For more than seventy years, the Minnesota-based writer and activist Meridel Le Sueur was a voice for oppressed peoples worldwide. Beginning in the 1920s, she championed the struggles of workers against the capitalist economy, the efforts of women to find their voices and their power, the rights of American Indians to their lands and their cultures, and environmentalist causes.
Le Sueur was born in Murray, Iowa, in 1900, at the beginning of what she called “the most brutal century, the twentieth century.” Her family traveled across the Midwest into Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and, finally, Minnesota. She lived for several years in Fort Scott, Kansas, where her mother met the socialist Arthur Le Sueur, who later became Meridel’s stepfather.
Le Sueur’s body of work—both large and diverse—brought a message of hope and resistance to her readers. She wrote hundreds of works in many styles: short stories, reporting (both interpretive and objective), histories, children’s books, novellas, novels, poetry, and personal journal writing. Her subject matter ranged from objective reporting of labor activism, women’s rights, immigration, and poverty to deeply personal reflections.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Le Sueur was an advocate for the unemployed, marched with striking workers, and wrote articles for the Daily World, the national newspaper for the Communist Party. Over the decades, her short stories were published in the leading political and literary journals of the time, including the Kenyon Review and the New Republic. She also wrote for popular magazines: Parents, Mademoiselle, and Woman’s Home Companion.
One of Le Sueur’s best-known and most inspirational stories from the 1930s is “I Was Marching!”—a statement about human solidarity and collective political action. It was inspired by the 1934 Teamster Truckers’ strike in Minneapolis, a bitter labor dispute that ended in victory for the union in spite of the deaths of two strikers. The story moved Le Sueur’s peers as well as those in younger generations to become political activists.
Minnesota was a center of political activism during the Great Depression. Foreclosures of farms, strikes, drought in the Midwest, unemployment, and hunger—Le Sueur covered them all for the Daily Worker and other media and in her short stories and articles. The story “Women on the Breadlines” (1932) follows unemployed women during the Depression; “Milk Went Up Two Cents Today” (1940) explores the world of poor, pregnant women; and “Salvation Home” tells the story of young women committed to institutions and sterilized.
In The Girl (1939), Le Sueur documented the lives of working-class people in St. Paul at the end of Prohibition. The novel centers around a young girl, who is never named, as she matures politically in the company of other women. Her immediate world is a bar, where she and her friend Clara wait tables. The girl is enamored with a young man, Butch, who gets caught up in the violence of the times. The novel takes readers into a world of women: a loving, nurturing community that supports the girl, who represents the “girl” in all of us.
The McCarthy era (c.1945–1955) was a difficult time for Le Sueur. She was blacklisted along with many other artists and writers. She turned to writing children’s books like The Mound Builders as well as biographical studies of legendary American figures like Abe Lincoln, John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed), Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and Davy Crockett.
Le Sueur’s commitment to the Midwest runs deep in her writings and philosophy. Various critics have called her the “voice of the prairie” and the “poet of the people.” Her regional focus arises from an understanding of the Midwest as more than a physical place. Le Sueur’s work celebrates a uniquely Midwestern mindset that values deep connections between people and recognizes their history on the land.
It is the land itself, however, that forms the foundation of her passionate love for the region. Her work brings together the poetic imagery of American Indian philosophies, feminism, Midwestern culture, politics, and the earth.
In the 1970s, Leftist and feminist activists found inspiration in Le Sueur’s works, many of which (including Ripenings and North Star Country) were re-published. She continued writing until her death in Hudson, Wisconsin, on November 14, 1996.
Schleuning, Neala. “America: Song We Sang Without Knowing”: The Life and Ideas of Meridel Le Sueur. Mankato, MN, 1983.
——— . “Meridel Le Sueur: Toward a New Regionalism.” Books at Iowa 33, no. 1 (November 1980): 22–41.
In 1927, the journal Dial publishes Le Sueur’s short story “Persephone,” launching her literary career.
Meridel Wharton is born in Murray, Iowa, on February 22.
Meridel’s mother, Marian, marries Arthur Le Sueur. Meridel takes “Le Sueur” as her last name.
Le Sueur joins the Communist Party.
Le Sueur’s first short story, “Persephone,” is published.
Le Sueur’s first daughter, Rachel, is born.
Having studied and worked in Chicago, New York, Hollywood, and San Francisco, Le Sueur joins her family in Minnesota.
Le Sueur’s second daughter, Deborah, is born.
Le Sueur publishes Salute to Spring, a collection of short stories.
Le Sueur publishes North Star Country, a history of the Upper Midwest.
Le Sueur is blacklisted for her political views. She turns to writing children’s literature.
Members of the women’s movement renew public interest in Le Sueur’s work.
The Twin Cities Women’s Film Collective produces My People Are My Home, a documentary about Le Sueur’s life.
West End Press republishes Le Sueur’s novel The Girl, originally written in the 1930s.
This With My Last Breath, Le Sueur’s final work, is published.
Le Sueur dies in Hudson, Wisconsin, on November 14.