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The Long March of Agnes Smedley : AGNES SMEDLEY : The Life and Times of an American Radical by Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon , (University of California Press: $25; 404 pp.)

December 13, 1987|Joyce Antler | Antler is the author of "Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The Making of a Modern Woman" (Yale University Press, 1987)

Agnes Smedley, an ardent champion of the Chinese Communist revolution, wrote prolifically in its support: Her works still sell million of copies in China, where she is buried. Apart from her 1929 autobiographical novel, "Daughter of the Earth," recently reissued by the Feminist Press, Smedley retains only a slender reputation in the United States. But, as the MacKinnons report in this splendid biography, Smedley was fundamentally an American radical despite her commitment to anti-colonialism abroad: Her politics were deeply rooted in the poverty and sexism she experienced in her childhood years on the dirt farms of Missouri and in the coal mining regions of Colorado.

Smedley escaped the misery of her childhood by becoming a teacher and journalist. In 1917, at age 25, after a disastrous marriage and two self-induced abortions, she fled to Greenwich Village. There she became active in the birth-control movement led by Margaret Sanger and in the anti-British Indian nationalist movement. Through her association with Indian radicals, Smedley came to understand U.S. policy toward colonial countries as an extension of the prejudices that led to discrimination against women and racial minorities at home.

In 1920 she left New York for Europe, skeptical that American workers would support a socialist revolution. She spent the next few years in Berlin, in close contact with Indian nationalists and a small group of anarchist-syndicalist friends, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. However, Smedley's political work was compromised by rumors about her sexual promiscuity; the gossip, and the attitude of her "revolutionary" husband, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto), an Indian nationalist with whom she lived though they were not legally married, led to a nervous breakdown. Psychoanalysis helped her overcome her earlier revulsion toward sex, but she never abandoned her view of marriage as an institution that subjugated women.

She left Chatto and throughout her life encouraged women friends to break up their own marriages.

In 1928, Smedley crossed the Soviet-Manchurian border into China: She produced five books and hundreds of articles about China in the dozen years she spent there. The high point of her journalistic career came in 1938-'40, when Zhou Enlai permitted her to travel in the war zone with the Red Army. Her colorful reportage was an invaluable source of information about the war and the social transformation of the countryside that accompanied it, particularly in the lives of women.

One extraordinary vignette of Smedley during this period reveals how much she remained an American, despite her thoroughgoing internationalism. Convinced that the survivors of the Long March needed to relax in their mountain camp, Smedley taught them to square dance to the old Western tunes she loved--"On Top of Old Smokey," "Red River Valley" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."

One of her students was Mao Zedung, who was eager to learn dancing and singing in case he went abroad: Smedley thought it "imperative he learn the latest fox trot." Mao often visited Smedley in her cave, probing her experiences of romantic love as he agonized over his own infatuation with a young Chinese actress. One evening, when, with a guard, Mao came to visit the actress in a cave adjoining Smedley's, his wife pursued, bashing the woman, and later Smedley when she impetuously intervened in the fracas. "Not one to turn the other cheek," reported Edgar Snow, who heard the story from Smedley, "Smedley flattened Mrs. Mao with a single punch." The incident resulted in Mao Zedung's divorce and abruptly terminated Smedley's effort to lead her woman comrades to greater autonomy, Western style.

Wary of her individualism, the Chinese Communist Party rejected Smedley's application for membership. She continued to promote its cause nonetheless, returning to the United States in 1941 to influence public opinion. With the onset of the Cold War, Smedley became a favorite target of the right. Although there was no evidence to substantiate Whittaker Chambers' charge that Smedley had served as a member of a Soviet spy ring in the 1930s, nor that she was a member of the American Communist Party (in fact her differences with both the American and Soviet Communist parties were well known), media coverage damaged Smedley's literary reputation and her ability to aid radical causes.

Increasingly bitter and seriously ill, she wrote to a friend that she saw "no hope in sight for myself or for the U.S.A." She died in England, en route to China, in 1950.

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