The Georgia Writers’ Association held its 1955 annual meeting in Atlanta in early December. On this occasion the Association honored Lillian Smith (social justice advocate and author of the controversial works Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream, and The Journey) as the winner of the Georgia Writers’ Award for the best book of nonfiction with the most literary value written by a Georgian in 1954. She felt the award was overdue but was proud at any rate that the Association exhibited the courage to recognize her importance as an artist. Smith was terribly amused by the annual meeting – a sentiment I can almost imagine would have been shared by another Georgia writer named Flannery O’Connor who was also in attendance.
Lillian Smith was not invited to speak at the award ceremony; however, after meeting her and talking with her, the organizers decided to ask her to give an impromptu speech the next day, which she did. Afterwards, an elderly woman in the audience came up to compliment the writer on how sweet and well-bred she was, exclaiming that Lillian Smith must have had the best intentions in the world, regardless of what she may have written in her books. On the previous day, Flannery O’Connor delivered a luncheon address to this convention titled “Some Problems of the Southern Writer.” Lillian Smith was at the luncheon, and this is what she had to say about O’Connor’s presentation:
Flannery’s talk was one of the funniest things I ever listened to. Do you know – I don’t believe she had the vaguest notion how she shocked the crowd. She told em off; told Georgia off; told the South off; told would-be writers off. . . . The stuffed shirts and the would-be writers (the place was full of them) began listening smilingly because they had heard she was “literary” and “talented” and nothing she wrote threatened anybody, certainly not on the conscious levels of their life. But after about two paragraphs they realized that a nice little snake was sinking her fangs deep into their complacency and they began to look at each other and shake their coiffured heads and whisper, “Well . . . .what do you know . . .”
(all quotations from How Am I To Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney; The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993)
Smith mentioned O’Connor’s presentation in a letter to her editor at Viking Press, Denver Lindley, who also served as an editor for Flannery O’Connor. There was a tone of bitterness, if not irritation, when Smith wrote that “these young writers can now say things out loud without any realization, actually, of how one or two of us down in the South opened the way for them.”
As far as I know, this was the only time that Lillian Smith and Flannery O’Connor were in the same room together, although they lived only 150 miles apart. O’Connor confided to her friend Cecil Dawkins that, although she considered Lillian Smith to be a nice person, O’Connor was not impressed with Smith’s writing. In a letter dated December 2, 1955, to Lon and Fanny Cheney, Flannery O’Connor stated that, at the Association meeting, Lillian Smith invited her for a visit to her home, but O’Connor declined. In her essay titled “Flannery O’Connor and Lillian Smith: A Missed Opportunity,” published in the 2007 issue of the Flannery O’Connor Review, Virginia Wray observes that O’Connor’s brief remarks about her fellow Georgia writer in this letter carry with them a tone of sarcastic dismissal. I know those who have studied O’Connor’s life are shocked by this revelation! It’s no secret that O’Connor reserved some of her most acidic comments for other writers, especially those close to home. O’Connor’s comments about Smith were rather tame by comparison.
Lillian Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality. The last book published before her death came out in 1964, the year that Flannery O’Connor died; however, she continued to contribute to periodicals and newspapers until her own death on September 28, 1966. One of the pieces Lillian Smith wrote for publication the year before she died was a book review for the Chicago Tribune. The title of the review was “With a Wry Smile Hovering Over All.” As fate would have it, Lillian Smith would get the proverbial last word in this evaluation of Flannery O’Connor’s second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. It is worth noting that Smith and O’Connor had both developed an admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, although Smith claimed that, in the title story of the collection, O’Connor had twisted the Jesuit priest’s “profound and poetic vision into something small enough for her to smile at wryly.” With regard to the other stories in the collection, Smith perceived that the author’s point of view lacked compassion and empathy, which should make us all wonder if she read O’Connor’s first collection of short stories. Still, Lillian Smith considered O’Connor to be a highly gifted writer and described the title story as a masterpiece, where every line counts, every word. No fan of O’Connor’s work could disagree with that assessment.