Lillian Smith's first and most controversial novel, Strange Fruit, was published in 1944, immediately climbing to the top of the bestseller list. This novel's profound acceptance and appeal was due to several factors. Throughout this essay, the ingredients that constitute the novel's success will be discussed in detail. The following aspects of Strange Fruit are common threads among other bestsellers that critique serious social issues of their time. These factors include the relevance of its topic to national events, its controversial nature, the marketing of the book, and the vehement and outspoken character of the author.
The surprising success of this piece of fiction is due to the fact that it dealt with a very serious social theme of the time and tackled issues that were traditionally left untouched and oftentimes ignored. The issue at hand in Smith's poignant novel is racial segregation and prejudice in the 1920's South. Smith's novel critiques the southern racial mores and looks at civil rights as a moral rather than economic issue.
Strange Fruit, named for a Billie Holiday song, is a novel about an interracial love affair in Maxwell, Georgia in the 1920's. The novel tells the story of an ill-fated relationship between a white man, Tracy Dean, and his black lover, Nonnie Anderson. The two lovers were stymied by a social system that condemned any inappropriate relationships between blacks and whites. The male protagonist, Tracy, is torn between the powerful and real love he feels for Nonnie and a socially acceptable relationship with a wealthy white woman. Tracy is cognizant of the danger in loving a black woman. His character says to himself, "Nonnie was only a name today. A name and an obstacle. A colored girl blocking a white path" (Smith, 97).
Though Smith is a white female, she realistically and reliably writes the voices of black women, white men, and black men, merging the voices to create a tragic and political message by the close of the novel. The relationship of the two doomed protagonists ultimately ends with the murder of Tracy and the lynching of a black man. The "strange fruit" of Maxwell, Georgia is the lynching of the innocent members of the black community.
This book narrates a fictitious tale, but is rooted in the universal truths of racial injustice of the time. In the early twentieth century, American liberal reformers were intensely focused on the poverty of the South and its contribution to the problems of race. But following World War II, the emphasis of American liberals transferred from the economic problems to "a more moral and psychological critique " (Georgia Historical Quarterly, 1992, no.1-2) of the race issue in the South. The South shifted from the "nation's number one economic problem" to the "nation's number one international embarrassment" (GHQ, 1992, no.1-2).
The Truman administration began to address this issue at a national level, discussing its pertinence at a higher-echelon. President Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights and secured the support of many black protesters, forcing the issues of race and segregation to the top of the national agenda. Many liberal politicians began to question the validity of America's nickname, the "land of opportunity" when segregation and bigotry were at the forefront of most southern communities.
While many liberals disagreed with this new assessment of race in the South, Smith was one of the leaders of this psychological take on segregation, arguing that the black community struggled more from the emotional injuries than the economic ones. Smith coined the term "cultural schizophrenia" as a way to describe segregation in the South.
As a determined crusader against racial injustice, Smith sought to redirect the goals of Americans. She strove to utilize the idea of democracy and freedom in her argument to attain racial equality: "We Americans have this crazy dream: this notion of human freedom, this idea that each person has within himself a little kingdom over which he alone rules" (GHQ, 1992, no.1-2).
The content of the novel as well as Smith's verbal and known battle against segregation were all relevant to the rising national attention toward this universal theme of freedom and equality, especially after the terror of WWII and the eruption of the Cold War. In addition, mass marketing after WWII reach millions of Americans, far more than the mere thousands reached before these advances. Thus, outside factors seem to be an obvious influence on the best-selling nature of the novel and in best sellers in general.
The original publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock fervently advertised the novel, claiming Strange Fruit to be "the booksellers' biggest money-making success"(Publisher's Weekly, Nov 1, 1944). The inside front dust jacket flap of the first edition of the novel includes a statement from the publisher predicting the success of this risky novel: "For Strange Fruit we confidently predict this book will be eagerly and widely read, it will be heatedly discussed and long remembered?Strange Fruit deals with things the neighbors mustn't know--and it deals with the neighbors" (Smith).
Inevitably, when a novel tackles and critiques serious social issues, it is bound to create a stir of controversy. While best sellers that address such important social issues don't normally make it to the bestseller list, Strange Fruit sold over three million copies (GHQ, 1992, no.3-4) and made the author an immediate topic of conversation. Why did this novel have the ability to capture and hold the interest of the public while simultaneously conveying a very powerful social commentary?
The answer is simpler than one might expect. Strange Fruit, though praised by many for its candor, was also disparaged by conservatives and southerners and even banned for its unprecedented use of explicit language (by a proper Southern white woman, nonetheless). It became a best seller because of the desperate attempts to suppress it. Banned in Detroit and Boston, merchants "withdrew Strange Fruit from sale after a complaint against the language of the novel had been reported lodged with the Commissioner of Police of Boston" (PW Apr 1, 1944). The prosecutors claimed that "the right to express ideas is one thing, the manner of expression is quite another." This is in reference to Smith's use of the "four-letter word." In an editorial in Publisher's Weekly (Apr 8, 1944), this ban on the book was deemed unfortunate for the novel because it created too large of a focus on the profanity rather than the content of the story itself.
The hype behind the banning of Strange Fruit was further exacerbated by the reaction of the book's publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock. Instead of adhering to the requests of some Boston booksellers to make "minor changes," Reynal &Hitchcock issued a statement that they "have no intention whatsoever of tampering with a fine and important book in order to transform it to what official Boston might regard as acceptable. The book was published because Reynal & Hitchcock consider it an outstanding work of literature" (PW, Mar 25, 1944).
In addition to the criticism of Boston booksellers, Smith received some backlash from members of the African American community. While many in the black community supported her fight for de-segregation, others condemned her novel as belittling and condescending. For example, in 1945 Dean Gordon B. Hancock, editor of The Associated Negro Press wrote: "It is difficult to imagine a more subtle yet scathing indictment against the Negro race in general and the Negro womanhood in particular than that presented in "Strange Fruit" (PW, Aug 5, 1945). This and other discrediting reviews of the novel by members of the African American population also contributed to the stir behind the book's publication.
This was also true for other novels of its time that similarly dealt with serious social issues new on the political agenda. For example, Laura Hobson's 1947 novel "Gentleman's Agreement" about post-war anti-Semitism in America (Sampson, 9). Like Strange Fruit, this novel attacked the contradictory notion of freedom and the festering prejudice and apathy toward Jews in America. Hobson was Jewish, allowing her social commentary to be somewhat more justified than Smith's voice in her novel. Smith's separation from the voices in her novel causes an even greater disruption with critics questioning her ability to write accurately and as a reliable narrator. Thus, the 1940's and 1950's seemed to be an era of protest and reformation through nontraditional exposes on the moral decay and shortcomings of post-war America.
Lillian Smith's persona also became an important ingredient in the best-selling nature of her first published novel. Born in the late 19th century in Jasper, Florida, Smith recalled being taught hypocritically about the ways of life in the South. She was told that as a Christian she should love all of God's creatures, yet as a wealthy white southerner she was told she was of a superior race. While she always questioned the dynamic between races, she only fully recognized this disparity as an adult. Smith's personality was widely known--her tortured and conflicted feelings along with her vehement views of race. Often joining and then leaving organizations, "Smith was an extremist" (GHQ, 1992, no.1-2) and claimed that "segregation amounted to 'spiritual lynching'" and the only solution was for white people to "acknowledge our sins and humbly ask forgiveness" (Long, 74-75).
Smith, more than any of her white counterparts, denounced segregation as a detriment to everyone in society and publicly protested for desegregation and racial equality. In 1944, she wrote:
"In trying to shut the Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from the good, the creative, the human in life. The warping distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child from birth also. Each is on a different side of the frame, but each is there. As in its twisting distorted form it shapes and cripples the life and personality of one, it is shaping and crippling the life and personality of the other. It would be difficult to decide which character is maimed the more--the white or the Negro--after living a life in the Southern framework of segregation" (GHQ, 1992, no.3-4).
Unlike other authors of her time, "Smith stood out, a measure as to how far a white southerner could, or would, go in condemning caste, a yardstick against which to measure--and judge--others who fell short" (GHQ, 1992, no.3-4). Smith's public decry of these previously untouched issues lent her novel an advantage in sales. Hearing the voice of an author, especially one considered an anomaly, contributes heavily to the sale of a book and as is the case of many best sellers, outspoken authors usually produces best sellers more than ones behind the scene.
As described above, various factors (not all related) advanced the popularity and success of Smith's Strange Fruit. These factors, including the relevant universal theme, the controversial nature, the marketing, and the public persona of the author, seem to be general components to a best selling novel. While the content of a book certainly helps determine whether or not a book is well received, outside components play a significant role in the overall sales of a book. Given the rapid development and acceptance of social issues in America, this novel would probably not be a best seller if published today. But the term "bestseller" is to be used in a comparative sense, given the time and circumstances of its publication. When a white southern woman published Strange Fruit in the mid-1940's, it undoubtedly caused a stir. Smith's crusade against segregation and racial injustice through a fictitious love story was gossip-worthy. It not only challenged those in the political arena, but also those in society who were indirectly being condemned for their ignorance and role in the "sick" state of the South.
Thus, this novel is a realistic representation of the life of a bestseller, specifically bestsellers that tackle serious social issues. Its success was due to many outside ingredients and only emerged victorious as a culmination of these various factors. Bestsellers, then, seem much more complex and multi-dimensional then one initially assumes. They're status is earned only if the external elements fit together in the right manner to form the perfect and most appealing product for the American consumer.
Long, Margaret. "The Sense of her Presence: A Memorial for Lillian Smith." New South. Volume 21, p. 71-77, 1966.
Loveland, Anne. "Lillian Smith and the Problem of Segregation in the Roosevelt Era." Southern Studies. Volume 22-23, p. 32-54, 1983.
Patton, Randall. "Lillian Smith and the Transformation of American Liberalism, 1945-1950." The Georgia Historical Quarterly(GHQ). Volume 76, no. 1-2, p. 373-392, 1992.
Publisher's Weekly, volumes 145, 146, 147.
Smith, Lillian. Strange Fruit. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1992.
Sosna, Morton. "Review Essays: Race and Gender in the South: The Case of Georgia's Lillian Smith." The Georgia Historical Quarterly. Volume 76, no. 3-4, p. 427-437, 1992.
Sampson, Rachel. "Laura Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement." Bestseller's Database. Assignment 5:Critical Essay. http://www.engl.virginia.edu:8000/courses/bestsellers/search.cgi