Personality

Agnes Smedley: ‘Daughter of Earth’

Print edition : September 10, 2021

1939: Agnes Smedley as a war reporter in China. Photo: By special arrangement

Circa 1930: Agnes Smedley (second from right) with Soong Ching-ling (third from right), wife of Sun Yat-Sen, and writers Lu Xun and Lin Yutang. Photo: By special arrangement

The headstone for Agnes Smedley in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, Beijing, China. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Novelist, feminist and world revolutionary Agnes Smedley rejected “ordained social hierarchy” to follow her radical path to self-discovery. She considered the earth “shared common treasury” and helped create “new forms of interiority and sociability”, marking new “utopian geographies”1.

It is hard to deal with lives of apostates who are lost to history. Shrouded in myths, legends, half-truths and folklore, their narratives are relegated to the musty chambers of archives, away from public gaze and attention. Resurrections of such life histories entail multidisciplinary efforts, and are relevant to our times.

Many, like the novelist, feminist, freedom-fighter and world revolutionary, Agnes Smedley, rejected “ordained social hierarchy” and proposed to follow their own radical paths to self-discovery. Anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and countercultural in approach, they considered the earth as “shared common treasury”. Like Aphra Behn and other utopian writers, they helped create what the noted maritime historian G.V. Scammell calls “new forms of interiority and sociability”,2 marking new “utopian geographies.”3

Agnes Smedley’s eponymous novel Daughter of Earth, a thinly veiled autobiography, departs radically from the “domestic novel” form prevalent in the 1930s in the United States which laid emphasis on education as a primary means for female liberation. Her semi-fictional narrative offers an iconoclastic reading of society and polity that retains its freshness even today. In Paula Rabinowitz’s words, the novel centre-stages issues of class, family dynamics, female sexuality and motherhood. In her foreword to the novel, celebrated feminist Alice Walker writes that Agnes Smedley “lays bare her heart and soul in an effort to understand and heal her life…. Marie Rogers of Daughter of Earth is Agnes Smedley, and through her story we glimpse the stories of countless others who could not speak, and who, in any event, were never intended to be heard.”

Alice Walker could not be more right about the voice Agnes Smedley lent to countless voiceless across the world. Considered a renegade and maverick throughout her life, she courted rebellious causes in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan and China. She supported majorly the cause of Indian independence abroad. She lived on her own terms and ended up as a victim of powerful sectarian forces in her own country at the height of the Cold War. Her “insistence on the paramount right to decide for herself made her a thorn in the side of all groups and organisations”. Abandoned by friends and foes alike, she died alone, unsung and unwept, almost saint-like, but without the posthumous canonisation that befits a saintly figure.

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One-time companion to Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Sarojini Naidu’s brother), the revolutionary who made Germany his home and disappeared in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s in the Soviet Union, Agnes Smedley inspired writers such as Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston and Marge Piercy, and was close to Emma Goldman, Zhou Enlai, Jawaharlal Nehru and other legendary world figures.4

While many missions, especially the liberation of India, were close to Agnes Smedley’s heart, it is modern China that she yearned for during the 1930s right up to the end of her life in the U.K., where she lived in a state of semi-exile before passing away in 1950. Attracted to Bolshevist Communism in the early period, she parted company with Stalinism in the 1930s, and developed sympathy with Yugoslavia and China in the post-Second World War period. Given her lifelong distaste for tyranny, it is likely that she would have had serious reservations regarding Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution at a later period.

Working class background

Born on February 23, 1892, in Missouri, U.S. to poor working-class parents, the second of five children, Agnes Smedley grew up in the Rockefeller-owned mining camps in Colorado. At the age of ten, she worked in order to support her family while attending school. At home and in the mining community, she was witness to scenes of brutality and misogyny; births of sons were universally celebrated while the daughters suffered from neglect and ignominy. Violence was endemic. As the protagonist of Daughter of Earth, Marie Rogers5, says ruefully: “My father had been with us but a few minutes when, in a mysterious voice he told my mother he had killed a man and must leave the country or get caught and be ‘hung’ or sent to the ‘Pen’ for life.”6 The close observation of the plight of married women left a deep scar on Agnes Smedley’s psyche and led her to movements towards birth control and women’s emancipation in later years.

On April 1, 1924, Agnes Smedley recalled: “My mother being frail, quiet and gentle, died at the age of 38, of no particular disease but from great weariness, loneliness of spirit, and unendurable suffering and hunger. She wasn’t big enough to hammer my father when he didn’t bring home the wages and so we starved, and she starved the most of all so that we children might have a little food.”

Also read: Emma Goldman and M.N. Roy: Lasting legacies

Taking up a teaching position in New Mexico, she developed an interest in learning, and from 1911-12, studied at the Tempe Normal School as a special student. She became a journalist and editor, married Ernest Brudin and shifted to California, where she came under the influence of socialism. Six years later, after separating from Brudin owing to marital differences, she moved to New York City.

In India’s freedom movement

It is in the ideologically and culturally rich city of New York that Agnes found her real calling. She worked for Margaret Sanger on the Birth Control Review (a campaign she would continue later in Germany), and got closely involved with the Indian independence movement.7 She met notable Indian freedom fighters such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Salindranath (Sailen) Ghose, Taraknath Das, M.N. Roy and Pulin Behari Bose, and came in close contact with members of the radical Ghadar Party. She helped in a myriad ways: carried out secretarial assistance, wrote letters, met emissaries in secrecy, braved police and military surveillance and incarceration, and was forced to change places of stay frequently for reasons of safety and security from the state apparatus.

Attending the lecture of Lajpat Rai at Columbia University on March 10, 1917 proved to be a turning point in Agnes Smedley’s life. Rai addressed the American audience with passion and eloquence: “You Americans—can you be at peace in your minds when your system, your leisure that created culture, rests upon enslaved bodies of others? Is this law of the jungle the law of life to you? If so, you are machines without a soul, without a purpose… Your war is of democracy you say. I doubt it—your principles do not extend to Asia, although Asia is three-fourth of human race.”

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Deeply impressed, Agnes Smedley began to work for Lajpat Rai and learned Indian history and culture. Little did she know that she would soon be betrayed and violated by an Indian revolutionary she trusted, who turned out to be a sexual predator. The account she has left behind in letters, diary notes, and above all, in Daughter of Earth, remind us of Susan Brownmiller’s classic study of rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975). She was made to go through the painful process of shame, humiliation and self-blame that mark the behaviour of victims.

A dark chapter

Most Indian revolutionaries in the U.S. considered sexual self-control, if not outright abstinence, essential to their conduct. After all, Hinduism traditionally enjoined the need for sexual purity as essential requisites for revolutionary action. Marriage was permitted as in the case of M.N. Roy and others, but “promiscuity” was treated as a moral and existential threat. This was their learning from the Anushilan and Jugantar movements in Bengal. Their mentors Barin (Barindra Kumar) Ghose and Jatindranath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin) preached this gospel and practised it in life in the first and second decades of the 20th century.8

Agnes Smedley realised to her horror and consternation that women are never safe, not even in revolutionary movements that promise utopia and female emancipation. The sexual assault that she was subjected to9 caused a deep sense of self-loathing and humiliation, prompting her to end her life; she was saved narrowly by the near-miraculous intervention of her landlady.10 It is a dark chapter in the history of the Indian independence movement in the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century, seldom discussed.

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The narrative sequences in the form of dialogues in the semi-fictional Daughter of Earth are revealing. The tendency to “blame the victim” for the “provocation,” and the self-justificatory acts of the predator, are aptly recorded by the protagonist:

‘It is a lie! It is beastly of you!’

He stood watching me, smiling faintly, as if wondering at the duplicity and hypocrisy of women.

‘You always boast of being a free woman. Now you act like an innocent little girl instead of a woman.’

‘I suppose I should laugh—as you do... because you attacked me!’

‘I am not laughing! But you know yourself that that you always jeer at me. What right have you to throw a challenge and then blame me for taking it up?’

‘Keep out of my way if you don’t like jeers. Please go now and leave me in peace. I am sick—sick of life and you. I do not wish to live!’11

After the attack and the justification, now comes abject cowardice and desire for self-preservation, the need to conceal the crime from his comrades:

‘Marie, I am sorry. Don’t cry. I will go. Don’t you understand. All I ask of you is that you should never tell this to any one.’

‘If I am to blame, why do you fear?’

‘Fear—I do not fear. I only do not want such things to interfere in my work.’ Then there was a long silence between us.12

Although disoriented, she is able to capture the scene and her feelings: “He picks up his coat and without a word was gone … his words sank deep and bitter within me. For, dominated by a feeling of shame, I believed him. I could not face him, could not be entirely honest and open about such things—it was too shocking, too shameful.”

After the assault comes money as a mercenary act, mark of “service” rendered, adding insult to injury. She recollects: “I turned and stumbled blindly up the stairs again. In the center of my room lay a letter… It must have fallen from his coat. I picked it up mechanically… it was addressed to some woman, with [the] return address on the back. I turned and dropped it on the table. But… on the table lay… money! A fifty dollar note! I stared at it. So, he had ceased his conscience… he had paid, as he would pay a prostitute! Stupefied, dropped the note beside the letter he had left, I buried my head in the pillow to forget. Perhaps I would awaken soon and find it but a dream. dreams happen so quickly, but seem to last forever.”13

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Slowly, she began to recover from the shock and trauma following the attack and picked up the threads of her life. Pursued by the police, she was arrested under the Espionage Act and “held in the Tombs in New York for a few weeks before the charges were dismissed, and she became thoroughly disenchanted with the United States.”

In Germany with Chatto

Travelling to Germany for a more congenial political environment, Agnes Smedley joined the company of the charismatic Indian revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, also known as Chatto, and in course of time, became his lover and companion. She taught English in the University of Berlin and wrote articles in journals and magazines. Her long article “India in World Politics” appeared in the leading German Journal Zeitchrift fur Geopolitik in June 1925. She began writing the autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth (1929) as well.

Agnes Smedley advocated birth control practices and established a birth control clinic. She learnt psychoanalysis and used the techniques to fight depression. Her relationship with Chatto hit rough weather. In a letter to Florence Lennon dated June 4, 1923, she writes about her troubled marital relationship: “I have married an artist, revolutionary in a dozen different ways, a man of true fine frenzy, nervous as a cat, always moving, never at rest, indefatigable energy a hundred-fold more than what I have, a thin man with much hair, a tongue like a razor and brain like hell on fire. What a couple!”

Reporting in war-torn China

Agnes Smedley parted company with Chatto, and travelled to China in 1929 as a special correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. With her base at Shanghai, she began reporting for other newspapers like The Manchester Guardian and published books about China such as Chinese Destinies (1933) and China’s Red Army Marches (1934). She reached Mao Zedong’s headquarters in Yan’an and travelled with the Eighth Route Army [the Red Army]. In 1938, she published a well-informed book based on her experience of the battlefield called China Fights Back: An American Woman with the Eighth Route Army. Thinking that she would be a more effective advocate and spokesperson for China, she returned to the U.S. in 1941 and published Battle Hymns of China (1943) which was well received and helped create a favourable impression about China in the West. In 1949, she completed her biography of the Chinese military leader entitled The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh, which was published posthumously in 1956. Meanwhile, things were happening back home in the aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War that would upset her standing in the West and enhance her isolation, both personal and political.

Cold War and final days

By 1947, Chiang Kai-shek was in retreat in the face of the Communist counteroffensive in the Civil War in China. Agnes Smedley spoke against the “hopelessness” and “immorality” of the U.S. support to Chiang. Post Second World War, there was waning support in the West for China and the Soviet Bloc. The atmosphere had changed and Alfred Kohlberg termed Agnes Smedley a Soviet spy.

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was involved in the inquiry and, at the same time, its Director J. Edgar Hoover was concerned about “lack of concrete evidence”14 to indict Agnes Smedley. Nevertheless, attempts were made to implicate her with the Richard Sorge Spy Ring (Sorge was a Soviet spy who was caught and executed by the Japanese during the Second World War). The fact that she had introduced the Japanese journalist and China expert Ozaki Hotsumi to Richard Sorge in the 1930s was held against her.

Agnes Smedley’s lecture engagements in college campuses and in public places declined in the face of mounting campaigns by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sponsored by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Inspired by the Office of General MacArthur in Tokyo, the U.S. Army made an allegation against Agnes Smedley but was soon forced to backtrack after she threatened legal action.

The New York Times dated February 19, 1949 reported the Army’s volte-face in the following words: “The Army acknowledges publicly tonight that it had made a faux-pas in releasing a philosophical report of Communist spying in Japan and China… it had no proof to back charges that Miss Smedley, U.S. author, had been a member of the alleged spy ring.” While the charges were withdrawn, the campaign of smear and vilification affected Agnes Smedley’s health and led to mounting depression. She was unable to lecture or publish.

Meeting Nehru in New York

In October 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the U.S. for the first time as the leader of independent India. He had corresponded with Agnes Smedley since their first meeting in Berlin in 1928, and had exchanged letters during the 1940s. Agnes Smedley had high regard for Nehru and saw him “as Jefferson”, “one of the great statesmen and democrats of our time.” However, much as she wished, meeting Nehru in New York turned out to be near impossible. Finally, through an emissary’s intervention in a press conference, the two had a private meeting in his suite in the Waldorf in New York. Although cordial, the meeting left Agnes Smedley cold about Nehru’s approach and disposition. She confided to a friend that his condescension and “bourgeois behaviour” had offended and disappointed her. Nehru did not renew a previous invitation to come to India.15 The conversation mainly centred on China which Nehru was planned to recognise. It is possible that the Indian officials were hostile to her. Times had changed due to the onset of the Cold War and the Indian side was banking on the goodwill of the U.S. during the visit for a substantial aids package to India.16

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Disillusioned by the U.S., Agnes Smedley left for England in March 1950. Although sympathetic to the Labour Government, she was critical of the British policy towards Hong Kong. She was also against the U.S. participation in the Korean War and the bombing of the China coast from Taiwan. By April she wrote in a note: “I hope–that I can go to China.” Soon after, she passed away.

Memorial in China

Agnes Smedley’s body was interred in England; her ashes were ceremonially carried to China by a Peoples’ Delegation from Britain, and gently “placed in the Cemetery for Revolutionaries in the western suburb of Babaoshan” with the inscription on her tombstone reading: “In Memory of Agnes Smedley, American Revolutionary writer and Friend of the Chinese People”.

As Alice Walker records her impressions poetically during her visit to Beijing: “There are innumerable bright and cheerful hollyhocks. A branch of one had fallen the day I was there in 1982. One pink bloom was left on the ground which I placed on her grave. It was with tears and singing that I did this. It is hard to imagine a more battered, resilient, heroic sister than this woman.”17

The FBI “closed” its probe of Agnes Smedley on June 27, 1952. After acknowledging that there was no evidence of party membership, the report concluded: “No facts have been developed which would indicate that subject was engaged in espionage activity on behalf of foreign government nor have any further facts been developed as to her alleged espionage activity in the Far East, as alleged by the Dept. of Army in the Sorge Case.”18

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The Indian government, on its part, from 1947 onwards, has not covered itself in glory for its complete amnesia regarding the stellar contributions of Agnes Smedley to the national freedom struggle. While her role in furthering the Indian independence movement on foreign soil has been documented, the total silence of the Indian establishment, including the academic disciplines of history, literature and feminism, is indeed saddening. It is time the nation made (belated) amends in rectifying this historical wrong.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head, Department of English and former Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

References

1. Term used by Jason H. Pearl. See Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel by Jason H. Pearl, Virginia University Press, 2014. An excellent treatment of the subject.

2. See “European Exiles, Renegades and Outlaws and the Maritime Economy of Asia C 1500-1750” by G.V. Scammell, Modern Asian Studies, Volume 26, No.4, October 1992, pages 641-661.

3. See Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel by Jason H. Pearl, Virginia University Press, 2014.

4. The Agnes Smedley collections may be accessed at the Department of Archives and Manuscripts of Arizona State University Library: https://www.asu.edu/lib/archives/smedley.htm.

5. Gratefully acknowledge a personal copy of Daughter of Earth: A Novel by Agnes Smedley, Foreword by Alice Walker, New York, 1987, received from the poet (late) Meena Alexander, then Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the City University of New York. Equally grateful to Steve MacKinnon for an inscribed copy of Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of An American Radical by Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press,1988.

6. Ibid., page 43.

7. See Celebrated Spies and Famous Mysteries of the Great War by George Barton, Page Company, 1919; Political Thinkers of Modern India by Verinder Grover, Deep & Deep Publications, 1992; Indian Revolutionaries Abroad, 1905-192 by Arun Bose, Bharati Bhawan, 1971; Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early 20th Century India by Sachidananda Mohanty, Routledge, Revised South Asian and Global, 2018. The last for a good discussion on Indian revolutionaries in the U.S. like Taraknath Das, Sailen Ghose and M.N. Roy.

8. “Besides having a father figure in Lajpat Rai, Agnes Smedley felt that she had a “family” among men who agreed with her that sex was an evil to be controlled or suppressed for higher ideals of the cause… the Indian community provided a safe haven from the promiscuous atmosphere of Greenwich Village.” See Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, page 42.

9. “The man’s name was Heramba Lal Gupta ... a veteran nationalist in his late thirties”. See Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of An American Radical by Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, pages 42-43; Also see semi-fictional accounts of this sordid sexual assault in Daughter of Earth, pages 291-301. Deeply disturbed and distraught, Agnes Smedley attempted suicide “by blowing out the flame on the gas jet”. Her landlady smelled the gas and entered to find Agnes Smedley unconscious on her bed. She awoke in a hospital bed. Ibid., page 300.

10. Evidence that it was Gupta is cited through detailed references by the authors Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, in Note No.13, page 358. At a later period, Gupta jumped bail in the U.S. and escaped to Mexico where he lived and taught until he passed away in 1950.

11. Daughter of Earth: A Novel by Agnes Smedley, Foreword by Alice Walker, New York, 1987, page 297.

12. Ibid., page 297.

13. Ibid., page 298.

14. Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, page 322.

15. Ishigaki, Kaiso no Sumedoro, pages 196-200; Agnes Smedley to Ickes, October 20, 1949; Ambassador Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit to Ickes, June 26, 1950, interview with Tang Mingqiao; Ickes, “Death by Assassination”, pages 16-17. Quoted in Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, page 339.

16. “By 1949, she [Agnes Smedley] was too controversial for Indian leaders to embrace publicly.” See Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, page 339.

17. Daughter of Earth: A Novel, page 4.

18. See Alfred Kohlberg, American China Policy Association press release of May 28, 1951; FBI.61-6580-324. Also see FBI.61-6580-343, 345. Quoted in Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, page 348.

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