White children played with white children and black children with their own kind. There were white churches and black churches, just as God had intended it to be. These were among the unquestionable manners that made the post-bellum South tolerable to its white citizens who insisted on perpetuating a caste system 25 years after Reconstruction had made their earth tremble. These “truths” were accepted by Lillian’s Smith’s parents, both of whom had descended from slave-owning families.
In her early twenties, Smith studied music intermittently at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but she ultimately accepted the disappointing reality that her talent was insufficient for her dream of becoming a concert pianist. However, her training at Peabody prepared her for an opportunity that would change Lillian Smith’s perspective on almost everything and challenge all her preconceptions about her homeland. In 1922 at the age of 24, Lillian moved to China where she would remain for the next three years working as a piano teacher at Virginia School, a Methodist mission for girls from wealthy families in the city of Huchow. She was one of about a dozen westerners in a city of 250,000 in what was then a remote part of the country.
While working at Virginia School, Smith reported to a female principal who was liberal in her philosophy and had a deep appreciation for China’s rich culture and resources. Lillian immersed herself in that culture, learning from her students, their families, and from the people of Huchow. She read extensively during this time, exploring Chinese poetry and philosophy. She wandered through Buddhist temples and began to contemplate faith traditions other than Christianity. She also became familiar with the history and current events of India and South Africa. “Suddenly, the whole earth opened to me,” she wrote, “and I saw us as one people, as human beings, all aching for freedom, all longing for knowledge and understanding, all reaching toward the light of truth, all wanting to love and be loved.”
The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The hopes and aspirations that inspired the Revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty had been crushed shortly after the establishment of the Republic of China. The provisional government became a puppet of strong military leaders and ultimately disintegrated. By the time Smith arrived in 1922, the tenuous government was under a military regime. Ruthless provincial warlords were in command of much of the region, spreading terror as they mounted revolutions and counterrevolutions, exploiting rich and poor alike. Smith learned about the country’s turmoil from people who were intimately involved in the transitions of power. She met the sister-in-law of the President of the provisional government, a woman named Soong Mei-ling, but we are more familiar with the name she adopted after she was married: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.
It was in this environment that Lillian Smith began to see injustice and affronts to human dignity with fresh eyes. She was horrified by the effects of war on the Chinese people, specifically the lowest class of unskilled laborers, the coolies. She witnessed them being treated no better than slaves by soldiers who came through Huchow. She also recognized that some of the worst indignities were at the hands of Christians, even the people she worked with, who seemed to tolerate blatant abuse. In a letter to her father dated February 23, 1925, Lillian wrote, “All of it makes one wonder how Christians can sit by and say: ‘Of course war is wrong – but’. There is no ‘but’ to it.”
In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. She also had some wonderful memories of the country. During the early 1930s, she worked on a novel about China under the title, And the Waters Flow On, where she was exploring the connection between racism and sexual attitudes in a Chinese setting. Tragically, the manuscript for this novel was later lost in a fire at her home in Clayton. Like other southern writers, Lillian Smith made the connection between sexual attitudes and racism, but she did so with unusual fervor and explicitness. These connections were likely formed in her mind during the China years.
Her experiences in the Far East changed her at a deep level, which as it turns out, was not an unusual phenomenon for Smith’s generation of white southern liberals. Morton Sosna speaks to this pattern in his 1977 book, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue, published by Columbia University Press. Sosna writes, “An important influence upon Southern liberals was their experiences outside the South. Even when they returned home, they found that residence elsewhere had added new dimensions to their views about the South’s racial situation.” For Lillian Smith, the parallels between the discrimination on opposites sides of the globe were crystal clear. Sosna continues, “Lillian Smith was shocked by white foreigners, including the missionaries, who established enclaves in China that excluded Chinese. She drew an immediate connection between what was occurring in China and life in her own native South.”
Many years after her return to the states, Lillian Smith continued to express her deep concerns publicly about social injustice, in her native South and elsewhere. She made references to the evils of white supremacy and imperialism in China but also in Russia, Burma, Java, and on the continents of Africa and South America. She stressed that people from around the globe were searching for a democracy that works, one they could trust. In a time where Americans believed their most valuable export was democracy, Lillian Smith said they had to prove they really believed in it by using a language the whole world understands: the democratic act.
She witnessed on the world stage in real time the tragic results of systematic race-based hatred. “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe,” she wrote. “It is just possible that even German Nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Lillian Smith recognized that the South, by passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, was trying to buy its future with a figurative currency that no longer existed: Confederate money. She expanded that metaphor when she wrote, “The new world will be found only when the people dream about it. . . . And when we find it, we must buy it. Not with old Confederate bills of race slavery and prejudice and frustration; no. Not with the imperialistic British pound of arrogant exploitation; nor with blocked marks of madness and hate; nor with violence and death. But with the democracy of the human spirit, with intelligence, with creative understanding, with love, with life itself.”
In his article, “Lillian Smith, Racial Segregation, Civil Rights and American Democracy,” published in the Moravian Journal of Literature and Film in the Fall of 2011, Constante Gonzalez Groba notes that Lillian Smith adopted Gandhi’s view of the negative effect of segregation on the oppressed and the oppressors, a premise that she would return to many times during the struggle for civil rights in the South. According to Groba, Lillian Smith “was one of the first to see the transnational dimensions of the cultural and racial practices of her region, and one of the first to characterize the white dominance of the South as a colonial relationship.”
The outbreak of World War II and the unavoidable involvement of the United States in the global conflict was of great concern to Lillian Smith as it was to most people of her generation. She was not as repulsed by the physical part of war as she was the more permanent effects it had on minds and emotions. To her way of thinking, war was an extreme example of human segregation. She was convinced that the threat from abroad made it even more important for the races in America to understand each other. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from April 7, 1942, Smith wrote, “There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.”
Following the war, Lillian Smith made two trips to India. During the summer of 1946, she traveled as a member of Britain’s Famine Commission, an initiative to gain American support for India’s famine victims. Her second trip to the subcontinent in 1954-55 was much more substantive – a six-month visit with financial support from the U.S. State Department to gather material for a book comparing India and China. She had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a number of other dignitaries, artists, and writers. The book project never materialized, but it is clear from her correspondence after returning from this second trip that Smith had immersed herself in the culture of India, especially the arts.
Given her work in advancing the cause of civil rights, it would be natural to assume that activism was Smith’s greatest passion, but that’s not the case. She expressed on numerous occasions how she disliked struggling against injustice, even racial discrimination. The idea of fighting for a “cause” was rather unappealing to her. She was much more interested in literature, poetry, painting, and music. Her humanitarian efforts were not as much a passion as they were a deep, moral obligation. In a letter to Richard Wright from June 12, 1944, she wrote, “I am not in the least interested in political movements or in being any kind of a reformer or political leader. Hence, I find myself avoiding – too much, I suppose – organizations. I simply want to say what I believe and say it my own way. I have an idea that you feel much the same about this. Because you do, I believe we together might be able to work out some suggestions for other writers that might encourage them to do more creative thinking and writing about our cultural problems, and yet leave them free of any ideological ties.”
By the late 1950s, Smith’s views about democracy and colonialism were reflecting over 35 years of reading and writing about world events and the shifting international political landscape. In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Killers of the Dream from 1961, she observed that Asian and African colonists thirsted for independence but not necessarily Democracy as the U.S. assumed. They wanted equality and would “trample the earth to get it.” They wanted their human rights and their recognition by the United Nations. What they hated and feared more than death were the symbols of oppression: segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Smith urged Americans to listen to the desires of these young nations, whose leaders she feared may be driven to overcome their hurt dignity with racial supremacy, just as white Southerners embraced White Supremacy during Restoration in mutual hostility toward people of color. “African and Asian nationalists may harness the hatred of tribal hostilities” she said, “and turn it into hatred of whites who continue so stubbornly to think of themselves as superior.”
Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Her fiction reflected her sensitivity to prejudice and injustice. Her travels abroad filled Lillian Smith with wonder and excitement, but she also let the experiences mold her conscience as well as her consciousness. She had a more inward view of the words of her contemporary, T. S. Eliot, who in his “Four Quartets” reminded us that after our explorations are over, we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time. Lillian Smith’s version goes like this: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”
Not too long ago I participated in a weekend writing workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Beginning on Friday evening and ending at lunch on Sunday, the program provided inspiration, encouragement, writing prompts, editing tips, and one-on-one coaching for writers of all skill levels and in multiple genres. The instructor was a kind and gracious poet named Karen Paul Holmes, an award-winning writer who has been published in HuffPost, business publications, literary journals, and anthologies. Her books of poems are Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014) and No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018). She founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly Writers’ Night Out in Blairsville, Georgia.
For more than 90 years, the John C. Campbell Folk School has encouraged all students and guests to become a part of its community through activities such as concerts, dances, presentations, and meals. People with varying interests are given a chance to come together through song, art, nature, gardening, cooking, and storytelling. From basketry to writing, participants can choose from over 860 weeklong and weekend classes each year in a broad variety of areas. This creative experience is enhanced by knowledgeable instructors and small classes. My writing class had only seven people. The classes are structured to create a non-competitive, hands-on learning environment.
Our class met in a house-turned-dorm and meeting space called the Orchard House. We had two males (including me) and five females. There was one young woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. The other five students were all older than I was. We were all amateur writers with diverse backgrounds: education, ministry (the other man), and corporate business. As a librarian, literary landmark manager, and artist retreat director, my career probably brought me closer to writing and writers than anyone else in the room save the instructor, but I certainly did not feel I had a competitive edge whatsoever. The retired folks were spending much more time writing than I was, and they took it seriously. They were good at it.
One woman had recently lost her aging mother after an extended decline, and she was working on a collection of reflective essays about the thoughts and emotions she experienced as her mother’s caregiver during those final years. The piece she shared with the group was funny at times but also incredibly moving. The retired Methodist pastor was an affable guy who had some great stories and the ability to translate them into writing that didn’t read like sermons. There was a woman who seemed to be still living in the 1960s. She was a widower and shared through her poetry intimate memories of the relationship she had with her husband, and sometimes her language bordered on the erotic. Her poems were passionate, but her sense of loss was still raw and full of grief. I was most impressed with the work of the woman I guessed was the oldest member of the class. She shared memoir-style essays that demonstrated wisdom, insight, and a remarkable command of words. I was envious.
This weekend dedicated to writing was an amazing opportunity provided to me by an artist who served on the advisory board of the retreat center where I was the director. It was such a rewarding experience. Our instructor gave us several writing exercises, one of which resulted in a short post titled “Bliss” that I decided to publish on this blog in 2018. I highly recommend this workshop with Karen Paul Holmes, but any program that gets us away from home and in the company of other writers to practice the craft can be immensely satisfying and productive. Finally, I would encourage anyone who values the arts to visit the John C. Campbell Folk School and consider becoming involved with its programs. It is such an extraordinary place.