Harry Smith

The Parental Enigma, Part Two: Mary Louise Hammond Smith

According to Harry, his mother was Anastasia of Russia, and he was the product of her love affair with Aleister Crowley. Harry Smith was gloriously unreliable when it came to facts about his own life.

Here’s what we know about Mary Louise Hammond Smith.

Chronologically:

Born in 1889, in Sioux City, Iowa.

Teaches at Sitka Industrial Training School in Alaska, as does her mother, according to Harry.

Marries Robert James Smith.

Gives birth to Harry in Portland in 1923. She is 34.

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

Moves with Robert James Smith and Harry to Bellingham in 1925.

Teaches on the Lummi Reservation in 1925 to 1932.

Moves with Robert James Smith and Harry to Anacortes, where she and Harry live separately from Robert James Smith for a period.

The Smith family returns to Bellingham in time for Harry to graduate, at age 20, from Bellingham High School in 1943.

Begins attending the Episcopal Church in 1944.

Harry travels from San Francisco in 1949 to see Mary on  her deathbed.  It was his last trip to Bellingham. He never returns.

Mary’s newspaper obituary identifies a brother, Rex Hammond, living in Tacoma.

1.  Who was Mary’s mother?

2. Who was Mary’s father? Did she have a father?

3. What was Mary’s relationship to mainstream Protestant religion?

4. Why did Robert James Smith destroy all reminders of Mary’s mother?

Mary Smith’s chief identifier, for Smith scholars, has been her job teaching on the Lummi Reservation. Harry leaves her entirely out of the story he tells of his first trip to the Lummi, which was inspired by his desire to witness a ceremony he heard a classmate describe. He neither asserts or denies his mother as a role model in his teenage decision to cross cultures. He simply leaves her out.

It is not hard to see in Harry’s field recordings of the Lummi a conscious attempt to reverse the eradication of Native American culture. Was Harry’s interest in understanding and recording Native American culture one Mary and her mother shared? If so, they would have been outliers within the Indian reservation education system. If not, Harry’s curiosity is even more impressive.

Perhaps Mary Smith’s obituary holds one clue. Mary spent her last five years attending an Episcopal church in Bellingham. Episcopalianism is the least evangelical of Protestant denominations. Yet evangelicism – converting Native American students to Christianity – was an overt goal of the Indian reservation education system. Was Mary in revolt?  If she was ready to disown evangelical Christianity’s napalm bomb approach to Native American cultural identity, fleeing into the well bred, non-evangelical arms of the Episcopal Church, would be one way to do it.

Harry’s engagement with the Lummi is the single most under examined chapter of his life. Understanding his mother’s relationship to her teaching job, and discovering if there had been intergenerational shift/rebellion between Mary’s perspective and that of her mother is a crucial component of that chapter.

Here’s my two cents on another front. When Harry said his parents were viewed by the community as oddballs,  I believe he was being very tactful. Harry’s rickets point to a mother whose most basic competence, in terms of caring for her child, was compromised. Mary Smith may have had mental illness. If this was true, it would have been a life experience Harry Smith had in common with his friend, Allen Ginsberg.

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