The Lives of Agnes Smedley
In January, 1937, when the newly successful Life magazine published photographs introducing the Chinese Communists to Depression-era America, it included a shot of “Mao’s American ally,” Agnes Smedley. Two years later, the same magazine carried Smedley’s photo essay on the new Chinese Fourth Army fighting the invading Japanese. Smedley was one of the first reporters to cover China from inside its border and, consequently, one of the world’s most noted foreign journalists.
Author of the highly praised fictional memoir Daughter of Earth (1929), Smedley was also the journalist who over a decade of revolutionary change produced Chinese Destinies: Sketches of Present-Day China (1933), China Fights Back, An American Woman with the Eighth Route Army (1938), and Battle Hymn of China (1943). Ruth Price’s exhaustive biography, The Lives of Agnes Smedley, details Smedley’s full career. The book required at least fifteen years of research and interviewing; Price’s notes run to more than fifty pages, her index more than ten. What emerges is a complex portrait of a talented writer who gave her career to revolutionary causes, one of the most significant American women of the twentieth century, and someone who ultimately paid a price for her political commitments.
Smedley was born in Missouri in 1892 but was raised in Colorado. Her life there was partly determined by her exposure to the Colorado mining camps and labor wars she witnessed in the early 1900’s, leading to the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. In the 1910’s, she became involved in India’s fight for independence from Great Britain and worked with several exiled Indian nationalists on the West Coast. When she moved to New York in 1917 she was almost at once caught up in several political and social movements based in Greenwich Village, especially the birth control campaign spearheaded by Margaret Sanger and various political movements spawned by Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
In 1920 Smedley left for Europe for the first time (she would not return for thirteen years), and became a writer in Berlin, where she befriended other writers and artists. Her Daughter of Earth was an autobiographical novel based on her first thirty-odd years and proof of her acumen as a writer. In the 1930’s, as the first Western journalist to cover the Chinese Communists, she traveled dangerously close to battle with Chinese soldiers and wrote three highly acclaimed books about the revolution in China.
In the 1940’s Smedley returned to the United States. She spent time at the famed Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York but increasingly was caught up in the anticommunist hysteria building after the end of World War II. After Smedley died in England, her ashes were interred in the People’s Cemetery for Revolutionary Martyrs in Beijingat the same time, she was being investigated by several military agencies and congressional committees in the United States.
Smedley’s career can almost be charted by her relationships. She had an early and brief marriage to Ernest Brundin. Although the marriage did not last, Brundin’s connections gave her access to Indian nationalists fighting in exile for their country’s independence. She fell in love with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (“Chatto”) in Berlin; their relationship was not long-lived, but it propelled her into early work with European revolutionary leaders and, ultimately, into espionage.
Finally, her liaison with the Russian-born Richard Sorge in China confirmed her revolutionary sympathies. Sorge worked for Soviet military intelligence and the Comintern (as Chatto had as well), the militant international organization the Soviets had set up in the 1920’s. Smedley’s...
(The entire section is 1553 words.)