Meridel Le Sueur : The Dread Road : Sparrow Hawk : Where Strength is Cached : Better Red (a review of a review)

The Dread Road as Re-read Road

Review of The Dread Road by Meridel Le Sueur, 1991, West End, Press, $11.95, PO Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125, ISBN 0-931122-63-5


          Today, makes Yesterday mean—Emily Dickinson

          A great writer creates his (sic) predecessors.—T.S. Eliot


          Meridel Le Sueur’s new novel, over fifty years after her last one (The Girl, written in 1939, revised in 1977) represents a formal breakthrough while continuing the themes expressed throughout her long career as poet, short story writer, and social activist: the resurrection of the real stories hidden by the culture of oppression, telling the collective story of women still alive to the natural world, and reclaiming a writing intimately connected through a body of work in a supportive community to the tribal voice of the people whose collective struggle makes all culture possible.

          What so distinguishes this novel from her recent poetry and the reissuing of her earlier stories, reportage, novels, and books written for children (the works that mark her rediscovery by feminists and political radicals) is that The Dread Road forces a re-reading of her work through the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, an author we hardly would think of as supporting the themes that mark Le Sueur’s life work.


          For always, in fair weather and foul, she had but one topic

          of conversation, but one theme, one song, one opus; and that

          was concerning the dead child. “The Miracle” (1932)


The Dread Road is formally experimental in that it contains on each page three stories: excerpts from Poe's stories, the narrative of a woman taking a bus ride from the American Southwest up to Denver, and this woman’s subjective voice (or is it a collective voice?) dealing with her struggles with her coming to grips with the challenge to her personal history posed by a woman she befriends on the trip, a woman carrying, wrapped in a bag she holds tightly to her at all times, a dead child.


          “ feed the corpse they had already buried for her.”

                      —“Fudge” (1933)


Le Sueur continues her broad theme of presenting not opposition based on gender, but the opposition of characters based on their ability or lack of ability to rise above the social class conditioning of a culture detached from natural productive forces and alienated because of ignorance of a history that could, if fully felt, redeem that culture.  In The Dread Road the conflict is portrayed by the narrator and a woman social worker who betrays her class and other women, who voluntarily accepts her role as victim and oppressor.

          Though this story is, as the editor states in the afterward, "a radical departure" it was prefigured as early as 1935 in a short story, "Fudge".  The narrator of that story states,

I lowered my head, remembering what I had heard men saying, women saying, seeing then in my mind's eye three things: what had been said about it, what it had become ..., fusing together, lapping over, and then there was a terrific thing stood up beside me ...  —what had really happened?—It takes the collective voice—of the culture and of the individual—to tell the real story.


          The book is an impressive achievement in design and collaborative production.  It is laid out to take advantage of the writing technique, contains beautiful color photos and art work, pictures of the author, a brief biography, history of the Ludlow, Colorado coal wars that form the basis for the narrative (for the real story is the story that is hidden from our national, collective, consciousness), and essays that establish the context for our understanding of the several narratives of the story.


          Not murder, rape, violence, horror of act and deed but these are the horrors, of being walled in and living still."

                      “Psyche” (1935).


It is difficult, any longer, to question the author's thesis that the real living history of our country lies buried, and that that constitutes a genuine horror.  I don't question it.  After watching the president and the media lead the nation into the Gulf War and the cover up of the resulting horrors, who can?  And I did find one small confirmation of how the horror of the Rockefeller sanctioned murders of miners and families during the Ludlow coal strike of 1914 has been further erased from our collective memory: when I was searching for historical material for this review I looked under the heading I once used —“Ludlow Massacre”; now the Library of Congress Subject Headings listing has been changed to the innocuous and inaccurate “Coal Strike, Colo.”

( and )

Arrow in Sparrow, See in Seed


Sparrow Hawk, $13.95, and Little Brother of the Wilderness, the story of Johnny Appleseed, $9.95; both by Meridel Le Sueur, and both published by Holy Cow! Press, 1987; PO Box 3170, Mount Royal Station, Duluth, MN 55803.


          Jim Perlman’s celebrated Holy Cow! Press has re-published two of Meridel Le Sueur’s stories for children, both originally published during the post-war political witch hunt era when the author could beat the blacklist by publishing stories only children might fully understand.  Both stories tell the tale of freedom, true democracy, and the renewal of life and literature through nature.

          Little Brother is for young readers; that is, the vocabulary is not complex but the ideas are likely too simple for the over-educated, over-indoctrinated to comprehend. Le Sueur’s Johnny Appleseed is not only a combination of Buddha and St. Francis but is in addition the model for the writer/poet who creates with no hope for immediate gain. And of course the merchants and those who see only short-term profits laugh:  “What an idea, carrying seed like a bird!”  But his Buddha-like compassion, his ability to speak with the animals, and his love of literature sustain him. While attending the wounded from a battle between Indians and whites “A bullet hit him square in the middle.”  He was unharmed: “He took out the big book he had in his blouse and there was the bullet gone clean through the book but it hadn’t scratched his skin.”  Le Sueur, like any decent poet, merges message with language in a way perhaps only children, or those like Appleseed who attempt to be pure in heart, can appreciate. When Appleseed meets the frontier log-splitter Abe Lincoln they both express their love for democracy through their language. They measure their heights and the seed planter says, “Well, I’m as tall for me as you are tall for you.” Her faith in the democratic voice of genuine people might help children see the cynicism of the language of politics and commerce that assails us all. Le Sueur gives us with this short tale the bright side of the dark myth of avarice and greed that is the story of the whiteman’s push ever west across the land of America. The book contains drawings by Suzy Sansom and an historical afterward about Le Sueur and Jonathan Chapman (1775-1847), pioneer and mystic, who the children called Johnny Appleseed.

          Sparrow Hawk tells the story of two youths, the Indian Sparrow Hawk and his white friend Huck, living along the Mississippi in 1832 in the heart of the heart of the country. This story might be considered a continuation of that planted by Johnny Appleseed. It ends in tragedy, but there is the hope, the essential optimism of the writer, that the message of resurrection, the essential optimism of the fruit of the earth, will triumph. The story is as much about the value of corn, economic and spiritual, as it is about the two boys’ friendship. Le Sueur sings the song of the corn plant, establishing in a simple story about and for the young the corn plant as symbol for true democracy.  We need to remember that it was the Indian nations that provided Hamilton, Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with their model for democratic government not the Greek model adopted by the slave holding south. And we need to remember that the corn plant is nature’s model for such organization, not the corn plant as we know it homogenized to grow to a standard height to accommodate the machinery to harvest it, but the corn plant as cultivated by the Indians so that it adapts to every growing condition and with kernels of all colors, white, red, black, yellow.  Sparrow Hawk is a treasure, a tale of good and of evil; in short, a genuine story about America. The book is illustrated by Robert Desjarlait, with a forward by Vine Deloria, Jr.  Praised by the New York Times upon first publication, the book needs to be praised again as we pass the story on to our own children. It belongs in all schools and library, and in our own homes.


Where Strength is Cached


Now, in a moment of crisis and cold, they point out where the warm ash of the old fires can give you warmth, where strength is cached.

 —Meridel Le Sueur, from The Crusaders, The Radical Legacy

 of Marian and Arthur Le Sueur


She repeats herself. And this is also a promise, like the example of Demeter: not death but re-birth. In conversation as in life, for conversation is life, she repeats, not the straight line, not that lie leading directly to the bomb from the linear mind, the mind formed by print. Charles Olson turned this awareness into theory: Projective Verse, “COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line...”. Long before Olson left the post office to be a poet, she was composing “by field.”  She said and lived it all of her long life, from the year 1900 to near to the century’s end. She repeats herself in those of us who remember, as she repeated in every conversation I had with her Albert Parson’s last words before he was hung as a conspirator for the Haymarket bombing: “Let the Voice of the People be Heard.” And through her it is.

Contemporary Authors tells us that Meridel’s father, Arthur Le Sueur, founded the Industrial Workers of the World, a line and a lie repeated in several entries in that reference work that now stands as truth in all the libraries in the country. Her father and mother, along with Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, and a few other progressives were founding members of the People’s College in 1914. Perhaps this is what the scholars are referring to. Arthur Le Sueur had nothing to do with the founding of the IWW (1905), though he continually fought with Big Bill Haywood and other IWW leaders over tactics and policy. Do scholars know anything? Can they be trusted? One of the many lessons Meridel has taught us: it’s not just “Don’t let the bastards beat you down”; it is also “Don’t let the bastards re-tell our history.”


...a print version of Funk & Wagnall called Microsoft chief Bill Gates a “tough competitor.” But an electronic Microsoft version describes him as “known for his...contributions to charity.” —Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14, 1997


In Meridel’s novel, The Girl, Clara, prostitute, friend, dreamer, receives electric shock treatments instead of food, shelter, nourishment. As Clara dies:

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 memory.


And it is. It is not just the electric media, its control, ubiquity, power. The burden upon us, writers, is now even greater. Memory is the first thing they take. It’s not just Clara, the women of the Depression, it’s the world, the electric media shock treatment that destroys memory, replaces it, over-writes it, with trash, information only. In every library sits the Library of Congress Subject Headings, and they are different than they were: the Ludlow Massacre, Colo. 1913-1914 has been changed to Coal Strike, Colo. 1913-1914. A massacre perpetrated by the private army of the Rockefeller family cooperating with the National Guard of Colorado has been changed to “a strike.” The only thing that hasn’t changed is the universal constant of government: blame the victim.

The Ludlow Massacre was, as she said of it, her defining moment. As a young teenager, she went to the Colorado mine fields and recorded the stories. And from those voices evolved her last published novel, The Dread Road. And from all of her stories, the hundreds and thousands of recordings and from her memories came the works of hers that may never be published but which constitute her greatest writings: her notebooks, her partially finished novels, her music-made writings, her unfinished symphonies.

Meridel said that “Someone has been shaking commas all over my notebooks.” Changing them. Changing her legacy. Changing her to fit an acceptable mold. She criticized Robert Coles for changing the Appalachian speech of his “subjects.”  We need to know how people talk, and we need to know how Meridel writes. Hers was an organic form, based on, rooted in, faith in the land and the people who love it. And she has taught us the most important lesson we can learn about community. It’s a lesson that her feminist, Marxist, Communist, realist, midwest folklorist admirers have never learned: there is a solidarity based on something other than victimization. And she is a writer, greater, more of a stylist, than any of the most honored of the novelists who were her contemporaries when she developed her writing style (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Lawrence). She is a writer who has left us more to learn from than any other. And she repeats herself in us, where strength is cached.

 (and, the last

Better Not Read?

Better Red, the Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Seuer by Constance Coiner (Oxford U Pr. 1995), this book promises much and delivers little, which is why it is such a disappointment. Better Red should be a good book. I’ve been waiting for a book that places Le Sueur in the context of her times, our times, the whole twentieth century, especially detailing her relationship with the Communist Party. The book appears radical but does nothing but restrain, confine, and, ultimately, paralyze the left into inaction by fragmenting our concerns, keeping us isolated into a debilitating sense of “the personal is political.” Coiner seems more interested in using Le Sueur to promote her own ideology than in helping us (and I say “us” deliberately, not that anonymous thing “the reader”) understand how a radical woman writer could survive then and keep writing now.

Writers reveal themselves; it’s not possible not to. Look to this writer’s own words; they are the net she catches herself in. Coiner says, “ the context of this study ‘resistance’ means writing that opposes not only the dominant culture but also at times restrictive elements within a leftist subculture” (6). Rather than praise Coiner for at least writing about these women writers, we need resist her on her own terms, especially that opposition to the leftist subculture that is her book, for hers is a leftist subculture that is anything but liberating.

Coiner lays out the terms of her stance toward Le Sueur in order to make a case against her. She states that her own work is dialogical and an example of enlightened feminism: “Moreover, I reject any categorical opposition between male domination and female virtue,...” (7). She uses these positions to accuse Le Sueur of several ideological sins: monological writing (making of the reader a passive recipient), separatism, and dualistic thinking about gender. Le Sueur, according to Coiner, suffers from a “fundamental problem.” Oh, my. This is the Big Critic speaking! She pulls in help from her “sisters” to make the case:

Mary Jacobus and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in their work on other women writers, help illuminate this fundamental problem in Le Sueur. [Note, the problem is not even in her work, or in some of it, it’s in her. It makes me shudder to think how this party chairwoman would apply the censor’s scissors.] As Jacobus argues, women writers, “at once within this culture and outside it,” must simultaneously challenge cultural terms and work within them.”

Well. If this working “simultaneously” doesn’t describe Meridel’s whole career, what does? Coiner seems oblivious to the most elemental quality of all writing: it is always distant, removed, isolated, because writing is a private act of individual writers. Le Sueur’s frustration about the “fetish” of being outside the culture of the workers, the exploited, women, farmers, Native Americans, is a call to look to where the kind of ignorance about writing that Coiner illustrates will lead us. As Meridel says (and William Carlos Williams had the same sense of this, his Spring and All being his response), Eliot’s “The Wasteland” leads to the Bomb. And it does. Unless we continually remind ourselves of the dangers of that detachment, the illusion of objectivity, the seduction of institutional power, the “Olympian” superiority that comes from the conquest of literacy over oral cultures (including our own orality every time we sit down to write). Otherwise, the pessimism, the fear that drove Eliot to seek refuge in the monarchy, Anglican Church authority, the fascist mind in other words, all of this will subvert the communal impulse that is always latent in oral discourse, oral culture. And this communal impulse is at the heart of Le Sueur’s work.


Coiner accuses Meridel of monological writing when this is exactly what she herself does. Against Le Sueur and Tillie Olsen, Coiner uses the authority of all those “sisters” of hers; she uses the authority of her own scholarship (all those works cited!); she uses the authority of Oxford University Press; she uses the whole apparatus, all the objective, reasoned discourse to beat these two creative women down. And the irony, of course, is that these two are the kind of writers Coiner fears most while seeming to praise them because they do exactly what she refuses to do. They have engaged themselves throughout their entire lives in active struggle as writers to not dominate the reader, not to speak in only one voice, not to claim institutional power as their own. When Coiner accuses Le Sueur, she is blind to the fact that this is exactly the criticism that she should be leveling at her own writing: “Although the ‘message’ in these polemical pieces is culturally and politically oppositional, the rhetorical model is that of the dominant culture” (14). What could be more a model of dominant culture than her own book?

Coiner wants to be on the side of the angels, but her whole book is pretext for applying swift justice with the devil’s police club. She seems not to understand the first thing about power. Her book in indistinguishable from any other academic criticism. Her language is absolutist, monological, unvarying in it scolding tone, and unrelenting in its own sense of its own authority. She has learned nothing herself from Bahktin, only learned enough to criticize others by using the authorities for the past twenty or so years in fashion on the Left: Bahktin, Kristeva, Gramsci. Most of all, however, Coiner has accepted the dominant culture’s function of literary criticism: to isolate, alienate, enfeeble, paralyze. She states in her introduction that her work on this book has changed her, but only a little.

Many in the women’s movement have made archetypes of Le Sueur and Olsen, who have become emblematic figures as much as historical ones, and yet I have more patience now than I did at the beginning of this project with interviews that tend to be honorific rather than penetrating. (13)

God, would Meridel have had something powerful to say about Coiner’s choice of words! Penetrating indeed. Criticism is not penetrating. It is an act of love. Or it is just some power trip. This book was written as if Coiner had learned not a little but nothing at all from Le Sueur’s writing or the writing about her writing. She, however, had a model to learn from: Neala Schleuning’s America: Song We Sang Without Knowing. Neala made herself vulnerable in the act of her criticism much the way Le Sueur made herself vulnerable in the act of her writing, teaching us that all genuine writing involves such a risk. Schleuning altered the form of her book as the materials presented themselves to her; much like Thoreau’s stance toward reality, she refused not to “face” the facts of Le Sueur’s work and her own pull towards it. As she recounts early in her book: “I decided to take up her challenge: to try to write with heat and passion, to try to be with her, to understand her life as it unfolded” (3). One thing she certainly did not do: she did not PENETRATE!

Coiner reveals herself most when she criticizes Le Sueur in relation to Rebecca Harding Davis’ short story “Life in the Iron Mills.” Coiner’s basic criticism is that Davis and Le Sueur are afraid to deal with their real issues so they concern themselves with the working class instead. Here is Coiner’s critique of one of the most abused nineteenth century writers:

Davis’s sympathy for the mill workers depicted in her novel (sic) was the result of her own circumscribed life as a woman, albeit of the middle class. Davis used the working class safely to protest her own oppression, partly displacing a latent feminist voice. (139)


There was nothing at all safe about Davis’ writing about the working class. Her story is almost the only American fiction written about the working class until the 1930s, over fifty years later. Davis was forced to change the title of her story from “The Korl Woman.” This is a genuine displacement, made by male editors, and it switches the emphasis from women (Davis herself, Deborah, the real woman of the Korl, the discarded refuse of the steel making process) to men, the male artist (Olympian in his choice to kill himself, especially now that the focus is on him instead of Deborah) whose life is ruined by mill life. I’m sure the male editor and the male promoters of the male artists had no problem identifying with this fellow artiste. The switch in focus distorted the class focus of the story, but Coiner distorts it even more so by blaming the writer. How many times must the victim be blamed before this pervasive tendency be exposed for what it is? Also, note the putdown, “albeit of the middle class”! Albeit nothing. What is Coiner but middle class? On these terms, what else is the book she is writing but a displacement? Anyone can play such a game. Here she is on Le Sueur:

Le Sueur, like Davis, has not fully confronted the cruelty of her own life. Adopting the personae and subject matter of the working class (and Native Americans, in the case of Rites of Ancient Ripening) to an extent relieved Le Sueur of that burden—at some cost, perhaps, to her readers. (139)

What a crock. Coiner commits the very sin she criticizes Le Sueur for the most, reductionism. For Coiner, all writing but the personal is displacement (excepting her own writing). Coiner would have no one but working class people write of and for the working class. But Coiner is not of the working class. Or if she was born into it, she is now out of it. Can she still write of it? Of course. Workers don’t write. They work. Anyone who has worked enough to know what it means to be exploited knows that you haven’t the energy to write, which is the very tragedy recorded so eloquently by women writers, writers raised in poverty, workers who gain some temporary respite from the kind of spirit killing work the “working class” designation refers to.

Writers write from privilege. And we struggle for the rights of all oppressed to ensure that privilege for all. Insisting that concerns for anything outside of the writer’s own personal, daily life is “displacement” is the surest way to ensure the victory of reactionaries of every stripe, and worse, to ensure the reactionary spirit within one’s own self. What more do these little fascist minds want of us, the Doles, Gingriches, Clintons, but to keep us not concerned about Guatemala, El Salvador, the CIA overthrow of Allende, the workers’ strikes of 1877, the women mill workers in Maine?

Everything concerns us. Every injustice. Every misuse of language that leads to domination and alienation instead of liberation. Poems of El Salvador are valid poems even if the poet has never been to El Salvador. Our money sends our soldiers there to support governments on their knees to our corporations. We are there whether we want to be or not, and that’s why we protest. The personal is always political, but not quite in the way Coiner wants it. Le Sueur extends the personal beyond “the cruelty of her own life” to include the cruelty of women, workers, Native Americans. This extension is not an evasion or some kind of unauthentic displacement. This is the proper role of the writer; writing is by its nature an extension. Giving voice to the voiceless, a favorite saying of Le Sueur’s, is not evasion nor is it bad faith: it is the responsibility of privilege. Any restrictions on the writer’s ability is suspect, whether they be Coiner’s ideological ones or her condescending statements such as: “As a whole, Le Sueur’s work contributes to American literature and social history a valuable record whose lives have rarely been chronicled. Yet ....” Yet. Yet? Yet what has this writer, Coiner, done? “As a whole”? She has refused the opportunity given her to celebrate, honor, and to offer criticism that helps us understand, and she has given us instead one more academic, anemic, narrowly conceived vision of what human beings are capable of. I can’t call her a writer, perhaps a scribbler, a scrivener. And what is to be learned is not to become such as she. Le Sueur deserves better. We all deserve better, for Le Sueur’s work stands not as the idolatrous monument Coiner saw but as an ever-flowing fountain that renews us with its ever-present artistry that flows out from an abiding faith in people’s culture, a culture not imposed, not governed by tastes in service of oppression, a culture opening out and away from restrictive ideologies.