I had the luck to see Meridel LeSueur once. I can't say I met her, but she was pointed out to me in a theater crowd and I went and hovered stupidly and eavesdropped. She came to see a production of Germinal put on by the Theatre de la June Lune, a company that is no longer with us, sadly. She was dressed in black with lots of baubled necklaces, and an enormous brimmed black hat. She was 95 years old, straight-backed, and we were all in awe of her. I was a foolish lamb at the time, so I had only a vague idea who she was, but I knew she was heavily involved in the labor movements in Minnesota, and in Native rights, and she had been sort of resurrected by women's studies departments after a long period of blacklisting by McCarthy, et al.
I've been on a thing reading Minnesota authors recently, for no more interesting a reason than I am a born and bred Minnesotan, and I like seeing my home state in print. I recently read Lewis's Main Street, which I loved like crazy, but I know that a lot of my enjoyment comes from the ways Lewis captures the cadences and rhythms of the lives of my people. So, reader beware on my unreserved love for this book as well. Written in the mid-30s, The Girl
did not come to print until the late-70s, for a number of reasons, but I think the biggest reason is that this is far to raw and honest about the time it was created, and had to be cocooned in the passage of time. Le Sueur was in a group of some sort with working class women, not as an academic, more as a folklorist. Many of the women were only semi-literate, and Le Sueur wrote their stories down, listened, tried to give them voice in this work of fiction.
So here's where I freak out a little bit. What I want to do right now in this review is overshare like there is no tomorrow. LeSueur tells the story of The Girl, coming in off of a failed dirt farm outstate into the hedonist hell-hole of St Paul. (I'm sorry, this is a local in-joke to call St Paul a hedonist hell-hole, because it is common knowledge that everything shuts down at 5pm. Although, really, I'm saying this living in the real hedonist hell-hole of Minneapolis, and I know this sort of smearing of the cities comes from the outer towns. Just ask Grandpa what he thought of The Cities.) I know this is just me and the proximity in which I read these books, but I can't help comparing this to Main Street, with the protagonists crossing paths, one leaving St Paul for the real America of the outer towns; the other escaping the outer towns and finding herself in the decadent whirl of the big city. The Girl and Carol, the protagonist of Main Street
, are different in other ways too: Carol is educated and comfortably middle-class, The Girl is her nameless impoverished corollary.
Here's where the overshare comes in: this book so beautifully captures a certain kind of dialect, the lacunae, exaggeration, and proverbial thrum of spoken language, the language of women telling the hardest stories they have to an audience of other women. It's all so bald and ornamented with cliches, but the kind of cliches that set down in context have this almost subversive sense to them, the ways in which what is not said is just as important as what is said. And the stories themselves: heartbreak, but the kind that keeps picking up and walking on, because there is no other response to have. I have this friend, a close friend...but I'm not going to tell her stories. They are not mine to tell.
“It seems like my family was crippled and hurt just as much as if their flesh had been riddled by bullets and their limbs torn apart. Them losing their children one way or another. The last son walking down the road and never saying a living word again. And the beauty Marilyn, prettier than me, pride of his eye being ground into the manure of the city. I left because papa was driven to fury sitting down with all the mouths to feed. We had to eat in relays. He had a dark and stormy love for his children and the only thing he could be sure of for them was danger.”
I just told another story that I deleted because I can't share it; it's not mine. There's something difficult about talking about this because I believe, I believe, that sometimes the stories of women are hard to tell because they are so bound up in the political, too inextricable, that the speaking of those stories becomes a violation just in the act of telling, a violation of the women and the society all at once. Holy shit, I have no idea if this makes any sense. How about this, taking from this text:
“Clara's been twice in the house of corrections and says you learn a lot about how not to get screwed there. Belle says this is a rotten stinking world and for women it's worse, and with your insides rotting out of you and men at you day and night and the welfare workers following you and people having to live off of each other like rats. It's covered with slime, she says. I wouldn't bring up no kids in it. She says she's had thirteen abortions. Clara is very cheerful, cutting out pictures from the magazines showing elegant houses and drapes and furniture and stuff for the baby room and maid's room, all the best stuff, but at night she cries thinking she is going to hell because of what she does with men, but Belle says we are in hell right now and there isn't a God who would make men and women wanting what they want and then stick them in hell after they've done it.”
And there's another story deleted, because I hit the third rail in it and talked about abortion. I'm going to leave it unsaid because I am a bigger coward than LeSueur, who told these stories without the ringing echoes of fear, whose narrative is a service to women who are rarely heard both on the page and in the world.
I've often said, mostly as a joke, that Americans can't write social realism, but I'm totally wrong here. Although I do continue to believe that social realism is not a mode we are comfortable in, because Americans in their hearts are idealists, in the original, Platonic sense of the word. We live in an America peopled with Forms, who range around in the broad glory, uninterested in how the reality of our experience belies our beliefs. I think also – maybe, I will qualify the shit out of everything I'm saying in this review – that we haven't been able to do social realism since the Depression, when our poverty became unavoidable, when it became too obvious that the the things we believe and the effects of those beliefs were often two different things.
I am bereft that I was too much of a young fool to know who LeSueur was when I saw her in the theater 15 years ago, that I hadn't encountered her fierce and kind bravery at the time. I'm not sure I would have done anything different, because my cowardice is social as well as political, but I am so happy I can say I saw there then, the way she saw The Girl, and laid her bare.