Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Of Surface and Depth: Agnes Smedley's Sketches of Chinese Everyday Life

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Of Surface and Depth: Agnes Smedley's Sketches of Chinese Everyday Life

Article excerpt

In the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery outside of Beijing, the ashes of American writer Agnes Smedley lie buried under a tombstone that describes her as 'a friend of the Chinese people.' Among the American writers who covered China in the interwar period (Pearl Buck, Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong), Smedley occupies the curious role of being almost forgotten in the United States, while at the same time being taught and studied in China. The discrepancy is not only striking, but also ironic: the cross-cultural currents which so fundamentally characterised Smedley's work have, in her posthumous reception, come to largely flow in only one direction.1

This article seeks to redress some of the imbalance in Smedley's reputation by focusing on what her American perspective allowed her to see in revolutionary China, while also positing her as an overlooked pioneer in literary non-fiction. Concentrating on her ostensibly minor 1933 work Chinese Destinies: Sketches of Present-Day China, I want to argue that Smedley's originality as a writer derives from her critical engagement with the surface familiarities of everyday life. For despite the epic associations given by its title, the individual pieces of Chinese Destinies are often anchored in an ordinary or even mundane situation, such as a restaurant visit or a walk in the street. Yet in what seems a conspicuous pattern, these quotidian scenes are often interrupted by a sudden action of significance or a moment of intense meaning. Just as quickly as they appear, however, they recede again - back into the familiar texture of everyday life. Such moments were of course common in modernist literature (Joyce, Woolf, Proust); however, what makes Smedley unique is that, inspired by the literary milieu from which she emerged, she deploys such moments in a real-life context - that is, in her analysis of this crucial period in Chinese history.

Central to my argument, then, is the novelistic quality of Smedley's writing, even as she operates in the domain of non-fiction, and how this generic ambiguity in turn allows her to defamiliarise everyday life. Closely linked in my analysis, these two aspects of Chinese Destinies should be situated both within the author's body of work and in the broader literary culture of which she was part. First, it is important to note that Smedley began her career as a novelist, publishing the semi-autobiographical Daughter of Earth in 1929. Although well-received by critics at the time, Smedley's striking combination of proletarian themes with modernist introspection never reached a wider audience, nor gained a subsequent place in the canon. Combining race, class, and gender in her cogent analysis of power, Smedley is able to show how the interaction of these factors severely limits if not disables social and political agency in early twentieth-century America. These weighty issues, however, she grapples with not through political theory nor through any violent confrontations; rather, her focus is on how these limiting mechanisms operate at the level of everyday life, and also how they essentially remain the same regardless of context, whether in rural Missouri or in urban New York.

But even though Daughter of Earth is definitely an original novel, it did not exist in a vacuum; rather, it still has certain affinities with other works of the period. In fact, earlier in the 1920s, everyday life had already become an important representational terrain for certain writers on the left, as they sought to expose the sordid side of that decade's economic boom. Here, we may think of John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer, which depicts an unforgiving urban landscape through a conspicuous focus on everyday life, or Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, where middle-class conformity, ingrained through everyday practice, negates any departure from the status quo. During the following 1930s, the literary focus on everyday life intensified, as it became an even more pressing site of inquiry for a whole host of socially conscious writers: most notably John Steinbeck and James T. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.