In Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo names several women who have mentored and supported her throughout her life and career. I had never heard of Meridel Le Sueur until Harjo’s mention of her:
“The novelist, poet, and activist Meridel Le Sueur, a child of the Midwest, became one of my earliest mentors…She wrote about the Depression, about breadlines, about the lives of the poor and women and others whose voices were left out of the American story. The feminists rediscovered her in the early ‘70s and began to reprint and publish her writings, which ranged from novels to poetry to children’s books” (Harjo 168).
Read our post about Harjo’s most recent work: POET WARRIOR BY JOY HARJO: HEALING HEARTS AND NATIONS
As I read more about Le Sueur, I became curious about a novel she wrote in 1939 that didn’t get published until 1978 when it was picked up by the West End Press:
“In 1970, Florence Howe founded Feminist Press and set out digging up old texts by working-class women. Similarly, in 1975, John Crawford founded West End Press in New York City, which republished progressive and working class texts, mainly from women and writers of color”(Arnold).
Still, I wondered, why did it take forty years to publish a novel by a rather well-established writer?
Perhaps because Le Sueur was a Communist, a proletarian writer, a woman called the “poet of the people”, a radical.
“Scholars have debated the reasons for working-class literature’s obsolescence after the 1930s…Lillian Robinson, a Marxist feminist author and activist, opines that “the most massive and brutal attempts to deny the existence of any analytic category occur with respect to class,” especially in university English departments”(Arnold).
Ah, it’s a class issue, that stubborn, messy, complex social issue we want to ignore, as though it doesn’t exist.
I couldn’t wait to read this novel.
The Girl will stay with me forever. I never felt at once so chilled to the bone by the brutality of life, yet so warmed by the intimacy of women united.
The setting is 1930s, depression and prohibition era, St Paul, Minnesota with its cold, windy winter and late arriving spring.
The main character, the narrator, is the Girl, never given a name to purposely represent us all. Other characters are the Girl’s friends, Belle, Clara, and Amelia, and the men, Ganz, Hoinck, Butch and Bill.
There’s violence and crime of all sorts, lots of misogyny, tons of misery and tragedy spawned by unemployment, poverty, hunger, loss, and a numbing sense of nothingness.
This is a devastating novel that we wish was entirely fictional! But it’s not. It’s a compilation of women’s stories during this time period, in this place. Le Sueur patched together these women’s stories and experiences, along with the ideological trimmings, and there you have it: The Girl.
Le Sueur explains in the Afterward:
“This memorial to the great and heroic women of the depression was really written by them. As part of our desperate struggle to be alive and human we pooled our memories, experiences and in the midst of disaster told each other our stories or wrote them down. We had a writers’ group of women in the Workers Alliance and we met every night to raise our miserable circumstances to the level of sagas, poetry, cry-outs”(183).
Cry-outs that were silenced for forty years.
When you read the novel, the silence is shattered. The voices come to life and Le Sueur’s writing style allows for free flow without a lot of conventional dialogue and punctuation.
“Le Sueur’s fiction stays close to the language of actual people, letting the voice of the character convey ideas and images in the same way as a real person might, showing that a literature of people, real Midwesterners, is possible, rather than strictly relying on a false or forced representation of reality based on more formal artistic principles”(Kosiba 88).
What follows are some excerpts from the story:
Clara cautions her naive friend, the Girl:
“O kid, that’s bad, you’re in trouble if you love a guy. He can do anything to you and he will. It seems like they love you at first but they don’t, they only want to put it in you. They make out they care for you but O baby, they don’t. They’ll do you in hell, beat you up, they’ll mow you down. O baby, be careful…”(68).
But the Girl believes she’s in love with Butch and Clara’s prophecy comes true:
“Why in the hell did you do it? he said.
I felt cold. Do what? I said.
Instead of answering he struck me full in the face with the flat of his hand. I leaned against the wall. I couldn’t see. Then I saw his face awful in front of me, as he came toward me and I put out my hand and pushed against his chest and when I touched him I loved him then.
Somebody was coming up the stairs. Don’t Butch, I whispered, someone will see. I could see his hand lifted, this time in a fist and it struck me in the mouth. The man who had been coming up the stairs passed us and I tried to look like nothing happened. But I couldn’t help the blood coming out of the side of my mouth.
It’s funny to be hit. Nobody ever hit me before but papa. He didn’t hit like that. I took hold of Butch’s arm and we went down the stairs leaning on each other. It wasn’t snowing”(104).
But when the women are gathered without the men, there’s peace and safety and loads of pain to express and share. This scene is not long after the Girl discovers she’s pregnant:
“I’ll be glad when they’re back, Belle said, spreading her legs at the fire. I moved up close to her, I wanted to know everything she remembered and all the dead and living in her coming up like out of a deep sea. O the trouble I’m having with Hoinck, she said, he wants me to bring in the business and then he beats me up for jealousy. How can I bring in the business and not look at a man? Why did I marry? I could have been my own boss. But get married, honey, it’s wonderful. I could show you my mother and my grandmother. Honey, don’t worry, a person ought to have a child. I was just a kid, I was keeping house for a dame and her husband got at me. She sent me to the city with a paper with an address. I felt like a worm, I walked those streets, a kid. Then they just shafted the kid and left you to bleed to death. I passed it in a restroom, wrapped it in the St. Paul Dispatch and threw it in the Mississippi.
And then she began to weep for all the long and the coming dead, all the dead in the earth, all the dead in her.
Belle was a great tomb and I moved into her fat arms and her warm great bosom”(93).
Toward the end of the story, many downcast women, including the Girl and her friends, end up squatting in a warehouse, a space where they can shelter and try to stay warm. But their dear friend Clara is dying.
“Memory is all we got, I cried, we got to remember. We got to remember everything. It is the glory, Amelia said, the glory. We got to remember to be able to fight. Got to write down the names. Make a list. Nobody can be forgotten. They know if we don’t remember, we can’t point them out. They got their guilt wiped out. The last thing they take is the memory. Remember, Amelia says, the breasts of your mothers. O mama, help us now”(175).
The passing of Clara happens as the Girl prepares to give birth:
“I couldn’t get over it, that they should all care, as Amelia says, a breast for all – the men kind of hung back but the women gathered and I tell you with the sun pouring down as if free for all, I never in my life saw anything like it. I felt I would stand there and just drop my child into their hands, the Great Mothers, that’s what I saw and will always see as long as I draw breath. I got no words but it will be like I had told Clara, inside us forever. Remembering always and appearing in everything, great mirrors like we held the picture of all, the suffering of all. I saw mama there, the same bend of back, the sagging belly, the look of sorrow, and of something else, something fierce, and the reason you have a child maybe”(179).
And a baby is born, while leaflets for the Workers Alliance are being printed:
“Belle was shouting, It’s a girl, and the women murmured happily, It’s a girl!
A woman, Amelia cried, still wiping the body with her hands.
Belle was shouting, and for a moment the mimeograph stopped and then began again.
It’s a woman, Belle was shouting, a sister a daughter. No dingle dangle, no rod of Satan, no sword no third arm, a girl a woman a mother.
Amelia cried, Ho ho, a new woman”(181).
Amanda Arnold, in her article “The Forgotten History of American Working-Class Literature: And the Recent Movement to Restore its Place in the Canon” published in Literary Hub in 2017, goes on to say:
“Alan Wald, expert on the Literary Left, says “the lack of studies around working-class texts has denied the demographic “a genuine history of their own cultural activities through access to authors who wrote about strikes, rebellions, mass movements, the work experience, famous political trials, the tribulations of political commitment, as well as about love, sex, the family nature, and war from a class-conscious, internationalist, socialist-feminist, and antiracist point of view”(Arnold).
To deny an entire demographic their genuine history? Sounds familiar, and it’s beyond time the silence was shattered and memory restored.
“For an intersectional understanding of the relationships of marginalized groups to systems like capitalism and criminal justice, class cannot be ignored”(Arnold).
I thank Le Sueur for this novel because although it is difficult and heartbreaking to read, it taught me more about the strength and endurance of women than anything I have ever read before.
Meridel Le Sueur is a Nasty Woman Writer and Activist.
© Maria Dintino 2021
Arnold, Amanda. “The Forgotten History of American Working-Class Literature: And the Recent Movement to Restore its Place in the Canon.” Literary Hub, 1 May, 2017.
Kosiba, Sara. “The Strength of the Midwestern Proletariat: Meridel Le Sueur and the Ideal Proletarian Literature.” Kent State University. Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, MidAmerica XXXI, 2004.
Le Sueur, Meridel. The Girl. (Second Revised Edition) New York City: West End Press, 2006.