Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Female John Reed

“Daughter of the Earth,” by Agnes Smedley, 1929

Agnes Smedley is a mostly forgotten left-wing American activist and writer.  She is best known for her reporting about the Chinese revolution.  Her second book, “Battle Hymn of China,” serves as a sequel to “Daughter of the Earth.”  Until the Nazi’s closed the paper, she reported for the Frankfurter Zeitung on the Chinese Red Army, and met Mao, Chou En Lai and Chu Te.  She then reported for other western publications, and wrote other books about the revolution there.  She is really the female John Reed of the Chinese revolution, and was later black-listed for this in the 1950s. 

‘Daughter of the Earth’ concerns itself with the American period before World War I until 1927.  It is a powerfully written semi-autobiographical novel of a working-class woman growing up in a brutal, poor and conservative society.  It is as plainly written as Maxim Gorky or Jack London might do, missing the similes or metaphors that litter more middle-class writing.  There are no ‘the sun rose like the headlight on an on-coming train’ in this book.  Her raw emotions and anger provide the fuel which carries you through most of the book.  She is an inchoate Emma Goldman, a political Calamity Jane, her own person. 

The fictional Marie Rogers was the daughter of poor farmers in Missouri.  Her father got sick of living that grueling life and convinced the family to move to the mining towns of Colorado.  There they encountered the world of the mining companies – company stores, militia, poverty, class arrogance, sickness, flooding and cold.  Later she moves, patterned after her father's wanderlust, alone to Arizona, New Mexico, San Francisco, then Kansas City, and ultimately New York City, leaving her drunk father, soon-to-be-dead mother, her mother’s sister, her two brothers and one sister behind. 

The most striking part of this book is how it describes a young woman trying to keep her dignity in a society that just sees her as a sexual target, a baby-maker or a weakling.  Marie has to fend off the advances of various drunks and those men drunk on their own personalities. She avoids sex like the plague because she knows it will lead to having a houseful of kids, beatings and misery.  She hates marriage because she wants no man telling her what to do.  She is forever being thought of as a prostitute or loose woman because she is not married.  The Christian religion is a foreign thing to her, and she knows it to be hostile to the poor.  She knows that only earning her own living will give her independence.  She dresses atrociously, from both poverty and choice.  She carries a small gun and knife and travels from town to town searching for knowledge – attending various schools, becoming a hardscrabble teacher, trying to find someone she trusts.  She meets the various leftists of the day – working-class IWW members, parlor Socialists, middle-class liberals and a few Communists, and has a natural class feel for all of them. 

Marie also feels the guilt of someone who wants to help her family, but basically abandons her siblings and relatives to pursue her life.  There is a lot of ‘I’ in Marie, which might have been her salvation.  Her emotions are always on the surface, she sees insults easily and deeply, she is not afraid to tell people what she thinks without sugar-coating it.  What she sees among the majority of working people is that they do not have a clue why the world is the way it is.  Food, drink, warmth, sex, money and music are sufficient balms and concerns.  Yet the miners strike time after time against the bloodthirsty mining concerns.  She slowly comes to a political consciousness through study, her contact with leftists and the very material roots of her miseries. 

Marie eventually moves to New York where she works for a book-reviewing publication, then “The Call” – a socialist newspaper, and also, oddly, for the Indian independence movement.  Through her work with the Indians, she is arrested and sent to the cold Tombs Prison – which she wryly notes is very close to Wall Street.  There she is starved, interrogated and incarcerated as a ‘spy.’  It is only with the end of World War I that she is released.  The socialists in New York can’t understand why she would work for nationalist Indians, but she (as Lenin would also have agreed) argues that freeing India from British rule advances the cause of world revolution.  Later she gets several high-profile scoops for the Call, including one where she accompanies an Irish Communist to an upstate prison pretending to be his girlfriend.  She eventually gets caught up in a jealousy triangle after finally marrying an Indian, and to avoid conflict within the Indian independence movement, leaves for Denmark.

This book follows on the heels of the earlier American working-class feminist classic, “Life in the Iron Mills.”  Novels by working-class people are rare, and ones that are political are rarer still.  This book is unique in its class and feminist stance.  It portrays a lonely and tough female personality that one rarely encounters, except, perhaps, in the pages of books.  It is our way of meeting Agnes Smedley herself, a real person.

And I bought it at May Day Books used/cutout book section.
Red Frog
February 23, 2013

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