Riding High: Yaddo and the Lecture Circuit - 1943-1944

By March of 1943 Smedley had decided that she could no longer afford to live in New York City while awaiting the publication of Battle Hymn. Her dream of lucrative feature-writing for publications like the Reader's Digest had fallen through. She had used up Knopf's advance on the book, and she could not face accepting more help from old friends like Julian Gumperz, Jo Bennett, and Mary Knoblauch. Her only income was from speaking engagements and publication of a few advance excerpts from Battle Hymn, which she placed in Vogue and the New Republic. In short, Smedley was destitute again. As a temporary solution, she accepted an offer from her former sister-in-law, Thorberg Brundin Ellison: free housing in exchange for work on Thorberg's farm near New Paltz in upstate New York.
Smedley had always taken pride in her rural roots. In China and in California, she had gardened whene/er she could. And so in New Paltz, with customary zeal, she threw herself into farm work. She wrote to Aino Taylor on March 7: »I'm doing farm work with a vengeance. Can find little time for anything else. Thor grades and packs thousands of eggs a week—It's something like knitting when you once learn how«. But soon it became too much. On June 1 she told Taylor: »About two weeks ago, Thor suddenly decided—as she often does—that she had had enough of farm work and that she would go for a toot in New York City. She's like that—totally irresponsible, periodically. I was on the farm and she knew I would take over. She got out of it by saying that her mother needed her. So off she went without apologies, and of course I took over and could not lift my head above the waves«. So after Thor returned, Smedley took a trip of her own to New York, ostensibly to make a shortwave broadcast on Armed Forces radio: »The Army telephoned me to come down to broadcast... . Anyway, when the crucial hour came, a soldier and a sailor took me up to the microphone and we three were on the air, one after the other. I had taught the Army band the Chinese soldiers' marching song before the broadcast—and my speech ended with that song played by the Army band«. After the broadcast, she lingered in the city through the last week of May, staying with Mary Knoblauch, seeing two plays, and taking in an open-air exhibit of contemporary abstract art in the Village which left her perplexed: »I don't belong in the art world. I am merely a farm laborer, I learn«.
Smedley returned from her visit desperate to leave New Paltz and find a place where she could work full-time on her new project, a play focusing on the political choices of a Chinese officer in the Sino-Japanese war. From an old acquaintance and supporter, the critic Malcolm Cowley, she learned about Yaddo, the prestigious foundation-supported retreat for creative artists located near Saratoga Springs, New York, where selected writers, artists, and composers were invited to live and work free for several months at a time, usually in the summer. Cowley was on the board of directors and urged Smedley to apply. On the basis of his recommendation, which was seconded by Blanche Knopf, Smedley was accepted. In high spirits, she took up residence at Yaddo in early July. A month later she wrote to Taylor:

I've a place here until the third week in August and hope to remain until the end of September. It's unspeakably beautiful here... . There is a big lake on this estate, with beautiful shadows caused by overhanging forests; and there's a huge fountain before the mansion in the shadow of a gigantic Norwegian spruce tree... . The architecture is a strange mixture, but the main part of the building is the same as a royal palace in Rumania... . We each have a room in the mansion, and some have studios in the mansion attached to their bedrooms. There are a number of wooden shacks amongst the pines, in isolated spots, and some of us have these. I have one. An old barn has also been transformed into a studio, now occupied by the Negro girl poet, Margaret Walker.*
(August 6, 1943)

(*In a 1986 telephone interview, Margaret Walker, best known for Jubilee (Boston, 1966), remembered Smedley trying hard to make her feel comfortable and appreciated at Yaddo. She was the first Black woman guest and was feeling shunned by the white Southern women writers among the small group in residence that summer)
The Yaddo Foundation had been established in 1926 by the Norwegian-American Trask family and further endowed by Mrs. Trask's second husband, the philanthropist George Foster Peabody. The managing director of the foundation was Elizabeth Ames, whose sister, Marjorie Peabody Waite, was Peabody's adopted daughter. Mrs. Ames ran the retreat with a firm matronly hand. The working guests were assured of absolute privacy from daylight until 4:00 p.m., after which came cocktails, dinner, and conversation.[1]
Because of the war, Yaddo was hosting only a small group in the summer of 1943. Smedley's fellow residents were Carson McCullers, Lang-ston Hughes, Alfred Kantorowitz, Kappo Phelan, Rebecca Pitts, Paul Zucher, Hans Sahl, Isabella Howland, Margaret Walker, Harold Shapiro, Jean Stafford, and Smedley's old friend the Danish novelist Karin Michaelis, now a refugee from the Nazi occupation of her country.
In a letter to Taylor dated July 26, Smedley described her new companions and new activities at great length. A few excerpts will suggest her high spirits and the flavor of life at Yaddo:

Langston Hughes, the Negro poet and playwright, is here also. I have known him for many years, having met him once in Russia and once in China. One of his »processional« dramas was produced in Madison Square Garden this past winter with a cast of 250 people. [It] was a pageant of the Negro race, with white much mixed up in it of course; it was a combination of singing, acting, and dancing. With all his talent, Hughes is the most American creature I've ever met. He's bedrock practical, yet you feel in him that horizonless being that absorbs and considers all things. I feel hidebound compared with him. Only certain things penetrate my hard soul. I have standards and principles and prejudices and weaknesses. Hughes looks on and listens and absorbs everything—that makes him an artist. I suppose I'm interested in Rebecca Pitts more than the others because I like her. She is struggling with the problems of life which she was unable to solve by herself, and I suppose that's why she began to study philosophy—she wanted to try and find a solution to many things that seem to elude explanation.
I'm drinking too much up here! These people drink a lot. Sometimes they give parties, with wine. Last night, before dinner, I took my turn and gave a cocktail party. We had dry Martinis. And were we drunk! I [haven't] been so thoroughly tight for ages. I think my vulgar nature came out. The party was really a bawdy one. Since it came at 5:30, and since we had only a light lunch in the middle of the day, even a little was enough to set people on their ears. ... In the midst of the party, the news came over the air of the abdication of Mussolini, and that caused everyone to take another cocktail or two. I simply refused to get excited about Mussolini or about the new Premier who has taken his place. The three German refugees here became very erudite and excited, but I failed to see much in the replacement of one rascal by another. The only value in the whole thing is that Italy may collapse soon and can be used as a base against [the Nazis in] Germany, France and the Balkans.
I have begun work on a play about China, and find myself wading up to my neck in my own ignorance. I've read four books on the techniques of play-writing. It's a regular precision technique and I have never had any precision in my being. I'm a sloppy writer on the whole, at least in the first stages of a ms. ... If my play is a failure, I shall at least have learned the problems of play-writing, and will henceforth see plays with an entirely different outlook.

Smedley and the writer Carson McCullers became friends at Yaddo. Then in her twenties, the young McCullers was fascinated by the stories Smedley and Karin Michaelis told. McCullers's biographer has written: »An old-line revolutionist, [Smedley] was totally undisciplined and doubtless would not have made a fit member of the American Communist Party, about which she was completely negative. Carson was fascinated by ... Smedley's tales of her life in China and listened thoughtfully to her ideologies«.[2]
In the summer of 1943, Director Ames was struggling with more than wartime shortages. She was also trying to care for her sister, who had suffered a stroke the previous November that left her paralyzed and often mentally confused—a condition her doctors said would steadily grow worse. Characteristically, Smedley volunteered to relieve Mrs. Ames now and then from her nursing duties. The help she provided created a bond between the two women that would soon prove invaluable to Smedley.
On July 15, 1943, Thorberg Brundin Ellison received a telephone call from the F.B.I, asking for Agnes Smedley. Thor informed them that Smedley was now residing at Yaddo, but that she would ask Smedley to call their New York office. When Smedley called, an interview was arranged for August 30. The F.B.I, wanted her help in their investigation of Carroll Lunt, an American whom Smedley had debated several times in Los Angeles in 1941. At that time, Lunt was urging U.S. businessmen to continue trading with Japan, and the F.B.I, was now looking into possible connections between Lunt and Japanese espionage in the United States.
Thus Smedley's first direct contact with the F.B.I, had nothing to do with her own activities. The bureau's official report on the August 30 interview quoted Smedley as saying that Lunt had advocated Japanese control of China. Smedley probably also repeated her earlier public charge that he had been paid by the Japanese government.[3]
During the summer, Smedley heard from her California friends the Taylors. She had been urging them for some time to move away from isolated Ojai and broaden their experiences; in particular, she had been prodding Aino to write a book, or get a job, or do anything but be »just a housewife«. Aino now wrote to say that for the summer they had moved to the Los Angeles area, where John had taken a job in a bank and she was working in a war production plant. When Aino wrote that her fellow women workers were not interested in joining the union, Smedley answered angrily:

It seemes strange to me that the women workers should hate the unions. Had it not been for the unions, they would be working for a dog's wage. If they have a decent life, it's because so many trade union men fought and suffered for so many decades to make it possible. Those women ought to see the German workers, or the Chinese, who are not permitted to have independent unions of any kind. And in China there are generally no unions at all. The hours of labor were always around sixteen a day. For a time, in 1925—27, when the revolution gave the workers the right to have unions, they got the ten-hour day and a few strong unions got the eight-hour day. After the unions were destroyed by the reaction ... the old conditions were imposed [again] and the workers given just enough money to keep life in them and enable them to continue living and working for their bosses. Women workers ought to get a few brains into their damned heads. I'm afraid they plan to work only until the war ends. So they don't care what happens to workers after that. They won't have to stand the gaff; and they're narrow-minded from their home lives. They ought to learn something about the history of labor, for a change.
(August 6)

(Battle Hymn of China finally appeared in bookstores around New York City at the beginning of September.*
(*Battle Hymn remains in print today (1986) as a classic work of World War II reportage and an important source on the Sino-Japanese war before 1941. Because of its autobiographical character, the book has been cited repeatedly in previous chapters. For the authors' summary and evaluation of its contents in historical perspective, see above, especially Chapter 14)
On the official publication day Smedley was interviewed twice on local radio, and Mary Knoblauch threw a small party in her honor. The first reviews, in the Times, the Tribune, and Newsweek, were strongly positive.[4] Smedley was elated. Praise for the book soon appeared in newspapers across the nation and was reiterated by the end of the month in major literary and political journals like the New Yorker, the Saturday Review of Literature, the Christian Register, the Nation, and the New Republic.[5] Smedley was surprised to receive generally positive reviews from across the political spectrum, from Freda Utley and the New York Post on the right to the Communist Frederick Field in the New Masses on the left. Field, however, criticized Smedley for raising questions about the status of women in the Soviet Union and the Soviet-German nonaggression pact of 1939: »Another complaint about the book is that Miss Smedley is prone to making political howlers. Granted she does this when writing of something foreign to her, like the position of women in the Soviet Union (she is upset because women do not make speeches at Red Square celebrations) or like the policy of the U.S. Communist Party before June, 1941 (it is incomprehensible and reprehensible to her)«.[6]
Smedley's discussion of women in Battle Hymn of China provoked a heated debate in an unlikely place: the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, an English-language daily which was publishing temporarily and infrequently from New York because of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. The debate began with a review of Battle Hymn by Grace Cook, an old Shanghai friend of Smedley's from the early 1930s. When she first met Smedley, Cook was struggling to combine work as a journalist with motherhood after the birth of her daughter, Cynthia, in 1928.*
(* Grace Cook was married to Frank Glass, the old friend and later Trotskyist rival whom Smedley blamed for leading Harold Isaacs astray and bringing on the demise of China Forum. Cook and Glass had left Shanghai for the United States before the Japanese occupation of 1941 (Interview with Cook and Glass))
In her October review in the Post and Mercury, Cook wrote that Smedley's »biting scorn« for »mere wives« had hurt her deeply—though she conceded that while Smedley seemed to despise married women as a class, she also could be »gentle« with individual wives. Cook then went on to challenge the value of any »social consciousness« that rejects the traditional claims of motherhood:

I am not belittling Agnes' work. I am, maybe, suggesting that she should not belittle mine. But what I am really thinking of is my daughter. She and I have known a lot of wandering correspondents in our time, all the way from frank hedonists out for excitement to sincere crusaders like Agnes, and none of them fit in very well with raising families. One of the halfway-betweens said to me in 1937, exhilarated by the Shanghai war, »I can stand anything but monotony«.
This, to a fifteen-year-old [and] her ex-newspaper [writer] mother, sounds marvelous, but we both know it won't fit with formulas, vitamins, school hours, measles. Maybe some of those clubwomen you despise, Agnes (after all, they did come to hear you) are trying harder than you know to fit a social consciousness into their children's schedules.
What shall I tell Cynthia, Agnes? We need leaders like you, but where is your working pattern for us ordinary women? You resent your own neglected childhood; you have great tenderness for children. Shall the state rear them? But even that involves [the sort of] sex relationship to which you »have never been able to reconcile« yourself. What shall we put in place of marriage to populate the world? Or shan't we? And if not, why bother to save the world at all?
It's ten years since you took pictures of Cynthia in our garden, Agnes. She's fifteen now, she thinks you're wonderful, and she needs to know.[7]

Despite her personal tone, Cook was raising a crucial issue and one that remains as important to feminists today as it was in 1943. Smedley knew this, and she responded senously in the October 29 issue of the Post. She argued that a distinction should be made between marriage, a man-made institution with varying laws, and motherhood, a universal natural phenomenon:

Children—all children—should be considered as the general wards of society. We have government institutions to protect wild life and farm animals... It's my belief that children are as valuable as hogs or cattle, to say the least. It's also questionable if many parents are worthy of having children, or of bringing them up after they have them. The minds of many, many people are distorted in childhood by ignorant and selfish parents...
Grace thinks that a social consciousness which makes no provision for society to survive is questionable. Right. But the existence of human beings without social consciousness is also questionable—as witness this present war, and contemplate future ones in which men and women without social consciousness massacre each new generation...
Yes, in China, I did indeed view most foreign wives with a jaundiced eye. I had plenty of reason... The Shanghai factories were filled with wives and mothers and with their children laboring twelve to fourteen hours a day, without the well-to-do raising a voice of protest. When Chinese mothers and wives and their children went out of factories to strike, the police would shoot them down or beat them. No protest came from the well-to-do, white or colored. Where was sacred motherhood?
Where was the voice of American mothers and wives while their husbands sold scrap iron and gasoline to Japan to slaughter the Chinese? I've little use for selfish motherhood, and I'll continue to insist to my dying day that wives and mothers should assume the full responsibilities of citizenship and cease to be »simple souls« who leave the affairs of the world to those moved solely by predatory greed...
Since returning from China, I've met countless women—and girls and boys, too—who grew up during the Depression. They are afraid of the future, afraid of life. In our country, the richest on earth, many of our soldiers are getting the first regular meals, decent clothing, medical and dental care they've ever had. Why did we have to leave our children to find refuge in war and death?
You might argue, Grace, that this has nothing to do with wives and mothers. It has, because it has to do with social consciousness and children and the care of children...
It's not enough to merely take care of our own. Not even our own race. Our social consciousness should embrace the world, and we should create a society that cares for all human beings. We would find like minds to ourselves in every land, for we privileged Anglo-Saxons are not the chosen people of God.
You say with sarcasm, Grace, that wives could not leave their children and run off to the Eighth Route Army, as I did... . There were many married women in the armies. In the war zones I saw countless wives and mothers who, while they did their duties as mothers, were also striking off the shackles that had impeded their sex...
The time [may] come, for the new generation, when motherhood will be regarded as a profession worthy of protection—but a profession that is merely part of citizenship as a whole.

By September , Smedley had left the whirl of activity in New York and retreated to Yaddo for a short rest before embarking at the end of the month on her first lecture tour—which she told Taylor she »dreaded«—to try to earn her livelihood.[8] Politically, however, she had already begun to take advantage of the success of Battle Hymn. In a long letter to the editor of the New York Herald Tribune, dated September 6, she attacked British colonialism and the appointment of Lord Philip Mountbatten as supreme allied commander for Southeast Asia. She argued that anti-British feeling was so strong in Southeast Asia that Mountbatten, whom she called a playboy, could never be effective. Citing the fall of Burma as evidence of the success with which the Japanese had used antiwhite feelings against the Allies, she insisted—no doubt with a keen sense of irony—that Chiang Kai-shek would have been a far wiser appointment.
The dreaded speaking tour began in October with a reassuringly successful talk at nearby Skidmore College. The college newspaper, the Skidmore News, reported: »From experience we can tell you that she's more vibrant than a [movie] thriller and more intoxicating than a Worden beer«.[9] After this she spoke at several small colleges in upstate New York and around New England, and she completed the tour at the end of the month with well-publicized talks in Boston and New York City, where she made radio appearances as well.[10]
Newspaper accounts described Smedley as »hard-hitting«, and »pulling no punches«. Her descriptions of war were more graphic than most audiences, especially women's groups, were used to hearing. She emphasized the heroic sacrifices the Chinese were making in fighting the Japanese against such great odds. She also challenged her audiences to examine America's China policy for racism. The Chinese, she said, were fighting to be free of all foreign domination, not just domination by Japan. Chinese of all political persuasions felt that by fighting together with the Allies against fascism, they had earned the right to be treated as equals. Thus they hoped that after the war, all foreign powers would give up their special privileges in China and restore true sovereignty to the nation.
Smedley spent November in Yaddo, but by early December she was back on the lecture circuit. This time she was on the road for a series of three tours over the next six months. After an initial appearance in New York City, she headed south to Georgia and then west by bus and train on a zigzag course to Anniston, Knoxville, and Jacksonville. From Mississippi she continued to New Orleans and various small towns in Louisiana. Then she headed across Texas to Houston, finally ending the first tour at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, on December 17.[11]
After Christmas in Yaddo, a second tour began, covering a much smaller area, Philadelphia to Boston, during January of 1944. Then it was back to Yaddo before a swing at the end of February north into Canada, which was followed immediately by a long trip south to Louisiana at the end of March. From New Orleans Smedley went to Chicago, and she did not arrive back at Mary Knoblauch's apartment in Manhattan until mid-May, having come via Cleveland, Ohio, and a number of small colleges in western New York. After a few more appearances in Boston and New York, in mid-June she finally resettled at Yaddo. She wrote to Taylor: »Well, I finished with my goddamned lecture tour and I never want to lecture again. My agent is up in arms because I told her I'll lecture only during March of next year—not any other time; that I want to write. She told me how she's fought and suffered and bled for my sake! But I did the fighting and the suffering and the bleeding and found that what I have to say is simply an amusement for most audiences. So I want to finish my play and start on another book—the biography of General Chu Teh, whom you like best of all« (June ll).[12]
Though physically exhausted and near collapse, Smedley was also exhilarated. She drew confidence in the years ahead from the knowledge that she had proved popular and effective as a speaker before a variety of mainstream American audiences—the Council on Foreign Relations, church groups, women's clubs, college students, and military training groups, to name a few. Even when challenged by hostile questions, she appeared to enjoy herself much of the time. As she told the Taylors: »I'm a good lecturer, darlings. Better speaker than writer by far, I think. But it does wear me out. ... I always work and worry a lot before each lecture, trying to do my best. I know that I'll have opponents in every audience. But I like opposition, for it whets the mind and keeps you on your toes, intellectually speaking« (February 4).
Indeed, wherever she went there were those in the audience who were suspicious of her motives and background. In Chicago, for example, after a speech at the Palmer House to the Council on Foreign Relations, she was asked directly whether she had helped »set up a Communist empire in North China« at the time of the Xi'an Incident, as was suggested by reports in U.S. newspapers in 1937. In response, she explained the circumstances of the Xi'an Incident and said she had done no more than report, in several radio broadcasts, the views of Chiang's opponents and the motives of the kidnappers.[13]
Smedley tailored her message to her audience. In the North, she could emphasize the dangers of a racist American foreign policy in which business interests outweighed moral concerns; she could also say that she considered a showdown between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communists inevitable, and that she considered the Communists the more democratic party. But in the south, she avoided condemnations of racism and praise of the Chinese Communists, stressing instead the importance of continued support for the Chinese: »Our destiny, our fate is bound up with the fate of China—China is our chief land base of operations in Asia, and if China should collapse it would be a disaster for America«. She often concluded with a strong appeal for contributions to medical relief in China, challenging her audiences to show a determination equal to that of the Chinese people in the fight against the Japanese.[14]
Although publicly she modified her speech and behavior in the South, privately what Smedley saw there outraged her. For example, on December 7, 1943, she wrote to Taylor:

The treatment of Negroes in the south has humiliated and shamed me so deeply that my blood runs cold in my veins. Traveling by bus, with the rain pouring, the driver ordered a dozen Negroes to step back and let two handsome white women aboard first. They came on, then the driver saw they had Negro blood in their veins—perhaps their hair showed it. The driver slapped his leg and bawled with laughter and said to the white passengers: »Now ain't that a joke! I thought they was white and they are Niggers«. The faces of the two women and of all the colored passengers were frozen. Mine froze too. Some of the white passengers broke into a laugh at the joke. ... I saw a northern white soldier ask a colored soldier to sit down by him and the latter did so; then the bus driver stopped the bus and said: »Stand up, Nigger!« The colored soldier stood up. The white soldier said: »Aw hell!« and stood up also. But had that white soldier not been in uniform, I don't know what would have happened.
Now when I heard this, I should have stood up and killed the driver. But I sat there petrified, sat there like a traitor to the human race. I kept thinking of what Jesus would have done, and knew that he would perhaps have allowed Himself to be killed. I didn't. I didn't do a thing for many reasons: because I was warned a dozen times by white people that if I did anything it would be the colored people who suffered for it. The whole south whispers if the least thing breaks out. In one town in Georgia a fight started in the colored section of the town. So great is the tension that the minute it started, the railway engine on the train began to toot, the air-raid sirens went off as if there was an air raid, police cars and motorcycles roared through the street, and I heard the firing of guns. A street fight starts such a night alarm...
I spoke at a colored college in that town, and a white woman put me up. Of the college she said: »They are nice Negroes—make no trouble at all; well-behaved«. The assumption being that Negroes generally »make trouble« and are not »well-behaved«.

Smedley did not remain silent for long. As soon as she returned from her first Southern tour she began a one-woman campaign to send books to a woman in Louisiana who wanted to set up a library for the »colored people«. She contacted librarian friends in New York and Los Angeles and started sending appeals to the press. But they were more than appeals; they were direct attacks on Southern racism, and they were published in a number of Black newspapers around the country. One of the most inflammatory appeared in the Los Angeles Tribune under the headline »White Author Indignant over Southern Prejudice« and ended with the words »We can't treat men like dogs and expect them to act like men«.[15]
Interestingly, it was Smedley's public attacks on Southern racism, not her statements about China, that apparently prompted the first F.B.L investigation of her activities. At the end of August, 1944, Representative John S. Gibson of Georgia had his complaints against her recent activities entered in the Congressional Record; and on the basis of references to her in the 1938 report of the House Un-American Activities Committee (or Dies Committee, after its chairman, Martin Dies), he connected Smedley to international communism and suggested an F.B.I, investigation. He said, in part: »[Earlier] I brought to the attention of the House a very ugly attack made on the South by an Agnes Smedley... . She is the author of many books which portray the glory of the Communist Party and its great cause... She was the author of Chinas Red Army Marches in which she described in glowing language how the Reds with people other than whites had overcome whites in revolution. She pictures the great benefits received from the Communist revolutions«.[16] The F.B.I, took up Gibson's suggestion immediately. In September of 1944 the secretary to Yaddo's director, Elizabeth Ames, was enlisted to keep track of Smedley's movements and provide copies of any lecture notes or correspondence she might type for Smedley. The investigation was run from the Albany office and seemed at first to have had rather low priority at F.B.I, headquarters in Washington; apparently the bureau was concerned chiefly with being prepared to answer any congressional inquiries about Smedley.[17]
Yaddo during the summer of 1944 was much quieter than when Smedley arrived the year before. The mansion was closed and few guests were in residence. Besides Smedley, there were only Carson McCullers, Helen Eustis, and Gerald Erlich, who was accompanied by his wife Sophie and their baby daughter. Like Elizabeth Ames and her sister, and the caretaker and the cook, they lived in small out-buildings and ate together in a converted garage.[18] Living nearby, however, was a former Yaddo resident in whom Smedley took special interest: Katherine Anne Porter.*
(*Porter (1890—1980) had fallen in love with the upstate New York countryside during her stay at Yaddo in 1940 and had bought a nearby farmhouse (Joan Givner, Katherine Anne Porter: A Life [New York, 1982])
The two became friends in part because of a mutual friendship with Thorberg Brundin Haberman Ellison. They also discovered that their early careers had been shaped by an overlapping Greenwich Village »period«.
In 1919 Porter, a native Texan, moved from the West to Greenwich Village, where she associated with some of the same women who had supported and nurtured Smedley. She was an aspiring journalist with political views similar to Smedley's, and the Sacco-Vanzetti anarchist case absorbed her energies off and on over the next seven years. Outside of news stories, Porter's first literary works were children's stories that were strongly feminist in tone. And for many of the same reasons that Smedley had been drawn into the Indian nationalist movement, Porter was attracted to the Mexican revolutionaries and artists living in New York in 1919. Porter went to Mexico City in 1920 to take a job on the Magazine of Mexico, and during the 1920s she shuttled back and forth between Greenwich Village and Mexico.
It was in Mexico that Porter met Thorberg Brundin, there as a reporter for the newspaper El Heraldo. Thorberg's first husband, Robert Haberman, was working as a pharmacist and a teacher, but he was also smuggling guns to peons on behalf of the socialist congressman from the state of Yucatan, Felipe Puerto Carillo. Thorberg owned the Greenwich Village building in which Porter had an apartment until 1929. In 1977 Porter said that when she had known Smedley at Yaddo, they had agreed »on most issues« largely because of these early parallels in their lives.[19]
At Yaddo, Smedley also had Chinese visitors whom she asked for advice about the play she had been working on. Her main consultant, introduced to her by Pearl Buck, was Wang Yong, a young actress whose background reminded Smedley of that of theatrical friends like Lily Wu in Yan'an or members of the New Fourth Army's guerrilla theater. In trying to make her characters and scenes believable, Smedley had found she needed more cultural insight. How was love expressed between two married Chinese intellectuals? Under what circumstances might a young Chinese army officer be attracted to a foreign woman? If he followed such an attraction, that would he hope for, and what would he fear, as the relationship developed? Smedley asked Wang Yong to discuss these questions with her male companion and future husband, Xie Hegeng. Wang Yong responded earnestly in several detailed letters. While thinking about the play, Smedley decided to postpone further actual writing until her collaborator, playwright Leonard Ehrlich, was discharged from the U.S. Army Signal Corps.[20]
In June, Smedley described her activities in two letters to Aino Taylor. She had started work on her biography of Zhu De and found herself struggling: »I'm working on my new book, and, as usual, wish I'd never been born. In the first place, I don't even know what kind of book I'm going to write. I know the material I'll use, and I'm writing, but don't know what form to put it in yet. So far what I've written gives me a pain. Writers always get a pain in the neck at what they write—a writer who is satisfied with what he writes is someone to beware of« (June 12). She was concerned, as always, about gardening and crop raising: »Wet spring—farmers not even able to get in potatoes—rot in ground—good for grass, but you can't eat grass« (June 13). She asked Aino to send Elizabeth Ames one crate of California lemons a month during the hot weather, because they were hard to find in Saratoga Springs. She was also doing a lot of reading. She said she still loved Chaucer, and she recommended Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine: »Silone takes the soul of man through all the stages of the purgatory of the present age and his product is infinitely richer than Dante's Divine Comedy. I suppose many scholars would protest. Let them. I simply don't like Dante, though he gives a picture of the ideas and superstitions and reflects in his work the political oppression of the early Renaissance. But Silone does this and much more« (June 12).
The only time Smedley left Yaddo during the summer was at the end of July, when she went to New York to participate in a roundtable debate, with three university professors and two apologists for the Guo-mindang government, on the present situation in China. She told Taylor that on her way back she stopped off to visit Thorberg Brundin Ellison at New Paltz and »pulled weeds for a week«, assuring herself a bout with back pain.[21]
In August Smedley told Taylor about another new friend, Caroline Slade, a novelist and social worker whose husband was the current president of the Yaddo Corporation: »Mrs. Caroline Slade, who has written a number of novels based on the lives of girls (Mrs. Slade was a social worker for twenty years) has told me about her many girl cases. It is a depressing story. Many, many poor girls who work as servants in middle-class homes are either seduced or raped by the head of the family and set on the road to 'delinquency.' Often these girls come [not only from] alcoholic families but simply [from] families ruined and made degenerate during the Depression. Caroline Slade and I argue all the time about the origin of delinquency, its cure, etc«. (August 15). Through the summer and into the fall, Smedley enlisted Slade and Porter to work with her on various fund-raising projects for the China Aid Council of United China Relief. Also in August, she gave Taylor her reaction to Pacific Story, an NBC radio play from Hollywood that used a script based on Battle Hymn of China: »Isn't it wonderful that Americans had to stick in a 'Mr. Scott'—a man instead of a woman marching with the guerrillas. The fact is that no American man had the guts to march and live with the guerrillas. Anyway, I thought the broadcast exceptionally good« (August 9).
All in all, the summer of 1944 was an unusually productive and happy one for Agnes Smedley. She was riding high from the success of Battle Hymn of China and her speaking tour. And at Yaddo, she had found security and an important friend in Elizabeth Ames. As she wrote to Taylor on July 21: »Yaddo is a perfect place for working and writing, and I'm so damned poor that it is life for me. Apart from that, I have a dear friend here [Elizabeth Ames], the woman who manages the place, and this is a precious acquisition that gives me peace and quiet and which should enable me to write«.