Harry Smith

The Parental Enigma, Part One: Robert James Smith

Harry’s Chicago grandfather, Robert A. Smith, married the daughter of a Chicago industrialist. They moved to Bellingham to execute the Deming family’s plan to create a salmon canning empire. Their son, Robert James Smith, Harry’s father, somehow bailed on this mission. He was in Portland when Harry was born in 1923. He returned to Bellingham in 1925 with wife and child, and took jobs at Pacific American Fisheries with decreasing levels of responsibilities. Was he a fuck up? Did he drink too much, as Harry later would?

Here’s what we know about Robert.

Chronologically:

Born in 1881. No records to clarify where.

Marries Mary Louise Hammond, a teacher.

Harry is born in 1923 in Portland. Robert is 42.

Robert and Mary endow Harry (a name Robert A. Smith was known by) with the middle name Everett.

As a young child, Harry suffers rickets, the result of vitamin D deficiency/severe malnutrition.

Robert moves his family to Bellingham in 1925, and begins working for Pacific American Fisheries.

During Harry’s childhood, Robert moves from cannery foreman to night watchman in a warehouse.

During Harry’s childhood, according to Harry, Robert destroys everything related to Mary’s mother.

During Harry’s childhood, according to Harry, he discovers boxes of papers inherited from his great grandfather, Freemason historian John Corson Smith. When Harry discovers these papers in the attic of their house, Robert forbids Harry from reading them, and instructs him to forget seeing them.

When Harry reached adolescence, according to Harry, Robert gives him a blacksmith shop and tells him to make gold. He also, according to Harry, teaches him to draw the Kabbalistic tree of life.

Harry leaves for San Francisco in 1945. He returns to Bellingham once, in 1949, to see Mary on her deathbed and attend her funeral.

Harry and Robert were estranged for Harry’s entire adult life. Harry does not respond to Robert’s attempts to communicate with him.

Harry describes Robert in New York interviews as “a cowboy”.

Robert James Smith dies in 1959.

1. Who was Robert James Smith? Did he have any education?

2. Why was he in charge of the family archive of John Corson Smith’s Freemasonry papers?

3. Why was he so obsessed with the occult? Was it a family tradition? Did his own father, Robert A. Smith, assistant manager at Pacific American Fisheries, teach him the Kabbalist Tree of Life which he, Robert James Smith,  then taught Harry?

4. Was Robert James Smith a Wobbly?

5.  Did he have a falling out with his father over a downward class identification?

6. Did he name Harry “Everett” after the Everett Massacre in 1916?

7. Did he choose loyalty to workers over loyalty to bosses? Did this cause a break with Robert A. Smith, Harry’s grandfather?

I present this list of questions with the following intent. Harry Smith’s parents are often labeled freethinking Theosophists, as if that fact alone is all that is needed to understand them. Theosophy, during the period of time Robert and Mary Smith raised Harry, was a middle class intellectual diversion. It was not rare, or particularly rebellious. A person could be a Theosophist and be a member of a mainstream denomination church. It was an intellectual fad, too commonplace to be the governing principle of the chaos of Harry’s childhood.

In the above list, I identify some of the underexamined areas of conflict which were part, or could have been part, of Harry Smith’s Bellingham/Anacortes childhood.

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