Lies and Libels of Frank Harris

Edited by Gerrit and Mary Caldwell Smith, with Arguments by Kate Stephens
Year: 
1929

Byron Caldwell Smith was Professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of Kansas during Harris' time there. He seems to have been an exceptional individual, for despite the fact that he died at the age of 27 there were at least two posthumous books published about him, apart from the one discussed here and the several mentions in Volume I of My Life and Loves to which it responds.

When Harris published his autobiography, its treatment of Byron Smith and his relationship with Harris utterly outraged three people in particular: Gerrit and Mary Caldwell Smith, Smith's by then elderly brother and sister; and Kate Stephens, who had been his girlfriend. In his book, Harris makes much of Smith, extolling him as a great inspiration, but to the horror of Smith's friends and family this praise was set off by the further claim that Smith had had an affair with a Greek girl, one result of which was an unusual form of erotomania. According to Harris, Smith suffered from recurrent wet dreams, which Harris advised him to treat by tying up his insubordinate member with a length of cord; unfortunately the treatment did not avail, and Smith grew weaker and weaker until he died.

Harris' slurs on Professor Smith enraged the three enough that they set about producing this book as a rebuttal to his claims; the result was not destined to be a bestseller, given its rather limited purpose, of proving what a swine Harris was. Most of the work on the book was evidently carried out by Stephens; Smith's brother and sister presumably getting their author credits merely as a form of courtesy.

The book is in two parts. In the first, Kate Stephens recounts how Harris re-made her acquaintance in 1915, and reproduces their correspondence from that time. Her intention is to show his duplicity in his dealings with her, which she implies was motivated purely by his desire to read her love letters from Smith in order to use them as material for his autobiography and in Pearson's. In the second part extracts from My Life and Loves are reprinted - doubtless without permission - followed by a commentary which supposedly exposes Harris' free and easy way with the truth.

Kate Stephens was a rather curious individual. Philippa Pullar describes her as "brave, whimsical and endearing", all of which may be true, but ignores an important aspect of her character which is prominent throughout her writing: her racism. Now, it was not uncommon in the early part of the 20th century for people to have some degree of racial prejudice, nor for them to exhibit it relatively guiltlessly; if presented with someone Black or Jewish, they would tend to have a preconceived view of that person's character. But Stephens goes beyond this point: what she sees as Harris' bad character is ascribed to his 'race', which she invents to fit her view of him, "undoubtedly of Hebrew and Irish blood" she says, he has "repeated race history". Actually - though it is otherwise of no consequence - Harris was of Welsh parentage, his Irishness being by birth alone. (See also my discussion of Harris' own racism.)

Why Philippa Pullar chose not to mention Kate Stephens' racist hogwash is not clear, yet she did perform a remarkable job of disentangling the truths buried in the two rival accounts of events, showing Harris as neither so villainous nor pathetic as Kate Stephens would have it, nor so heroic as he would paint himself.

One particular point of interest that Pullar throws some light on is the matter of why Harris chose to belittle his former hero. By Stephens' account, when he became reacquainted with her he saw for the first time some letters that Byron Smith had written to her during their love affair, in one of which Smith refers to Harris thus:-

You know I have no confidence in or respect for the moral character of the man and could not therefore dream of making him a confidential friend. He has, however been so persistently kind to me ... that I could not find it in my heart to answer in terms not somewhat touched by warmth.

(This passage is about a letter Smith had written to Harris, which Kate Stephens had thought over-friendly.)

Pullar deduces, I think correctly, that when Harris read these words for the first time so long after they were written, he was deeply hurt. For years he had carried about with him the idea that his boyhood hero, although never quite the close friend he hankered after, had had at least some natural affection for him. To discover after such an interval that it was simply Smith's sense of decency that had caused him to write such a kind letter and that his real opinion was rather more disdainful, must have been terribly distressing.

Harris' mental pathology was such that a blow had to be met with a blow: he still admired Smith, but he wanted to demonstrate that his hero was just a man, and a weak one at that. There had been a rumour - put about by a rival after Smith's job - that Smith had had an affair in Greece; this not being sufficient for Harris' needs he embroidered it with a Victorian superstition about the debilitating effect of nocturnal emissions.

Another matter which Philippa Pullar skates over is the political dimension of the disagreement between Stephens and Harris. She describes Kate Stephens rather vaguely as a 'patriot', but Stephens' writings allow us to be much more precise: she was a believer in America as an earthly paradise, a Utopia, brought about by the hard work of God-fearing pioneers, with lesser races in their place as servants (and probably, though she does not say so, slaves). Harris on the other hand was strongly critical of America - in The Bomb and in Pearson's he had attacked the fundamental inequalities of American life, and the smug complacencies of those such as Stephens who held such blinkered, romanticised, views of the society they lived in.

Stephens' turgid prose, and her obsessive worrying over minutiae, much of which she gets wrong anyway (she claims for example that Harris did not get his degree, whereas records show that he did) make this book hard going. Indeed, I would only recommend it for the Harris letters, which are rather enjoyable, especially his vainglorious boasting of having "brought Shakespeare to life after he had been three centuries in the grave".