Lillian Smith’s Bombshell Novel on Race

Nathaniel Rich
The Daily Beast

Strange Fruit was banned on charges of obscenity, but the novel’s critics were so offended by the true nature of this obscenity that they refused to make reference to it in their denunciations. In Boston, a district court judge forbid the sale of the novel, calling it “obscene, tending to corrupt the morals of youth,” a ruling that was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, though the court’s criticisms focused on Smith’s occasional use of profanity, sexual words like “orgasm” and “coition,” and the depiction of sex acts. These criticisms were echoed by the Detroit police, which attempted to ban the book in that city, and the United States Postal Service, which ordered newspapers and magazines not to advertize the novel (before being countermanded by Eleanor Roosevelt). But there were plenty of pulp novels being published in 1944 with far more lascivious prose and far inferior literary merit. What distinguished Strange Fruit was the subject matter: a star-crossed love affair between a white man and a black woman. Even more galling was the identity of the novel’s debut author: Lillian Smith, a highborn white woman from the South. For a black novelist to write about miscegenation would have been profane; for a white novelist to do so, particularly a female novelist, was unforgivable.

For most readers, however, the censorship controversy was an enticement; the novel sold 200,000 copies in its first two months and became the best-selling novel of the year. What drew these readers, it turned out, was not Smith’s cavalier use of sexual vernacular but the frankness with which she describes the relationship between her young lovers, Tracy Deen, a college dropout from a good family, and Nonnie Anderson, a college graduate who is working as a maid. Apart from the color of their skin, there is nothing salacious about this romance. The two meet as children, after Tracy defends Non from a local bully, and intensifies when he returns from World War I. They sneak out after dark to see each other; have cautious, tender trysts on a riverbank under a live oak tree; and fail to communicate their emotions as strongly as they feel them. They are typical young lovers in every respect but one.

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Smith, who would become a prominent essayist and civil rights activist, solicits her readers’ empathy through methods that are only available to writers of fiction. She enters the minds of more than a dozen residents of Maxwell, Georgia, both white and black, creating a vivid anatomy of the town’s racial geography. To heighten the novel’s sense of immediacy—the sense the reader has of being among these characters, in Maxwell, as the action occurs—Smith often turns to stream-of-consciousness prose punctuated by ellipses and sentence fragments meant to imitate the stuttering machinery of our thoughts. In moments of particularly heightened introspection she even shifts to the second person, as in a scene in which Non’s older brother, Ed, recalls his own painful childhood:

…the white children’s chocolate drop hurled at you on your way to school…you’d never forget. You’d picked up cow dung and thrown it and yan yan yan back at them. It didn’t help much. They could wash off cow dung, forget a yell that had no meaning. You could never forget chocolate drop long as you lived. It was smeared on you to the bone.

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While these methods can often seem hamfisted when read today, it’s unlikely that many of Smith’s white readers in 1944 had ever been so forcefully made to identify with the poor black residents of a small, racist southern town.

The uneducated black characters are prone to solecism, dimwittedness, and even blathering idiocy, prone to saying things like “I does think talking…is da confusinest thing!”   And Smith, perhaps hoping to make her black heroine as relatable as possible to white readers, repeatedly emphasizes the lightness of Non’s skin. When we meet Non in the novel’s first paragraph she is described as “tall and slim and white in the dusk,” possessing features “that God knows by right should have belonged to a white girl.” Smith’s black heroine is described as “white” five times in the first dozen pages alone. Despite her central position in the novel, Non receives disproportionately slight attention and largely remains a cipher, a non-entity. Smith describes her vaguely as “a girl off somewhere by herself and sad about something,” oddly void of desire or even agency, a woman who “never fought for things, never reached out and snatched what she wanted from the world, but when it came her way, when it fell into her hands, she held on to it.” She is as blameless and unthreatening as possibly can be, but barely human.

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The real power of Smith’s novel lies in her depiction of the grotesque manner in which racism deforms its perpetrators. After an intercession by the local priest, Tracy renounces his love for Non and surrenders to his mother’s desire for him to marry his neighbor’s daughter, a timid, bland girl for whom he has no feeling. Non is pregnant with Tracy’s child, however, and when Non’s brother discovers the betrayal, he kills Tracy. In the final, nightmarish third of the novel, the white population of Maxwell mobilizes, pinning the murder on the wrong black man. The mob tracks down the suspect and kills him in a public immolation. The scenario allows Smith to rail against the sickening hypocrisy of organized religion, the casual racism of even the most progressive white Southerners, and the primitive joy that washes over the townspeople—decent Christian mothers and fathers, and their young children—while watching a black man burned at the stake.

Lost in the controversy about Strange Fruit’s depiction of miscegenation was Smith’s treatment of another taboo subject: homosexuality. Halfway through the novel Smith reveals that Tracy’s sister, Laura, is a lesbian, in love with an older woman. Her mother scolds her: “Why do you like—that type of woman?” Laura is appalled that her mother “hates what I like.” Unlike her brother, however, Laura does not renounce her love, but determines to hide it from view. Laura’s decision gains greater poignancy from the fact that Smith concealed a lifelong affair with her own lover, Paula Snelling—a relationship made public only after Smith’s death. Smith understood vividly what it was like to have a forbidden love and feared being the subject of bigotry herself. But she refused to disclose her own secret directly, limiting her disclosure to her empathetic treatment of Laura, and the novel’s dedication, which is made out To Paula.

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Other notable novels published in 1944: Dangling Man by Saul Bellow A Bell for Adano by John Hersey The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Pulitzer Prize:

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Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin Bestselling novel of the year:

Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith

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About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

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Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon 1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson 1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis 1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell 1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin 1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux 1992—Clockers by Richard Price 2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London 1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather 1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton 1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West 1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles 1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs 1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy 1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman 1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright 1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle 2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones 1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James 1924—So Big by Edna Ferber 1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington

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