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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Le Sueur, Meridel
(February 22, 1900–November 14, 1996)

–writer—was born in Murray, Iowa, to Marian Wharton, a suffragist, and William Winston Wharton, a minister in the Church of Christ. She spent most of her childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. At an early age Le Sueur developed strong connections with American Indian and immigrant women that fed her lifelong feeling of distance from the "white, middle-class, Protestant culture" that she was otherwise part of, and fueled her burgeoning awareness of social injustice.

    In addition to these connections, her mother and stepfather (Marian Wharton was remarried to Arthur Le Sueur, a lawyer who was a member of the Socialist Party) exposed her to midwestern radicalism, including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the farmer-Labor Party. As one of Le Sueur's editors, Elaine Hedges, put it, "she had absorbed both the IWW ideal of the worker-writer and a belief in the artist as activist and revolutionary."

    Disappointed with the curriculum and being treated as an outsider due to her family's socialism, she left high school in 1916 and moved to New York City. While studying theater and appearing on stage in dramatic roles, she joined an anarchist commune. Unable to fully realize her goals as an actress either there or subsequently in Hollywood, she moved to San Francisco.

    There she started her career as a writer in earnest even as she continued to work in small theaters and make a living from restaurant and factory work. The world that she took part in there was a far cry from the romanticized post-World War I "Jazz Age."There was the specter of people she knew not returning home from the war and political persecution of socialists, symbolized, for Le Sueur, by the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and execution. In the midst of the hardships she endured during that decade (she was briefly jailed for protesting against the Sacco and Vanzetti trial), she found her voice as a fiction writer and published her first story, "Per sephone," in 1927, in the Dial. The story was the culmination of writing she had done since arriving in San Francisco for left-wing and labor publications.

    Le Sueur's fiction incorporated her politics and her views on social injustice, and her work was praised by well-known authors of a similar vein, such as H. L. Mencken, who published her story "Laundress" in his American Mercury. With D. H. Lawrence as a literary guide to help her find ways to explore sexuality in her writing, her fiction embraced sexuality with an openness rare for the time, causing a rift between her and some female writers, including Zona Gale, a Wisconsin author who had helped Le Sueur get her work published.

    At the end of the 1920s, Le Sueur moved from San Francisco to Minnesota to be close to her parents, eventually ending up in St. Paul. In the 1930s she began to try her hand at reportage, producing essays such as "I Was Marching" and "Women on the Breadlines."She continued to explore that style of writing, along with her fiction. Her first novel, The Girl (completed in 1939), benefited from the first-person accounts of Depression-era suffering that constituted her reportage, but publishers uniformly rejected it. Perhaps she was somewhat mollified by the publication of Salute to Spring (1940), a collection of her journalistic writings and short stories.

    In the early 1940s she had a story published in the Kenyon Review, and in 1945 North Star Country, "an iconoclastic, impressionistic history of her Midwest region," was published. In the late 1940s, however, Le Sueur, like many writers with socialist leanings, began to feel a postwar backlash. Writing children's books, one of the only literary avenues open to her during the height of the McCarthy era, provided her with an income, and she was also able to write for leftist journals.

    During the 1950s, the audience for her writing began to dwindle, and she began taking low-paying jobs to secure a steady income. As the 1960s unfolded and political activism started to reemerge, she began to travel to participate in protests and demonstrations and to show support for strikes. In the late 1960s, with the changing political and social climate and the beginning of the women's movement, there was a renewed interest in her work. She was finally able to see the publication of The Girl in 1978, and other previously unpublished material appeared as well. In her last years her literary status was elevated to the extent that she referred to herself as "Lady Lazarus."In the young women taking part in the women's movement, Le Sueur found the audience she felt she had always been writing for. She became a writing instructor at the University of Minnesota and in 1987 founded the Meridel Le Sueur Library, which is housed at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Le Sueur died in 1996 in Hudson, Wisconsin, where she was living with her daughter and son-in-law.
Sources Some of Le Sueur's papers are held by the Minnesota Historical Society, Minneapolis; others are held in Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark. For analysis of Le Sueur's work, see the introduction to Ripening: Selected Work, ed. Elaine Hedges, 2nd ed. (1982). See also Constance Coiner, Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur (1995); and Nora Ruth Roberts, Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst (1996).
Contributor: Daniel Coffey

Cite as: Coffey, Daniel. "Le Sueur, Meridel" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 16 December 2018