Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Reading the Body in Meridel le Sueur's the Girl

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Reading the Body in Meridel le Sueur's the Girl

Article excerpt

Meridel Le Sueur describes her proletarian novel The Girl (1939/1978) as a "memorial to the great and heroic women of the depression" and a record of the varied stories of women in bus stations, food lines, and warehouses (133). (1) Le Sueur's novel chronicles these lives to prevent their appearance as "defeated, trashed, defenseless" (133). According to Le Sueur's afterword to the novel, the writer should "urge and nourish ... social vision" and provide a historical narrative of those women "who keep us all alive" (133). Indeed, the novel closes with a birth scene celebrating the work of memory: "Memory is all we got, I cried, we got to remember. We got to remember everything.... We got to remember to be able to fight. Got to write down the names. Make a list. Nobody can be forgotten" (126). Le Sueur's text works to re-member proletarian female experience and her own position in literary history.

As most people familiar with Le Sueur's biography know, although she was widely published in the 1920s and 1930s, her popularity dwindled until the Feminist Press and John Crawford of the West End Press rediscovered her work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (2) Early on, she frequently published work in journals such as Kenyon Review and Prairie Schooner and in magazines like Mademoiselle and was able to support herself financially (Pratt 255). With the onset of the McCarthy years--in Le Sueur's words "the dark of the time"--her mainstream popularity declined until she was published almost exclusively in Communist Party journals and read only within Party circles (qtd. in Pratt 255). (3) But even during her peak period, her work was not always met with approval. One editor at Scribner's suggested Le Sueur write more like Hemingway (Coiner 108), and the Communist Party itself instructed Le Sueur to move away from lyricism as a mode of expression and write literature that "would organize" (Pratt 257). The literary left established genres, such as Malcolm Cowley's classic proletarian plot, that "codified masculine metaphors for the working-class struggle" (Rabinowitz, Labor 61); these genres kept women writers' modes of representation from being recognized as worthy forms of expression. (4) The terms "proletarian" and "manly" often were used interchangeably, and so a female proletarian writer like Le Sueur was criticized by the dominant bourgeois culture and the Communist leadership. Le Sueur had rural roots (she was born in Iowa and lived most of her life in Minnesota) and little formal education; she found herself marginalized on all fronts.

Set in St. Paul during the Great Depression, The Girl is a bildungsroman about a working-class girl. The main plot of the novel centers on her sexual awakening, the subsequent loss of her lover, and the birth of her child. The Girl explores the larger landscape of union work and "scabbing," unemployment, and social welfare for both men and women. The novel focuses on working-class struggles against larger economic forces and women's struggles against the control of men; therefore, the novel contributes substantially to discussions of gender in both modernist and proletarian fiction. Le Sueur's novel charts female experience through the body in the knowledge of sexuality, abortion, physical abuse, and birth.

As a writer, Le Sueur projects a cogent social vision, and through this novel, she makes particular demands on her readers, who must serve as capable interpreters of the historical record. In interpreting this work, both writer and readers participate in constituting the cultural currency of the proletarian female experience and in assigning value to the varied subjectivities women assume in the narrative. The Girl situates the body as a register for physical, social, and political struggles. The novel asks its characters and readers to read the body as a text and chart its various discourses.

In the wake of the work of Michel Foucault, the assumption that one can attain a proper reading is problematic; indeed, as Foucault argues, every reading is a misreading in some ways. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.