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Lillian Smith Studies: The Journey (1954)

Lillian Smith reading from "The Journey"


The Journey is an existential book that chronicles Smith's exploration of herself and what it means to be human. Throughout the book, Smith explores themes ranging from death to the gaps between dream and reality to the role of art in ones life. Amidst this search for answers to life's questions, what becomes apparent, as Rose Gladney and Lisa Hodgens note, is that "Smith's personal philosophical search for meaning is never separate from her work for social justice."  

In the prologue and the first two chapters, Smith examines the mind, the beliefs that individuals carry within their minds, and the way that one remembers the past. She also went in search of hope, in search of what drives us as humans to be who we are. She writes, "I went on this journey to find an image of the human being that I could feel proud of. I wanted to reassure myself of mortal strength, of man's power not only to survive on this earth but to continue growing in stature." 

She expounds upon her impetus for composing The Journey in a letter Lewis Gannett in December 1953, "I had been working on my novel, the one I had been on for many years when suddenly, two years ago, I laid it aside and decided I had to find out what life is about; what it is about for me, anyway. I knew what I did not believe; I thought I even knew what was 'wrong with things' but I did not know what I believed nor did I know what is 'right with things.' So I journeyed forth to find out. This book is what I found." 

Ultimately, The Journey highlights the multiple roles that Smith embodies throughout her work, that of artist and activist. These roles work in tandem, and Smith merges the two within The Journey, a text that arose partly from her extensive research on individuals with disabilities. While The Journey is Smith's personal exploration, it is also universal because her personal search is a collective search for our humanity.      

Possible Activities

  1. At the start of chapter two, Smith compares our memories to "portrait[s] painted in our own psychic colors"? What does she mean by this? Bring a photograph to class and describe your memories of the event to a classmate. Discuss with your classmate whether or not your recollections and the image reflect what actually occurred. Use Smith's discussion of Carl and her childhood to think about this. 
  2. Smith notes that we all have masks that cover our true identity. She writes, "Too often I could not see the human being at all, so hidden is he behind masks of political differences, of color, and spurious normalities." Have students create masks that depict themselves. When completed, distribute the masks throughout the class and have students try to guess who is who. When completed, have students read and discuss texts such as Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" or Rainer Maria Rilke's discussion of masks in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. 
  3. Smith points out that we can take a journey anywhere, physically or mentally. Choose a journey that you will undertake. This can be a field trip, a vacation, a book you read, or anything where you actually physically or mentally journey with the purpose of discovery. For your journey, keep a journal with three parts: detailing what your thoughts and emotions before journey; your thoughts and emotions during the journey; your reflections of the journey once you complete it.  


  1. Look at the first two paragraphs in the "Prologue." Smith talks about the things we bring with us on our journeys throughout life. She says that these goe with us wherever we go: across the ocean or down Main Street. What are the "invisible traveling companions" that accompany you on your journeys? How do they affect your trip?
  2. Smith went on a physical and mental journey to discover what makes us human. To you, what constitutes a journey? Why does one go on a journey? What do such journeys tell us about ourselves?     
  3. Smith poses multiple questions that she sought to answer on her journey: "What are our most human qualities? What sets us apart from animal and machine? from the masses and the monster?" How would you answer two of Smith;s questions? 
  4. Smith writes that "man's unique qualities and destiny begin with the unchangeable fact of his brokenness. He can never be while though his integrity has come out of his reaching for wholeness." What does Smith mean when she says that we are all broken? How can we achieve wholeness in the face of our brokenness?
  5. Smith details the language that the town used to define Carl, even referring to him as the "village idiot" and "crazy." Looking back, Smith realizes that Carl had cerebal palsy. What role does language play in how we define the world around us? What power does it have in constructing meaning? What damage can language do to individuals?