At the peak of her fame, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Agnes Smedley was considered the John Reed of the Chinese revolution for her tireless advocacy of the Chinese Communist cause. But very little has been written about her other achievements. Although she was born into miserable poverty on a tenant farm in Missouri and raised in mining camps in Colorado, by 1918, at the age of twenty-six, she had gained entree to liberal parlor rooms in New York City, where she fought for Margaret Sanger's birth control movement, wrote muckraking political journalism, and was jailed for helping organize the overseas Indian independence movement. She matured as an activist, feminist, and writer in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, in China in the 1930s, and in the United States in the 1940s. Her story ends abruptly and mysteriously in 1950 with her death in England under a cloud of suspicion as an accused Soviet spy.
Today, although she remains better known in China and Japan than in her native country, Agnes Smedley inspires socially concerned American writers like Alice Walker, Marie Hong Kingston, Tillie Olsen, and Marge Piercy, who have praised her ability to write with power and honesty about the lives of the poor. Unlike her contemporary Anna Louise Strong, with whom she is often confused, Agnes Smedley did not romanticize the poor. In Daughter of Earth (1929) she wrote about her own family as poor white trash engaged in a brutalizing struggle to overcome their environment.
But how did the poor white daughter of an uneducated Missouri tenant farmer end up operating at a global level, working with the likes of Zhou Enlai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Emma Goldman, Kathe Kollwitz, and General Joseph Stilwell? Or to put the question more politically, why did Smedley seem to turn her back on the struggles of the oppressed in her own country? Moreover, as a feminist, why did she enjoy the company of military men like Marshall Zhu De, Colonel Evans Carlson, General Stilwell, and others? And why, despite her many connections at such high levels, did she find herself at the end of her life alone and vulnerable? Finally, there is the apparent contradiction of her political loyalties: why did a woman so often called a Soviet spy or Comintern agent refuse to join the American, German, or Indian Communist Party, only to be denied membership in the Chinese Communist Party? These are some of the questions that have intrigued Smedley's readers and made her a difficult subject for a biography.
The underlying premise of this biography is the one that Smedley herself often argued: the interaction between environment and will power shapes character. Thus in tracing Smedley's development into a major American radical, we have tried to show how her growth took place simultaneously at the political, social, and psychological levels. As historians, we have tried to show how the historical setting, at any given time, acted as a catalyst for the interactions of all three levels. As writers, however, we have tried to do justice to the facts without becoming overly academic. Remembering Smedley's lifelong scorn for all forms of pretension, we have tried to be as plain-spoken as we can.