Le Sueur, Meridel (1900–1996)
Le Sueur, Meridel (1900–1996)
American writer who recorded the stories of Midwestern workers, farmers, women, and Native Americans, the subject matter of which delayed publication of much of her best work for 30 years because editors told her that the topics were not interesting. Pronunciation: L'-Sooer. Born Meridel Wharton on February 22, 1900, in Murray, Iowa; died in November 1996;daughter of William Wharton (an itinerant preacher) and Marian (Lucy) Wharton (a feminist-socialist educator); gained a stepfather when Marian divorced William and in 1917 married Arthur Le Sueur (a socialist lawyer and educator); married Harry Rice ("Yasha," a Russian immigrant and Marxist labor organizer), in 1926 (divorced 1930); children: Rachel Rice ; Deborah Rice .
Published first stories, "Persephone" and "Afternoon" (Dial, 1927); hailed as a promising and major writer after "Annunciation" (1935) and Salute to Spring (1940); blacklisted during postwar McCarthy hearings (1940s and 1950s); rediscovered (1970s).
"Annunciation" chosen for O'Brien's Best Short Stories (1935); WPA Federal Writers Project (1939); Rockefeller Historical Research grant for North Star Country (1943); grant from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH, 1980); Bush Artist Fellowship (1981); NEH grants for I Hear Men Talking (1984) and for reprinting of children's books (1987); Lumen Vitae Award, College of Saint Benedict (1987); founding of Meridel Le Sueur Center for Peace and Justice, Minneapolis, which also houses her personal collection of midwestern American literature (1987); American Book Award for Harvest Song (1991); NEH grant for The Dread Road (1990); Distinguished Minnesotan Award, "Voice of the Prairie," Bemidji State University (1991).
Annunciation (1935); Worker Writers (1939); Salute to Spring (1940); North Star Country (1945); Little Brother of the Wilderness: The Story of Johnny Appleseed (1947); Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road (1949); Sparrow Hawk (1950); Chanticleer of Wilderness Road: A Story of Davy Crockett (1951); The River Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln (1954); Crusaders (1955); Corn Village (1970); Conquistadores (1973); The Mound Builders (1974); Rites of Ancient Ripening (1977); Harvest: Collected Stories (1977); Song for My Time (1977); The Girl (1978); Women on the Bread Lines (1978); I Hear Men Talking (1984); Ripening: Selected Work, 1927–80 (1982); Winter Prairie Woman (1990); Harvest Song (Harvest and Song for My Times, 1991); The Dread Road (1991); I Speak from the Shuck (1992).
On April 20, 1914, two Colorado state militia companies met on Water Tank Hill above the Ludlow mining camp and attacked 1,000 miners, their wives and children. Advancing down the hill, the militia men kept up a murderous barrage from high-powered rifles and machine guns mounted on wheels, one of which was nicknamed "The Death Special." Many women and children escaped into the hills or hid in pits dug under the campsite, but the militia men set fire to the tents. At the end of the day, two women and eleven children were found asphyxiated in a single cellar. Five more strikers and two boys were killed in the shooting, including Louis Tikas, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who was clubbed in the head and shot three times in the back.
The miners, who had been living in a tent colony during a strike against a Rockefeller-owned coal company, wanted better working conditions, hours, pay, and company compliance with state laws. Early in the strike, Governor Elias Ammons had sent state militia into the region to keep order, but complications arose when some militia joined the company men against the miners. The governor withdrew all but the two militia companies, one of which was made up of coal company men; these same companies launched the brutal massacre.
Partisans of the miners, unable to reach Ludlow in time to help, moved into other camps in the region. The Ludlow Massacre generated such bad publicity and rebellion that President Woodrow Wilson dispatched federal troops to settle the situation. Today a statue of a miner with his wife and child commemorates the scene. The plaque reads: "In memory of the men, women, and children who lost their lives in freedom's cause at Ludlow, Colorado, April 20, 1914. Erected by the United Mine Workers of America."
"This event changed me forever," said Meridel Le Sueur. Parades and memorials for the Ludlow victims took place across the country, including at People's College, a "labor school" to educate workers through correspondence, in Fort Scott, Kansas, where Marian and Arthur Le Sueur were teachers. Meridel Le Sueur was 14 years old when she marched with her mother in the parade commemorating the victims. The grieving miners, in Le Sueur's own words, "were starving. They were blacklisted. They had lost the strike. They marched down the street … silently…. The faculty of the People's College marched behind them. I held my mother's hand. We were weeping."
At age 14, Le Sueur reported on Ludlow for a labor journal, and at age 91, she published The Dread Road, a "communal creation of an image," juxtaposing the Ludlow massacre and 20th-century war with the story of a young mother traveling by bus to bury her dead child and excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe's stories. John Crawford speculates that Le Sueur's narrative description in this story probably came from firsthand accounts: "I remember after the massacre there was a terrible passion to get the bodies. Don't let the dead children fall into their hands. Don't let the mothers, the women, the wives, fall into their murderous hands. To get the bodies out of there to Trinidad on that terrible night."
Words used to describe the landscape of Meridel Le Sueur's life are survival, ripening, harvest, song, community, and rebellion. Perhaps the key word is rebellion, rebellion against what Le Sueur sees as oppressors—federal and state governments, greedy capitalists, and plunderers of the earth's resources. "I Speak from the Shuck" (1992), which celebrates the power of "ancient corn" to redeem the "raped earth," ends with: "O corn of love/ O thunder of protein/ …The green corn/ The seed corn/ Rebellion."
My writing used to be described by the male hierarchy as lyrical and hysterical.
—Meridel Le Sueur
Rebellion for Le Sueur, the writer, was costly. Her resistance to the status quo, her refusal to compromise, her self-determination, and her openness to all types of people often made her an outsider. She was the communist who would not toe the party line (Whittaker Chambers, editor of New Masses, criticized her article "Women on the Breadlines" for her "defeatist" attitude and lack of "revolutionary spirit"); the feminist who celebrated motherhood and childbirth; the historian who told the untold stories of farmers, Native Americans, angry workers, hungry women (reviewers said her history was "eclectic" and "subjective"); the preacher-poet and the passionate biographer. "I'm probably the best known unpublished writer in the world," she wrote in a 1938 journal. "But I don't care."
During the McCarthy era of the 1940s and '50s, when unfair accusations and indiscriminate investigative methods were used against many actors, writers, and artists, her work was blacklisted in the name of fighting communism. Only her children's books, published by Alfred Knopf, generated a meager income to support her family in those lean years. The women's movement in the 1970s published many Le Sueur works for a new audience, making it seem as if feminists had discovered her, but she always had a small, committed audience in left-wing magazines.
Meridel Le Sueur was born in 1900 in Murray, Iowa, to William and Marian Wharton , just when the radical farmer and labor organizations—the Non-Partisan League, the Farmer's Alliance, the Populists, the International Workers of the World—that would shape her thinking were forming. Her childhood and adolescence were spent in Midwest towns in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas before she went to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she lived most of her adult life. She learned the inequalities of being a girl early. By 1910, her mother, unhappy in her marriage, left William and escaped to Oklahoma with her two small sons and ten-year-old Meridel. They lived with Antoinette Lucy , Marian's mother. "My mother had to kidnap her children out of Texas and take them over the border," writes Le Sueur, "because in Texas you were property of the husband; the children were property." Eventually, William Wharton applied for a divorce on the grounds that his wife read "dangerous literature."
Meridel made friends with Native American girls in Oklahoma, experiencing a sharp contrast between their culture and the strict, puritanical life of her grandmother. Le Sueur learned to record what she heard. "I've never considered myself so much a writer as a witness…. I began to write in order to bear witness to the struggle of women I saw around me." Hiding behind water troughs in the streets, near wagon wheels in Kansas, and under tables at home, she listened to the voices of struggling people. "I loved the farm women especially," she told Patricia Hampl . "I always thought they were the storytellers, they were the poets."
Marian Wharton rode the Chautauqua circuit, giving a three-day course on "The Great Laws of Life." A confirmed socialist, she moved the family to Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1914. There she chaired the English department of People's College, met Arthur Le Sueur, president of the college and chair of the law department, and later married him. If Meridel experienced the Midwestern pattern of the "lost, silent" father in William Wharton, she found in her stepfather a man she could respect. A committed socialist and eloquent orator, he provided a firm base for the family.
Meridel's relationship to her mother was complex. "We were absolutely opposite," Le Sueur told Amy Gage . "She was a very beautiful, strong, and powerful woman. That kind of conflict—you either are destroyed, or you grow." Marian was aggressive and objective, whereas Meridel was subjective and dreamy. "But I probably would have gone to sleep and done nothing if she hadn't been goosing me." Le Sueur's life at People's College brought her into contact with Helen Keller and with Eugene Debs, four-time
When anti-socialist vigilantes destroyed People's College in 1915, the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where their Dayton Avenue house became a haven for workers, activists, and radicals. At 16, Meridel dropped out of high school, partly because "they concentrated on English writers, not American," but mostly because "I couldn't find my history there and so I quit." At 18, she told Gage, she weighed her options: "I could be a wife and mother, a nurse, a teacher; or a whore." Instead, she attended Bernarr McFadden's Physical Culture School in Chicago and spent a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. There she lived with Goldman and Berkman, and landed a small part on Broadway in Lady Windermere's Fan, directed by David Belasco.
Soon, she was in Hollywood, doing stunts for The Perils of Pauline and portraying an Indian in The Last of the Mohicans. These jobs gave her enough money to live simply while she wrote for the Daily Worker and other publications. When Hollywood wanted to remake her "hooked" nose, she left, joining a traveling San Francisco theater group and meeting Harry Rice, a Marxist labor organizer, whom she married in 1926. By 1927, she was jailed for protesting the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian anarchists accused of murder and theft and thought by many to be victims of political bias. Sitting in jail, Le Sueur decided to have a baby, her "gift to the world."
In 1928, she returned to St. Paul to live with Marian and Arthur Le Sueur and to have her baby, Rachel. A second daughter, Deborah, was born a year later. By this time her marriage with Rice was falling apart, and they were divorced. She then met Robert Aaron Brown, a painter, destined to become her lifelong friend and lover.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw her trying to balance the life of a single mother and a writer. She supported herself by working various jobs as governess, bootlegger, factory worker, waitress, and washroom attendant. Her journals reflect her struggle. After waitressing all day, she returned home to two children and their needs. When she fell asleep over her writing, she stuck her head under the cold water faucet to wake herself up and to write her self-assigned two hours a day. When she was paid $200 for a story, she threw a party and invited her friends who were as poverty-stricken as she was. (The abandoned warehouse where poor women live together in The Girl is not fiction, but Le Sueur's reality at one time.)
She also frequented the Venice Cafe at Seven Corners where the bohemian crowd gathered: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Wanda Gág , and others. Sam Darling reports Le Sueur's cryptic analysis of the St. Paul power groups: "They used to say that St. Paul was divided between Bishop Ireland at the Cathedral, Jim Hill at the Railroad, and Nina Clifford who had the greatest whorehouses in America. They controlled not only St. Paul, but the whole Northwest."
In her 1933 journal, referring to The Girl, her classic novel about the survival of a young girl in St. Paul during the Depression, she noted: "I am going to write a great novel someday and feed people. This choice is my first choice. Choosing against indulgence." Nearly 40 years would pass before it would be published. One editor told her that her style was lyrical, but she should choose more interesting subject matter, as Hemingway did. "I can't write like Hemingway," she replied. "I don't have any of his experiences. Fishing, fighting, and fucking are not my major interests."
Harry Rice caught the essence of her poetry when he wrote to her in 1935: "Where do you acquire that sublime toughness, that real rare vitality that can weep and sing at the same time?" This lyrical quality informs The Girl and Salute to Spring. When Salute to Spring was published in 1940, containing her most frequently anthologized short story, "Annunciation," on the birth of her daughter, it was praised by Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis, and Nelson Algren, who wrote to a friend: "Just finished Annunciation and an old belief has been confirmed: that Meridel Le Sueur is the finest mistress of prose in the land. No one remotely approaches her ability to weave the harshest reality with a high sense of beauty." Waldo Frank wrote to her: "Annunciation is a wonderful lovely poem: tender, true, large."
When Le Sueur joined the Teamsters' trucker strike in Minneapolis in 1934, she found it a riveting experience. In her classic essay, "I Was Marching," she reveals her discovery: the truckers were not competing with each other; they were acting together.
I was marching with a million hands, movements, faces, and my own movement was repeating again and again, making a new movement from these many gestures, the walking, falling back, the open mouth crying, the nostrils stretched apart, the raised hand, the blow falling, and the outstretched hand drawing me in.
This breaking open of the self to reach out to others, this sense of community forged through suffering, this transforming the "I" to "we" are major themes in Le Sueur's work. Much later, when she was 90, she said: "When you age, you don't think so personally; you rot out the ego, the little thing that is you. I've been flying over my whole life and looking at it in a different way. That's probably what art is, an accumulation of experience."
The decade between 1930 and 1940 was productive for Le Sueur despite unsympathetic editors. She published 16 short stories and many articles for the Daily Worker, American Mercury, Pagany, Partisan Review, The Nation, Scribner's, the Anvil, Dial, Poetry, and Woman's Home Companion. She also joined the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Writers' Project, "a wonderful motley crew." They were editors whose newspapers had folded, free-lance writers, and writers of science fiction and ad copy. She taught creative writing classes at the College of Saint Catherine and at the University of Minnesota and spent countless hours at the Minnesota Historical Society to write North Star Country, a lyrical history of the Midwest.
Throughout her life, she wrote in her journals, over 170 of them. Her daybooks, she told Hampl, are like the thread that comes daily out of a spider. They come from a need to express herself, to make order out of chaos, and "the unknown into some kind of web. It seems to me, well, maybe in the journals I was catching food, I was catching butterflies, sustenance: I was starving." According to Jay Walljasper, she considers her journals her "master work because they show the progress of a writer and a person, as well as offering a comprehensive social history of the Twin Cities."
The years 1947 to the early 1960s were the "dark time" during the McCarthy era when she was blacklisted by the FBI and hounded everywhere she went. "You couldn't get a job. I couldn't teach a writing class; I couldn't even get a job as a waitress," she said. Once while she was walking to a political meeting, it began to rain. Le Sueur strolled up to the FBI agent following behind her in his car and asked for a ride "since we're both going to the same place." She survived on labor reporting and her children's books, though a Milwaukee Journal review called the stories "pink-tinged," designed to mis-lead young people.
She faced other misfortunes during this time as well. Harry Rice died in 1948, followed by her stepfather Arthur Le Sueur in 1950, and her companion Robert Brown and her mother Marian Le Sueur in 1954. Stunned though not defeated, Le Sueur traveled by bus, spending much time in Mexico and the American Southwest and tape recording stories of people. (Folksinger Pete Seeger gave Le Sueur her first tape recorder on her 50th birthday.) She also spent time with Native Americans in Northern Minnesota. Her money problems continued and, according to Elaine Hedges , the FBI even harassed Le Sueur's boarders in the rooming house her mother had left her. To support herself before she qualified for Social Security and to supplement her income afterwards, she chauffeured a handicapped woman who commuted between Santa Fe and Iowa, worked in a factory for $1.00 an hour, was an attendant at the Minnesota State Asylum, and even lived in an abandoned bus in Santa Fe for a few years.
In the 1960s, Le Sueur visited college campuses, participated in the Poor People's March, protested the Vietnam War, and worked on rights for Native Americans. The women's movement in the early 1970s brought Le Sueur new life and her real audience: women. After 1977, a new generation of publishers worked with her to produce a poetry collection, Rites of Ancient Ripening; two novels, The Girl and I Hear Men Talking; and three story collections, Harvest, Song for My Time and Ripening. The earlier volumes Salute To Spring, North Star Country, and Crusaders were reissued during the same period. Enjoying the acclaim, yet always suspicious of it, she told Walljasper:
I was buried for thirty years, but that's nothing new. Indian literature was buried. Black literature was buried. For years American literature meant white middle-class puritan male literature. I recently compiled a list of twenty women writers, twenty Midwestern women writers whose careers were trashed by critics and publishers. But when people get freed, their culture gets freed.
Another freeing event was her appearance, at age 85, at the 1985 Women's International Conference in Nairobi, Africa. Her poem, "Arise," celebrates strong women: "They came out of Nairobi…. We claim our earth…. We claim our bodies." Her 90th birthday was a community festival in the Twin Cities, beginning with a benefit concert by folksingers Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert for the Meridel Le Sueur Library (February 17, 1990) and ending the next day with an afternoon program of poems, songs, and readings honoring her at the College of Saint Catherine. The events were sponsored by a coalition of over 35 organizations from the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre to the Minnesota Peace & Justice Coalition. T-shirts reading "Songs for Our Time" and "Survival is a Form of Resistance" commemorated the event. A weekend of festivity, community, and solidarity, it illustrated what Le Sueur once wrote: "We must somehow find how to be committed to others, how to express that love which is an act of courage, not of fear, but of bravery and of seeing the liberation in each other, that makes us proud and human."
Early in her life, Le Sueur decided that goals and success are in the male world, in what she calls "the linear world, the world which goes toward the target." But she wanted to live in the circular world, the world of the seed, the flower, even the world of having a child. "I wanted to grow, and not to consume or not to become successful or to become a goal. I wanted to grow in the way the season grows…. I think I felt this very early and now I'm looking back on my life I feel I really wanted to ripen."
Common themes in her work are labor unrest, the Great Depression, poor people, human love, the natural beauty of the land, and regional history. Her earthy wisdom delighted and inspired her admirers. "A straight line goes toward a goal—ultimately to the bomb," she wrote. "It's called progress, but it leads to destruction. If you're thinking circularly, you know your shit's going to fall on you, because you know that you return again and again to the same place. Creation requires returning to the source of inspiration. That's what I'm still doing." Meridel Le Sueur, who died in November 1996, once told worker writers: "Don't tell yourself that it's not up to you to write the true history. Who is to write it if not you? You live it. You make it. You write it."
Crawford, John, ed. "Note on the History of Ludlow," in The Dread Road by Meridel Le Sueur. Minneapolis: West End Press, 1991.
Darling, Sam. "A Witness to the People," in The Community Reporter. St. Paul, March 1987.
Gage, Amy. "The Insistent Voice," in Minnesota Monthly. March 1988, pp. 25–32.
Grossmann, Mary Ann. "Ninety Years of the Struggle," in St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch. February 11, 1990, pp. 1D, 3D.
Hampl, Patricia. "Meridel Le Sueur: Voice of the Prairie," in Ms. August 1963, pp. 62–66+.
Hedges, Elaine. "Introduction" in Ripening: Selected Work, 1927–1980 by Meridel Le Sueur. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982.
Le Sueur, Meridel. Interview by Nancy Hynes, O.S.B. Hudson, WI: May 19, 1989.
——. Journals (1924–43). Unpublished. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN.
Walljasper, Jay. "A Conversation with Meridel Le Sueur," in Minnesota Daily. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, October 7, 1980.
Barron, Ron. "Meridel Le Sueur." A Guide to Minnesota Writers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Council of Teachers of English, 1987.
Pichaska, David R. "Meridel Le Sueur Reconsidered," in Minnesota English Journal. Winter–Spring 1985, pp. 11–26.
Pratt, Linda. "Afterword" in I Hear Men Talking by Meridel Le Sueur. Minneapolis, MN: West End Press, 1984.
Schleuning, Neala Yount. America: Song We Sang Without Knowing. Mankato, MN: Little Red Hen, 1983.
Journals of Meridel Le Sueur located in the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Hard Times Come Again No More, play adapted from Le Sueur's works by Martha Boesing , 1994.
My People Are My Home, a film by Meridel Le Sueur, 1977.
Ripenings, a one-woman play adapted by Molly Culligan and Phyllis Paullette , performed by Molly Culligan, 1979 (for over 15 years).
"The Voice of Meridel Le Sueur" (30 min.), first aired on Minnesota Public Radio, July 5, 1993.
Nancy Hynes , O.S.B., Professor of English, College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota