Meridel Le Sueur was a powerful influence on my intellectual and political development. I “met” Meridel in 1973 when I was hired by the Minnesota Historical Society to identify items relating to women in their collection. I kept stumbling across the name Meridel Le Sueur. I decided I HAD to interview this woman and research the stories behind her journalistic and fictional narratives. My goal was to validate her stories with historical truths. For example, I read “Salvation Home,” a short article about young women committed to Faribault Mental Hospital. They were subsequently sterilized against their will – an improbable story that actually took place in the 1930s. In the 1980s I was teaching a Women’s Studies course in Austin, Minnesota, and one of the women taking the class had worked at Faribault. She verified the story – apparently many of the young women had been sent there because they were “wild,” uncontrollable girls. They were sterilized to keep them from getting pregnant.
I learned that all of her stories were real stories of real people, facing real challenges, building real lives. They were our joyful stories, our stories of struggle.
I arranged an interview with Meridel in the fall of 1974. As we sat down in the afternoon sun, she folded her hands and began quizzing me! When I had completed my “interview,” we turned to talking about her life, her writings, and her political views. At one point in the conversation, a wasp started crawling across her hands, probing here and there. I recoiled, but she just said, “Don’t worry, it’s only a witch doctor come to listen to us!” To this day, I reflect on the value of all life forms.
Early in 1975 Meridel invited me to join the Twin Cities Women’s Film Collective. The collective produced the 45-minute documentary film of her life and ideas– “My People Are My Home.” It’s available today on the Internet Archives.
Many of our conversations turned into my book – America: Song We Sang without Knowing – The Life and Ideas of Meridel Le Sueur. This was a different biography – in part because Meridel was resistant to being pinned down to dates and times and people. We all have a story, and her life was her story, unfolding every day. For example, when I asked if she had ever been married, she smiled coyly and asked me what I meant by “marriage!”
The book is a series of real and imagined dialogues around the central themes of her writings – politics, women, and the earth. She taught me how to look at the world with love and compassion. The most challenging part of writing the book was interpreting her political philosophy. Although she had been active in the Communist Party, a close reading of her work convinced me that her ideas were more consistent with what today we call social anarchism. The people – a democratic, collective people – lie at the heart of her vision for our society and our future.
Meridel was a great force of energy unlike anyone I’ve ever met. When she walked into a room, the whole dynamic changed. People were drawn to her warmth, her very presence. She uplifted us all. We loved her, we loved ourselves. She always engaged with us, taught us, energized us, challenged us to create a new world based on social justice, respect for one another, and love for our home, the earth.
Neala Schleuning–Select Bibliography
Climate Chaos: Making Art and Politics on a Dying Planet
Minor Compositions, 2021
America: Song We Sang Without Knowing
The Life and Ideas of Meridel LeSueur
Little Red Hen Press, 1983
Women, Community, and the Hormel Strike of 1985-86
Greenwood Press, 1994