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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Meridel LeSueur
(1900-1996)


Well known in the 1930s for her political journalism and her prize-winning short stories, Meridel LeSueur produced a major body of literature work over a period of more than sixty years. Her work includes poetry, autobiography, biography, and history in addition to journalism and fiction. Born in Murray, Iowa, in the first year of the century, she spent her childhood and adolescence in the care of her grandmother, a Texas and later Oklahoma pioneer, and her mother, a socialist and feminist who remained politically active until well over the age of seventy-five. Through her mother, Marian Wharton, and her step-father, the socialist lawyer Arthur LeSueur, she was introduced to such midwestern radical and reform movements as the Populists, the Farmer-Labor Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World. At her parents’ homes, in Ft. Scott, Kansas, and later in St. Paul, Minnesota, she met labor leaders and radical thinkers.

After dropping out of high school, LeSueur worked as an actress in New York and California (including bit parts in the newly emerging Hollywood silent film industry). By 1927 she was publishing both political journalism and her first short stories. The years from 1917 to 1927, however, were years of marginal jobs and political disillusionment. The end of World War I ushered in a period of political repression, climaxed by the execution in 1927 of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, whose cause LeSueur, like many other writers and artists, supported. LeSueur’s decision in that same year to have a child was her deliberate affirmation of life in a world that had become, as she said in the story she wrote about her pregnancy, “dead” and “closed.”

When that story, “Annunciation,” was published in 1935, it was hailed as a “small American masterpiece” and praised for its “gravely achieved affirmations of life.” Written in a simple prose that is at the same time richly metaphorical, the story communicates a vision of the world transfigured by the pregnant woman’s sense of “inward blossoming.” The pear tree outside her tenement porch, producing its fruit even in the “darkest time,” becomes her symbol for rebirth and the continuity of life.

LeSueur became the chronicler of women’s lives, often overlooked in accounts of the Great Depression, writing of their experiences in relief agencies and on the breadlines. Her novel The Girl, based on stories of women with whom she lived, was written in 1939 but not published until 1978. It describes the harsh realities—poverty, starvation, and sexual abuse—of the lives of working-class women during the Depression and their survival by means of supportive friendships and a shared, communal life. In the stories she published in the thirties in such literary magazines as Scribner’s and Partisan Review, LeSueur wrote treatments of both working- and middle-class women—their experiences of adolescence, marriage, sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, and widowhood—that were often ahead of their time.

The publication in 1940 of Salute to Spring, a collection of her journalism and stories, marked a high point in LeSueur’s career and reputation. This collection was followed in 1945 by North Star Country, a history of the Midwest based on oral folk materials. In the Cold War period of the late forties and fifties, LeSueur was politically harassed and her publishing outlets were curtailed. Although she continued to publish political journalism, she also turned to writing for children, producing a series of biographies. By the mid-1950s LeSueur was also working for Indian land rights, living among American Indians in Minnesota and the Southwest. A volume of poems published in 1975, Rites of Ancient Ripening, shows the influence on her thought of the legends, imageries, and cosmologies of American Indian cultures.

Beginning in the 1960s, a time of new political activism with the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements, LeSueur’s work found a new audience. As a result, in the 1970s and 1980s much of her earlier writing was reprinted, and she embarked on new work, including poetry, essays, and a series of novels that are experiments in new narrative forms. In this work she continued to explore many of her main themes—respect for the earth and all natural resources, concern for the lives, and the suffering, of women, and faith in biological and spiritual processes of renewal.

Elaine Hedges
Late of Towson State University


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Women on the Breadlines (1932)

Other Works
Annunciation (1935)
Salute to Spring (1940)
North Star Country (1945)
Crusaders (1955)
Corn Village (1970)
Rites of Ancient Ripening (1975)
The Girl (1978)
I Hear Men Talking and Other Stories (1983)
The Dread Road (1991)



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Links

Salvation Home
(http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/fiction/slavat.htm)
Short story originally published in the New Masses (1939) made available by Marxists.org.

Introduction to Ripening: Selected Works
(http://www.bookzen.com/books/0912670991_intro.html)
By Elaine Ryan Hedges (written in 1982) at BookZen.

Meridel LeSueur on belief as action
(http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/lesueur-action.html)
Very brief quote containing LeSueur's thoughts on belief.

A Multivoice Memorial FOR Meridel Le Sueur
(http://www.thing.net/~grist/l/lesueur.htm)
A collection of essays about Le Sueur and her work.

Meridel Le Sueur, 96, Reporter and Children's Book Writer
(http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/meridel-obit.html)
A copy of her obituary in the New York Times.


Secondary Sources

Constance Coiner, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Lesueur, 1995

Blanche H. Gelfant, "'Everybody Steals'": Language as Theft in Meridel Lesueure's The Girl" in Tradition and the Talents of Women, ed. Florence Howe, 1991

Introduction to Ripening: Selected Works, 1927-1980, ed. Elaine Hedges, 1981

Neala Scheleuning, America: Song We Sang Without Knowing-The Life and Ideas of Meridel LeSueur. 1983





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