Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution. Dodge Billingsley, director.
Reviewed by Charles W. Hayford
Published on H-Asia (July, 2002)
Helen Foster Snow
What most of us have known about Helen Foster Snow (1907-1997), better known by her journalistic pen-name Nym Wales, is that she was Edgar Snow's first wife, was scooped when he got to Mao first and wrote <cite>Red Star Over China</cite>, but followed him to Yan'an and wrote her own <cite>Inside Red China</cite> (Doubleday, 1939) and <cite>Red Dust</cite> (Stanford University Press, 1952), based on her stay there. Some may remember her autobiography <cite>My China Years</cite> (Morrow, 1984). But this attractively produced television documentary adds a good deal more insight and background. The narrative includes a number of colorful shots of China in the 1930s and lively interviews with surviving friends and colleagues of the time. Indirectly it sheds light on how Americans produced their understandings of revolution in China. I first saw an advanced draft of this film at a symposium, "Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution," held at Brigham Young University in November 2000. The symposium was organized by Eric Hyer of BYU, the main historical adviser to the film, to celebrate the donation of Ms. Snow's papers and archives to the university by her family, and to call together scholars and friends from the United States and the People's Republic for an initial exploration of her life and contributions to U.S.-China relations. Made with a public-television audience in mind, this film would make a good supplement to a course on American-Chinese relations or a presentation for local audiences, for many of whom it will be news that an American with an IQ in positive numbers admired Chairman Mao. <p> Like many Americans who ended up making their careers in China, young Helen Foster didn't set out to do it. The documentary is especially useful filling in her early years as a sharp, ambitious young woman whose family had come to frontier Utah with the Church of Latter Day Saints. At the BYU conference, there was much discussion as to whether her background of Mormon community cooperation, strong leadership, and paternalistic family values set her up to perceive these qualities in Yan'an--one wonders if leaders of either the CCP or the LDS Church would be pleased with the comparison! Unlike the males in her family, Helen was not allowed to attend Stanford; when she left Utah in 1931 to work as a secretary in the American Consulate in Shanghai she must have thought she was going to another world where her ambitions could be fulfilled. Although the China of the 1930s appears mainly as background to her story, we get a good context for Mao's revolution. Edgar Snow, who had come to Shanghai in 1929, swept the young lady off her feet--at least metaphorically: the documentary is delicate on the question, but lively on-camera interviews with friends from the time, especially Israel Epstein, leave the implication that she and Edgar were marital mainly in theory, and that their break-up took place long before the formal divorce. Still, she, Ed, Epstein, and Ida Pruitt worked hard together during the war in organizing the Industrial Coops (INDUSCO), the subject of several insightful papers at the conference. <p> Yet the her life after China, treated here briefly but clearly, was rather sad. After the divorce from Ed, she did not stay on for an eventful career in the PRC as did Israel Epstein or Anna Louise Strong. She never wrote her hoped-for Great American Novel, though there were several helpful books such as <cite>Red Dust</cite> and <cite>Song of Arirang: The Life Story of a Korean Rebel</cite> (John Day, 1941). Nor could she build a non-China career as Ed or Pearl Buck did (Helen wrote an insightful notice in the <cite>New Republic</cite> for Buck's death in 1972). She took to the house in Connecticut that she and Ed had bought in the early 1940s, and stayed there until her death in 1997, filling the place to the ceilings with books, manuscripts, letters, and China-bilia. In the later years she wrote compulsively, though without much success in publication, and spent much of her time studying family genealogy. (One of the heroes of the whole story is her family, who after her death cleared out the house over a period of many months and arranged the papers for transfer by truck to BYU, where they are now professionally archived and open to researchers.) After 1972 she regained touch with a circle of Chinese friends, and lived to see her contribution to U.S.-China relations the subject of semi-official friendship associations in the Snow Society of Beijing and the Snow Society of Xi'an, where there is a Helen Foster Snow School. At the Salt Lake conference there were several moving presentations by these new and old friends from the PRC, some of whom are interviewed in the film--there is a funny and poignant interview with the daughter of the Yan'an family with whom Helen stayed in 1937. <p> Yet there remains the need to assess the contents and impact of her <cite>oeuvre</cite>, for which the film as a medium is not terribly well suited. Surely her published autobiography is too sunny, indulgent, and self-centered to serve as an overall appraisal, but her present relative neglect is unfair. I look forward to the publication of biographical studies which were previewed at the conference. <p> Information and pictures on the making of the film are available at <a href ="http://www.combatfilms.com/china/chinahistory.htm">http://www.combatfilms.com/china/chinahistory.htm</a>.
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Charles W. Hayford. Review of , Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution.
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