Much of what has been written about Meridel LeSueur feels dated now--in a quaint way, like the diary you kept at 14, so unequivocal and awkwardly grandiose. She was everybody's Earth Mother in the '70s (hers and the century's)--a Strong Woman, writing about The Land and The Struggle. "It is as if she were the living and truthful Statue of Liberty," reads one entry in a volume of prose and poetry dedicated to LeSueur in '82, "seeking the tired, the poor, the hungry, hearing their voices cry out--and writing down every word...smiting the oppressors with this slingshot full of words."
Ah, yes, you think, and turn the page. That was then. Now we know that the real world doesn't come in all capital letters, that good intentions don't necessarily make art, and that Meridel LeSueur was a fine writer, but not the Midwestern master her acolytes would have us imagine.
And then you pick up "Corn Village," one of the short stories LeSueur wrote in 1930--after working as an actress and a journalist, scratching her way through the Depression as a single mother of two--and you find this: "I have seen the spring like an idiotic lost peasant come over your prairies scattering those incredibly tiny flowers, and the frozen earth thaw to black mud, and the birds coming from the South, black in the sky and farmers coming to the village through the black mud. I have seen your beauty and your terror and your evil. I have come from you mysteriously wounded..." And you feel a little bit ashamed.
Not because LeSueur's prose is perfect; there are spots where it flails painfully, and stretches where it just drags. But as with the voices of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin--the scratch at the back of the throat, the shrunken range, the warbling pitch--it is LeSueur's rough edges that lend her writing power.
LeSueur's life was no more polished than her writing. Born in a tiny house in Murray, Iowa, in 1900, she found herself hauled from Texas to Oklahoma at age 10 as her mother fled a bad marriage. She marched with the survivors of the Ludlow mine-worker massacre in 1914, lived with Emma Goldman in New York, and played Betty Crocker on the radio in Hollywood. By 1924 she had joined the Communist Party, and by 1928 she had given birth to two daughters, Rachel and Deborah. (Rachel would end up marrying St. Paul attorney Ken Tilsen, starting a local activist dynasty whose scions include former Minneapolis school board chair David Tilsen and--by marriage--Eagan state Senator Deanna Wiener and South Minneapolis troubadour Barb Tilsen.)
It was a short story about her pregnancy with Rachel, titled "Annunciation," that first got LeSueur the attention of a major publisher: An editor at Scribner's professed to like it, while also suggesting she try to write more like Hemingway. ("But fishin', fightin' and fuckin' weren't my major experiences," she replied.) For a couple of decades, LeSueur's prose and poetry were staples in publications from Vogue and True Confessions to the literary journal Dial. Then McCarthy came around, and the only publications that would touch LeSueur's work were the red rags that had given her a start as a writer. For four decades, her best known title, The Girl, appeared only in the form of excerpts in Anvil and New Masses.
The Girl is a bestseller now--by some standards. More than 15,000 copies have been sold since New Mexico-based West End Press finally ran the first complete edition two decades ago. It's a novel or maybe a novella, 132 pages of mostly short sentences, dialogue without quotation marks. Much of it, LeSueur would later say, was more or less literal transcription taken from the women she met in the Workers' Alliance, and it's to her credit that the reader is challenged to tell where their words end and hers begin:
St. Peter Street, Wabasha, St. Paul, Third and Fourth and Fifth. Smell of sour whiskey, rotten fruits, horses, catgut and beer. I worked in a hat factory on that second floor when I was a punk, you didn't know me then, I hadn't slept with you then, I was looking for you... The girls used to hang out their towels in the hotel, and we bet on how many towels, that was the first thing I bet on, and the machines made a steady one-two-stop-one-two, you got so you liked it, you would jig it, we used to do it.
Writing about people who don't live by the word is one of the toughest things in literature, which is why so much prose concerns itself with the privileged class. When writers venture into the street, you can generally smell the fear on the page; even the empathy is drenched with pity, the kind one feels for lovable, but utterly foreign creatures.
So what makes LeSueur different from the wannabes who publish poverty travelogues in Granta? For one thing, she knew what she was talking about, having spent much of her life scrabbling for the next couple of meals. More importantly, she knew that this in itself didn't mean a thing--that living as a bohemian and a Socialist didn't automatically qualify her to tell other people's stories. And so she listened, asked questions, and struggled with her role as the listener and question-asker: "I won't be held off from it," she wrote in "I Was Marching," an account of the bloody 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike. "I won't look at it lyrically... I'm afraid I won't be able to be IN it. I'm afraid I will withdraw and not really see anything... It's like a terrific test. I'm afraid I won't know how to bore in deep enough to what is happening. I would like to write [a] terrifically hard, real, factual and yet emotional account with every implication in it external and internal at the same time."
There it is again, that feeling of reading an adolescent diary: Isn't it cute? Isn't it bittersweet, that urge to be "external and internal at the same time," to be one with the world and still write about it? Of course we know now that there is no such thing. We know that oral history and literature are separate disciplines, that fact and fiction are dimensions apart, that the writer must either lose her voice or lose her subject. We know that identity is unbreakable and insurmountable; that the daughter of an English teacher can never understand a Teamsters strike, nor should she even try.
Or at least we think we know that.
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