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Daughter of the Earth, by Agnes Smedley.

February 25, 2020

Daughter of Earth
Daughter of the Earth, by Agnes Smedley.   Feminist Press, 2019.  First published, 1929.

4 stars

The fictionalized autobiography of a radical early-twentieth-century journalist describing her poverty-stricken childhood and her first involvement in protests.

Agnes Smedley (1892 – 1950) was born in rural Missouri, and her family moved to western coal towns when she was still a child.  Both places she lived in dire poverty and witnessed its impact on her struggling parents. A chance for education helped her escape their fate as she moved first to California and then New York and became a journalist for the radical magazine,The Masses.   Long interested in international affairs she was jailed for support of for the independence of India during World War I.  After this book was published, she went to China where she worked for the Communist cause.

Smedley became a compelling writer.  Her book is full of the moods and tensions of the life she lived.  It draws a reader into what poverty and oppression meant in individuals’ personal lives.  Repressed anger and sexuality are often present. In describing her mother’s life, Smedley displays her strong feminist convictions.  Her writing carries a strong political message which rises out of her characters’ conditions rather than theoretical positions.  Smedley was certainly a radical, ready to standup for those she viewed as oppressed.  She obviously believed that the personal was political, and she was involved in the devisive ideological debates that pervaded the Socialist and Communist circles in which she moved.

Writing her book as fictional allows Smedley extra space to shape her story.  She was free to add and omit material to hide or exaggerate what she and others did.  I do not assume every detail is factually true.  I do, however, trust her to give an accurate account of what it was like to be poor and oppressed in particular times and places. Few writers have done that as well as Smedley. Her book is worth reading for that reason.  Besides, Smedley simply is fun to read.

Ever since the 1970s, the Feminist Press has played a key role in recovering the seldom remembered writing of women and making them available to a new generation of readers. Often their books are about women leaders in social justice causes. What they have done is a major contribution to the development of feminism. Daughter of the Earth was one of first books they reprinted in 1973, and this is their third publication of it.  Congratulations to them for continuing their important work.

I gladly recommend this book to a wide range of readers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2020 4:29 pm

    How interesting, I’ve just been reading about this memoir in Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, The Art of the Personal Narrative, she uses it as one of the examples to analyse her own theories on what makes a great memoir.

  2. March 22, 2020 9:23 am

    Maybe I need to find that book of Gornick. I have been working on and off on my own memoir and the variety and the reasons fascinating.

    Thanks for your comments. I have not been keeping up with comments very well in recent months. You remind me how much I like the back-and-forth about what we are reading. Maybe I will go back to commenting more myself.

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