HUDSON, Wis. -- Meridel Le Sueur, author and poet with a range as sweeping as the great American prairie, turned 95 on Feb. 22. She is confined to bed but her creative powers are still burning.
She lives with her daughter Rachel and son-in-law Ken Tilsen in a house in the woods on a hill overlooking the snowy St. Croix River. Le Sueur was blacklisted, target of the anti-Communist witch hunt during the 1950s. With her comrades, she stood like a rock through the years of repression, her books mostly banned and most publishers too afraid to publish her works.
She eked out a living for herself and her two daughters working in garment sweatshops and restaurants. She was able to get published several children's books including Sparrow Hawk which is still read today.
Now the repression has dissipated and a new generation of writers and poets come in a steady stream to her bedside seeking to learn the art of her fiery social realism. Her close friend, Martha Boesing, wrote and produced an acclaimed play based on LeSueur's life, "Hard Times Come Again No More," which was performed at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis last year.
The Meridel LeSueur Peace and Justice Center is a focus of many grassroots movements in Minneapolis. She is the subject of full-page feature articles in newspapers and magazines. A critic, Chuck Miller wrote, "There is no one else left of LeSueur's stature in American literature today. She stands alone, a giant, waiting to be discovered by her own nation."
I traveled with a friend, Helvi Savola, for an interview with LeSueur one week before her 95th birthday last month. Moments after we arrived she announced matter of factly, "I became a Communist in 1925."
She wrote many articles for the Daily Worker, LeSueur said. "Sometimes I was sent by the paper to cover a strike. I considered myself a prophetic, monstrous writer of the Depression," she said, laughing at the memory. "When the workers send for you, then you know you're really good. Sometimes they would send money to pay the bus fare."
I asked LeSueur if she is still in the Communist Party. Le Sueur fixed me with her dark, piercing, eyes. "Prone -- but still in," she replied.
Le Sueur seems a bit bemused at being treated as the unofficial poet laureate by this new generation. "I am being honored now for my past. Now they celebrate my life. All kinds of honors. We paid for it. I couldn't get a job anywhere. Nothing! No jobs for a Communist."
Her bed is littered with the new books she is reading. One of them, Worker Writer in America -- Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990 by Douglas Wixson (Univ. of Illinois Press), is inscribed by the author, "You made this book possible."
Le Sueur complained that she can no longer type and this is a serious obstacle in completing her next book, a chronicle of the Green Corn Rebellion in Oklahoma. "The farmers rebelled when the banks seized their crops," she explained.
"They voted socialist there that year. Eugene Debs went into Oklahoma. They had meetings and read aloud from editions of the Appeal to Reason [The Socialist Party newspaper] because the farmers didn't know how to read. The ruling class came down on them with all the furies of hell!"
There are other important writers and poets whose subject was the romance and tragedy of the American prairie -- Hamlin Garlin, O.E. Rolvaag, Willa Cather, Tom McGrath. In my opinion Meridel LeSueur stands above them all. International Publishers of New York still offers a slim but superb collection of her short stories titled Salute to Spring.
She wrote in a 1930 short story, "Corn Village:"
"Like many Americans, I will never recover from my sparse childhood in Kansas. The blackness, weight and terror of childhood in mid-America strike deep into the stem of life. Like desert flowers we learned to crouch near the earth, fearful that we would die before the rains, cunning, waiting the season of good growth ....
Oh, Kansas, I know all your little trees. I have watched them thaw and bud and the pools of winter frozen over, the silos and the corn-blue sky, the wagon tracked road with the prints of hoofs, going where? I have seen the spring like an idiotic lost peasant come over the prairies scattering those incredibly tiny flowers, and the earth thaw to black mud, and a mist of greening come on the thickets, 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."
She learned early to look at things as they really are. "I tell the young writers who visit: 'Carry a notebook. That is the secret of a radical writer. Write it down as it is happening.'"
Le Sueur's direct experience has been a safeguard against the curse of defeatism or cynicism of writers who see only a static reality. Even when she writes of starvation or the massacre of strikers there is lyricism in her stories and poems. She presents defeat with stark, tragic clarity. But her writing is also an argument that life is impossible without struggle. As she puts it, "Survival is a form of resistance."
There are characters in her stories who accept their fate passively. But others, especially the women, burn with anger. It is a latent power of revolutionary change.
"The difference between a bourgeois writer and a working class writer," she told us, "is knowing what you are looking at. The bourgeois writer doesn't have an attitude toward what he sees. He doesn't see how it relates to other things and events."
Biography of My Daughter is a tale of Rhoda, a young woman who works her way through college, earning a degree as a librarian. She is unable to find a job in her profession and is forced to work 16-hour-days as a waitress. Ultimately she dies in a sanitarium. The diagnosis is blunt: She came down with TB from overwork and exhaustion. She died of starvation.
"I didn't make it up," Le Sueur said. "I was starving with my children. That was before the Unemployed Councils. Then it became magnificent -- the Party's organization of the unemployed!"
In 1934, Le Sueur volunteered at strike headquarters for the Minneapolis Trucker's strike. Two strikers were shot to death and scores wounded by police in a massacre called Black Friday. In her short story, "I Was Marching," Le Sueur describes her emotions on joining the funeral procession:
"There was the curious shuffle of thousands of feet, without drum or bugle, in ominous silence, a march not heavy as the military, but very light, exactly with the heart beat. 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 ... I felt my legs straighten. I felt my feet join in that strange shuffle of thousands of bodies moving with direction, of thousands of feet, and my own breath with the gigantic breath. As if an electric charge had passed through me, my hair stood on end, I was marching."
Those are the years that Le Sueur enlisted in the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of the New Deal program that employed thousands of jobless poets, novelists, artists, actors, sculptors, musicians and dancers. "I earned $90 per month writing and proofreading," she told us. "They tried to keep the radicals out but they didn't succeed."
Meridel Le Sueur was born in Murray, Iowa, Feb. 22, 1900. She was raised by Arthur and Marian Le Sueur, living in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Minnesota. "Arthur Le Sueur was a passionate socialist," she said. "He had been elected, once, as mayor of Minot, North Dakota." Her mother and grandmother were also socialists and suffragists.
The family moved to Gerard, Kan. where the Socialist Party had established a center. Here was published the Appeal to Reason. Her mother played a leading role in establishing a "workers' school" serving both resident and corresponding students.
"At its height, 5,000 students were enrolled," she said. "It showed the great vitality of the middle western workers. They had an energy that came out of the land but also out of the struggles. They were Farmer-Laborites and many of them were socialists. They had quite a number of clubs and elected members of Congress."
During World War I, reactionary forces branded the anti-imperialist movement as disloyal. Debs was jailed for speaking out against the war. Vigilantes hunted down socialists who opposed the war. Many were tarred and feathered.
"We had a place in the basement to remove tar from people," she said. "Some people died." The Le Sueur family was forced to flee to Minneapolis -- a city that has been Le Sueur's home ever since.
She scoffs at the gloating by capitalist ideologues that socialism and communism are finished.
"I don't get around a lot but I think working people are going to rise again like in the Great Depression," she said. "We're seeing a lot of interest in old forms like the Farmer-Labor Party. In some ways, there is a kind of release, a growth in radicalization. I think that is in response to conditions getting worse, so much hunger and homelessness."
Le Sueur's life has come full circle. She has outlived many scoundrels and has remained true to herself and the people.
One of the strongest expressions of new life in her writing is in a short story,"Annunciation," about her own pregnancy:
"Walk heavily as a wheat stalk at its full time bending toward the earth waiting for the reaper. Let your life swell downward so you become a vase, a vessel. Let the unknown child knock and knock against you and rise like a dolphin within."
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