By Erin Cotton
Katy Simpson Smith, novelist and historian, presented the keynote speech “Any Road, Any Travels” at the induction ceremony for new members of the Gamma of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Washington and Lee University on Thursday, March 19, 2015.
Smith, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, who now makes her home in New Orleans, was an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College. She holds a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. Currently, she is working as an adjunct professor at Tulane University.
Smith’s keynote address provided inspirational words of wisdom about academia and the path to success. She herself has been lauded for her work in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications. The Story of Land and Sea: A Novel, praised by Vogue as “a luminous Revolutionary War novel set to be the debut of the year,” is Smith’s skillfully crafted story of love between parent and child, and devastating loss. Set in a small coastal town at the end of the American Revolution, landowner Asa, a widower, must cope with the loss of his only daughter as she takes to the sea.
With an incredible ability to tell a historically accurate and culturally significant story, Smith has been able to merge her liberal arts background with her thirst for historical knowledge and passion for fiction writing. Not only does this novel render a breathtaking historical narrative, but it also displays the ways in which knowledge can be reconstructed through various media—a crucial objective of liberal arts study.
Further exemplifying Smith’s accomplishment in the literary world is We Have Raised All of You, a historical novel based on Smith’s doctoral dissertation that examines the perceptions of motherhood from the socially constructed views of white, African American and Native American women in the South between 1750 and 1835. Within a multicultural landscape, mothers relied on a strong connection to surrounding female networks and community associations as the source of their own identities. The book also examines how the formation of control legitimizes a conceptualization and understanding of motherhood as an identity.
Smith’s research adds to the evolving conversation about the multicultural South, showing that there is no universal model of motherhood. Her approach is unique as she uses documented life histories within journals and legal records that work through real struggle with identity definition and the discovery of power within controlled social structures. The issue of proposing theory across historical data is not easy for academics to grapple with yet Smith has successfully managed, on more than one occasion, to display detailed research and ethnographic study through the writing of various texts.
The liberal arts appear to have had a tremendous influence on Smith’s work following her undergraduate education and expanded training in both of her fields as seen in her combining of history with gender and cultural studies, all culminating into both fictional and nonfictional accounts. “I think fiction in particular allows us to empathize with this wide spectrum of humanity, and in order to put yourself in another person’s life you have to have that empathy,” Smith explained to NPR. “And it’s important to me, as a historian who has become a fiction writer, to show the South at this time period for what it was.”
Smith was given the opportunity to explain her path and process toward a career in historical research and writing within her role as a keynote speaker for newly initiated members of ΦBK at Washington and Lee University, thus giving these students a glimpse into how a liberal arts background can provide the foundation for a career path, as it did for her.
Erin Cotton is a junior at Wheaton College majoring in anthropology and creative writing. Wheaton College is the home of the Kappa of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.