Murray is a small town in Iowa notable as the birthplace of two people – my wife, Mona, and the feminist writer Meridel Le Sueur. We recently visited Murray to celebrate for the jamboree to celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary and I was inspired to do some research into the town and its other famous person, Le Sueur.
In 1868, Murray was founded when Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy railroad laid tracks on the site. The town slowly built up to accommodate the railroad. Since its founding, the town has neither boomed or busted. The population has fluctuated between about 600 and 850 people over the last 100 years. At its height in 1900, 949 people lived in Murray.
At the peak of its growth, Meridel Le Sueur was born as Meridel Wharton to William Winston Wharton and Marian “Mary Del” Lucy. Her father was a minister with the Church of Christ and her mother was a suffragist. At some point, her parents separated but I was unable to find out when or why. I find that particularly interesting because in the early twentieth century divorce was particularly difficult to obtain and usually required some showing of fault, such as adultery.
Mary Del remarried to Arthur Le Sueur and Meridel adopted her stepfather’s last name. Arthur was a well-known socialist who had served as mayor of Minot, North Dakota. The family moved to Fort Scott, Kansas where Arthur was taught at the People’s College, a socialist-oriented correspondence school. But during World War I, an angry mob destroyed the college and the family fled to St. Paul, Minnesota.
From what I know of her fiction, I don’t think Le Sueur was particularly fond of her time in Kansas. In her short story Corn Village, Le Sueur wrote, “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.”
Her mother and stepfather continued to be activists and regularly hosted meetings of labor groups such as the Populists, Industrial Workers of the World, Farmers’ Alliance and the Wobbles in the home. Growing up in such a political environment would heavily influence her personal beliefs and future career as a journalist.
Le Sueur attended high school at the American College of Physical Education in Chicago but left after a year of studying dance and physical fitness. At sixteen, she moved to New York City to study at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Using her family connections, she stayed at a commune that shared anarchist Emma Goldman at the time.
From New York, Le Sueur went to California and began acting as an extra and stuntwoman in movies. But she shifted away from acting and began focusing on her writing as she became disillusioned with the film industry. In the 1920’s, Le Sueur joined the Communist Party and regularly contributed to the Daily Worker. She wrote frequently about the suffering she saw during the Great Depression, focusing particularly on the struggles of women, workers, and Native Americans. Describing her success as a Communist journalist, she said, “When the workers send for you, then you know you're really good. Sometimes they would send money to pay the bus fare.” She added, “I considered myself a prophetic, monstrous writer of the Depression.”
Le Sueur was briefly married to Harry Rice, a Marxist labor organizer. They divorced in the mid-1930’s after having two daughters together, Rachel and Deborah. During the marriage, Le Sueur also published her first work of fiction, the short story Persephone.
Her fiction was heavily influenced by her political leanings and her observations during the Depression. In 1932, she published one of her most well known works, Women on the Breadlines. She honestly described the tragic struggles of women in desperate economic situations. During the same period, she wrote her novel, The Girl. Though it would not be published for some time.
As a result of the Red Scare, Le Sueur’s career mostly came to a halt in the 1950’s. She was an open Communist at a time when politicians were looking for anarchists and revolutionaries under every child’s bed. As the single mother of two children, she experienced significant personal hardship. Though she continued to write children’s books and teach writing workshops, she had to supplement her income by working in sewing shops and restaurants.
In the 1960’s, a changing political landscape allowed Le Sueur to resume her work as a journalist and she traveled to college campuses to attend protests and conduct interviews. In the 1970’s, there was a renewed interest in her fiction work and her novel, The Girl, was finally published in 1978 – about 40 years after it was written.
Le Sueur continued to be celebrated in the following decades as a proto-feminist author who had been unappreciated in her time. She published Ripening in 1982, which a New York Times book review glowed, “inspires belief in the power of a writer – a woman – to prevail against poverty, persecution and public neglect.”
When asked about the renewed interest in her work, Le Sueur said, “I am being honored now for my past. Now they celebrate my life. All kinds of honors. We paid for it. I wouldn’t get a job anywhere. Nothing! No jobs for a Communist.”
Le Sueur continued to write until her death in 1996. Unfortunately, many of her works are out of print. When visiting Murray, there aren’t any plaques or memorials commemorating her. I don’t find that particularly surprising because she is a controversial figure. An avowed Communist and feminist, she is not an easy hero to celebrate during our current political times. But knowing her history, I do feel she is worth celebrating. She devoted herself to giving a voice to the voiceless – the working classes and women – at great personal cost to herself. And she did so with an artistic skill that it is still recognized decades later.
When I asked Mona about Le Sueur, she said she had written a short report about her in grade school. And while that may not be as significant as her New York Times obituary, I do find it touching. We all work and we all strive to accomplish something in the hopes of being memorialized in some fashion, whether a monument or a blog post. I hope Le Sueur would appreciate knowing she would be remembered by a young girl in her hometown of Murray and later, her wife.