Le Sueur, Meridel
LE SUEUR, Meridel
Born 22 February 1900, Murray, Iowa; died 14 November 1996, Hudson, Wisconsin
Daughter of William W. and Marian Le Sueur Wharton; married M. Yasha Rabanoff, 1927 (died)
Meridel Le Sueur's life and work are rooted in Midwestern culture; she has often been referred to as the "Voice of the Prairie." Her mother was a militant feminist; her stepfather, Arthur Le Sueur, was a socialist lawyer. Le Sueur's lifelong association with artists of the radical left, Wobblies, Marxists, and prairie populists provides the rich backdrop for over 50 prolific years of prose, poetry, journalism, history, and philosophical writing.
Le Sueur's social writing began during her teenage years. In 1927 her short story "Afternoon" was published in the Dial literary journal. During the 1930s, Le Sueur was a prominent figure on the "literary left"—writing and advocating a revolutionary aesthetic based on change in form, style, and content. Le Sueur's work appeared in such varied journals and publications as the Daily Worker, Partisan Review, New Masses, American Mercury, Pagany, Scribner's, and the Anvil.
Salute to Spring and Other Stories (1940, reprinted 1989), a collection of Le Sueur's short stories, reflects her deep commitment to the political struggles of the Depression and the effects of the period's social trauma, especially on women, poor workers, and farmers in the Midwest. Included in the collection is perhaps her finest short story, "Annunciation." Celebrating the creative force, Le Sueur shares the intense feelings of an expectant mother as she meditates on her pregnancy and the impending birth. Speaking to the unknown child within her, the woman seeks to explain the world into which the child will be born. Rich in organic and transcendental imagery, "Annunciation" is representative of both the subject matter and style for which Le Sueur would become known. Le Sueur always sought to create outside the narrative form. "Annunciation" demonstrates her early success in creating a literary "moment" or reflection that stylistically integrates prose and poetry.
North Star Country (1945, reprinted 1984) is a lyrical history of the northern Midwest. Rich in the language of the common man and woman, the book is a unique document for the folklorist. Early criticism rejected the book's rich oral database, but contemporary historians have looked more appreciatively on the original oral and written material.
The McCarthy era was particularly harsh on Le Sueur. Her literary outlet continued through such radical journals as Masses and Mainstream, but she was excluded from a wider audience through an informal blacklist. She turned to writing children's stories, primarily historical treatments of American cultural myths and heroes: Johnny Appleseed, Davey Crockett, Abraham Lincoln, and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She also wrote a delightful cross-cultural book for children about an Indian and a white boy, Sparrow Hawk (1950, reprinted 1989).
In addition to the reissuing of many of her works, Le Sueur published two new collections in the 1970s. One, Rites of Ancient Ripening: Poems (1975), is a collection of poetry that reflects her militant feminism, and in which she articulates her Indian philosophy. In Rites, the mature writer emerges, integrating rhythms and imagery of the rich plurality of American culture.
The Girl, a novel written in 1939, was not published until 1978 and reprinted in 1990. Here Le Sueur sensitively and brilliantly portrays the "girl" in all of us. The Girl has a unique and powerful style; the rhythm of a woman's culture is shown in patterns rather than through narrative development. The girl is not a heroine so much as a counterpoint to the world through which she moves.
Le Sueur's journals (over 125 volumes) are yet to be published. They contain her original contribution to American political philosophy. Students of indigenous American Marxist-Anarchism, Native American philosophies, radical feminism, and the aesthetics of the left will find the journals a rich mine for future inquiry.
Le Sueur was still writing up until her death, about the America often ignored or overlooked, and her message is as timely as when she started to write at age thirteen. Though she will no longer be traveling the country in her Volkswagen van or by Greyhound bus, she remains a significant interpreter of the heart of American life and a model for younger feminists.
Ripening: Selected Works (1990) is a collection of journalism, poetry, fiction, history, and autobiography spanning the years from 1927 to 1980. Represented is what Elaine Hedges describes as "fifty years of faithful and passionate witness to many of the central economic, political, and social realities of twentieth century American life." Le Sueur's title is a metaphor for her belief in the continuum of her work and her sense of literary fulfillment. The volume contains such important earlier pieces as "Women on the Breadlines" and "The Girl,"and excerpts from North Star Country and from her personal journal.
Class-conscious writing blends together art and ideology in I Hear Men Talking and Other Stories (1984), three stories published originally in the 1930s. Striking workers, natural disasters, and human nature are the themes of the stories, which have contemporary relevance as well as historical interest. Le Sueur's short story "Jelly Roll" appeared in the anthology Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (1982). Whitman's poetry encouraged a young Le Sueur to write in spite of the fact that she would be blacklisted for her ideas. She also recalls Whitman's impact on Midwestern farmers and workers of the Great Depression.
Winter Prairie Woman (1990), written when Le Sueur turned ninety, is a six-part story of the end of a very old woman's life. She must leave the farm where she has lived all her life as it is falling apart around her. Instead of fearing or rejecting death, Le Sueur's character, with a powerful resemblance to the author, goes toward it, welcoming it as a new start.
Le Sueur challenges and informs the reader about the atrocities of American history in The Dread Road (1991). A woman, a semiautobiographical figure, makes a trip every year from El Paso to Denver on a Greyhound bus to visit the institution that holds her son. He is "dead but not buried," a victim of earlier nuclear weapons testing in the West. Intricately written, three narratives share each page: quotations from Edgar Allan Poe, the main story, and excerpts from Le Sueur's journal.
Le Sueur's literary voice speaks for the common person in America. Many of her earlier writings, including novels, a number of children's books, and a family memoir, have been reissued and gained a new popularity. She was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in 1996 and won a Creative Writing Award from the National Endowment of the Arts.
Annunciation (1935). Little Brother of the Wilderness: The Story of Johnny Appleseed (1947, 1987). Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln's Mother (1949, 1990). Chanticleer of Wilderness Road: A Story of Davey Crockett (1951, 1990). The River Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln (1954). Crusaders (1955). Corn Village: A Selection (1970). Conquistadors (1973). The Mound Builders (1974). Harvest: Collected Stories (1977). Song for My Time: Stories of the Period of Repression (1977). Women on the Bread Lines (1978). Worker Writers (1978). Crusaders: The Radical Legacy of Marian and Arthur Le Sueur (1984). Word is Movement: Journal Notes from Altanta to Tulsa to Wounded Knee (1984). Better Red by Constance Coiner (1995).
Davis, L. J., and M. B. Mirabella, eds., Left Politics and the Literary Profession (1990). Duncan, E., Unless Soul Clap Its Hands: Portraits and Passages (1984). Gelfant, B., Women Writing in America (1984). Halpert, S., and R. Johns, eds., A Return to Pagany 1929-32 (1969). Harris, M., and K. Aguero, eds., A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry (1987). Hart, H., ed., American Writers' Congress (1935). Sterusher, B., and J. Sealander, eds., Women of Valor: The Struggle against the Great Depression as Told in Their Own Life Stories (1990). Wagner-Martin, L., The Modern American Novel, 1914-1945 (1990). Yount, N. J., 'America: Song We Sang Without Knowing—' Meridel Le Sueur's America (dissertation, 1978).
Book Forum (1982). CA (1975 , 1997). CANR (1990). Encyclopedia of the American Left (1990). FC (1990). Minnesota Writers (ca. 1961). More Junior Authors (1963). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCWW (1991).
Book Forum (1982). Contemporary Literature (Winter 1988). Minnesota Daily (19 Nov. 1973). Minnesota Leader (10 Feb. 1975). Moons and Lion Tailes (1976). Ms. (Aug. 1975). North Country Anvil (Feb.-Mar. 1974, June-July 1977). Sentinel (28 Nov. 1954). Women's Studies (1988). WRB (Apr. 1992).
—NEALA YOUNT SCHLEUNING,
UPDATED BY SUZANNE GIRONDA
AND NICK ASSENDELFT