American Literature Lillian Smith
Will Brantley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0208


Lillian Smith (b. 1897–d. 1966) was born in Jasper, Florida, and grew up in a large and well-to-do southern family. In 1915, in the wake of the First World War, her father, Calvin Warren Smith, lost his financial standing and relocated his family to their summer home in north Georgia where he opened first a hotel and then a summer camp for girls, which Smith would later own and direct. It is somewhat surprising that no one has yet made a feature film based on Smith’s life. She is the Floridian teenager who found herself transplanted to a scenic but rural environment in the north Georgia mountains; the young woman who superintended elementary schools in this rural setting; the undergraduate student at both the local Piedmont College (1915–1916) and the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore (1917–1918, 1919–1922); the music teacher at a missionary school in Huzhow, China, an experience that solidified her social consciousness (1922–1925); the progressive director of Laurel Falls Camp for girls, many of whom came from the state’s wealthiest families (1925–1948); the publisher of South Today, a quarterly magazine and forum for liberal thought that she coedited for ten years with her life partner Paula Snelling (1936–1944); the controversial author of Strange Fruit, one of the best-selling novels of 1944; the self-analyst who published Killers of the Dream, a groundbreaking work of autobiography and cultural criticism that appeared first in 1949 and then again in an expanded edition in 1962; the friend and advisor to influential players on the national scene, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.; and the combative social activist who withstood threats as she promoted her liberal vision through fiction, letters, essays, speeches, and pamphlets—including Now Is the Time (1954), her ardent defense of school desegregation—and creative works of self-writing and nonfiction prose, including The Journey (1954) and her final book, Our Faces, Our Words (1964). Smith was diagnosed with cancer in 1953, the disease that took her life in 1966 at the height of the civil rights movement that she, through her writings and activism, had helped to bring about and which she saw as evidence that human beings can, in fact, evolve. Smith turned a searchlight on the workings of white supremacy and blasted conservative ideologies of both race and gender. She has, since her death, emerged slowly but steadily as a pivotal figure in attempts to redraw the boundaries of the literary and cultural renaissance in the mid-20th-century South.

General Overviews

Sadly, only one book-length monograph has been published on Smith: Blackwell and Clay 1971. Part of Twayne’s Authors series, the book provides a usable introduction with close readings of Smith’s major works. Other shorter overviews—Long 1965, Brockway 1966, Sullivan 1967, Black 2002, and Roberts 2016—offer more satisfying assessments of Smith’s achievements. Gladney 1982 provides an overview of Smith’s work as director of Laurel Falls Camp, and Egerton 1994 and Olson 2001 offer overviews of Smith’s relevance to the civil rights movement.

  • Black, Allida M. “Smith, Lillian (1897–1966).” In Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. Edited by Anne Commire, 480–486. Detroit: Yorkin, 2002.

    Provides a reliable and succinct overview of Smith’s career.

  • Blackwell, Louise, and Frances Clay. Lillian Smith. Twayne’s United States Author Series 187. New York: Twayne, 1971.

    Makes a compelling argument for viewing Smith’s two novels as late additions to the tradition of naturalism, but disparages the elliptical features of Smith’s style and the sexually explicit nature of her fiction—the very features of her writing that have intrigued more contemporary readers. Devotes a chapter each to South Today, Strange Fruit (novel and play), and One Hour; other works, including Killers of the Dream, are grouped together in one chapter. The bibliography itemizes Smith’s publications in all three incarnations of South Today, along with her book reviews in Chicago Tribune Books Today and her columns in The Chicago Defender.

  • Brockway, George P. “You Do It Because You Love Somebody.” Saturday Review (22 October 1966): 53–54.

    An obituary by Smith’s major publisher that captures the essence of her mission as a writer-activist.

  • Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York: Knopf, 1994.

    Presents a definitive history of the pre–civil rights movement to desegregate the South, beginning with the Depression and culminating with the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. Concludes that Smith was, in fact, the first white southerner to call in print for an end to legalized segregation.

  • Gladney, Margaret Rose. “A Chain Reaction of Dreams: Lillian Smith and Laurel Falls Camp.” Journal of American Culture 5.3 (1982): 50–55.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.1982.0503_50.x

    Detailed description of Smith’s accomplishments as director of Laurel Falls Camp. Analyzes her pedagogical techniques, with testimonials from former campers. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Long, Margaret. “Lillian Smith: A Match for Old Screamer.” The Progressive 29 (February 1965): 35–38.

    Profile by a novelist, editor, and civil rights worker who befriended Smith in the last decade of her life. Draws heavily from a late interview that enabled Smith to reflect upon her long career and to defend the work she created.

  • Olson, Lynn. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York: Scribner, 2001.

    Highlights Smith’s significance to younger black and white women within the civil rights movement.

  • Roberts, Diane. “Stay and Resist.” Oxford American 94 (Fall 2016): 116–119, 121–125.

    Personal overview from a scholar of William Faulkner and other southern writers. Touches on the defining moments of Smith’s career, illustrating her fusions of artistry and activism, and offering an unapologetic assessment of Smith’s relevance to coping with contemporary demagoguery and angry populism.

  • Sullivan, Margaret. “Lillian Smith: The Public Image and the Personal Vision.” Mad River Review 2.3 (1967): 3–21.

    First significant overview of Smith’s career, published the year after her death and still one of the best. Displays an affinity for Smith, who found the resolve to place and keep her vision in the public arena. Explores and defends Smith’s blending of history and personal reminiscence, her analogical devices, and the patterns of free association that typify her longer works.

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