I was marching

February 21, 2019 (726 words) :: On Meridel Le Sueur's celebrated essay of the same name, about her experiences during the Minneapolis truck drivers' strike of 1934.
Tags: the-left, class-struggle

This post is day 52 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today’s post is kind of a cop-out - by the time 1am rolled around, I still hadn’t decided what to write, so instead of writing something new I’m just going to frame this post around somebody else’s writing.

(A lot of this biography is based on Elaine Hedges’ introduction to Ripening, a collection of Le Sueur’s selected works that was published in 1982).

Meridel Le Sueur was an American leftist writer active in the early 20th century, mostly based in the Midwest. Her Wikipedia page describes her as “associated with the proletarian movement of the 1930s and 1940s”, which is a pretty cool (if unusual) description. Because her parents were both socialists, she grew up in radical left circles, having met people like Helen Keller, Eugene Debs, and Alexander Berkman as a child, and was influenced by groups like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party.

After dropping out of high school and leaving home at the age of 16, she turned her attention to writing, paying the bills by stringing together menial service/factory jobs. Some of her writing was journalistic, while some was more literary (novels, poetry, memoir), but it was all very political, and she became known for her overtly socialist & feminist work depicting the lives of working-class women. That meant she had a tough time retaining work during the Cold War era, when the US was at the height of McCarthyism; she found herself blacklisted or fired from writing, teaching and even waitressing jobs.

In 1934, the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike put a stop to nearly all trucking activity in the city, with thousands of other workers walking out in sympathy. Le Sueur decided to join the fray, first volunteering in the kitchen with all the other women (that gendered division of labour tho) then marching with the others.

The resulting piece, ‘I Was Marching’ (full text here), is a short, poignant, and very personal look at Le Sueur’s perspective during the strike, and how she found herself unexpectedly transformed by it. Parts of it feel very antiquated, but other bits are surprisingly relatable, not to mention inspiring. This part especially moved me, and I found myself thinking about the prospects for organising in the tech industry, and how solidarity could be built despite the individualistic and competitive subjectivity that’s commonly found:

The truth is I was afraid. Not of the physical danger at all, but an awful fright of mixing, of losing myself, of being unknown and lost. I felt inferior. I felt no one would know me there, that all I had been trained to excel in would go unnoticed. I can’t describe what I felt, but perhaps it will come near it to say that I felt I excelled in competing with others and I knew instantly that these people were NOT competing at all, that they were acting in a strange, powerful trance of movement together. And I was filled with longing to act with them and with fear that I could not. I felt I was born out of every kind of life, thrown up alone, looking at other lonely people, a condition I had been in the habit of defending with various attitudes of cynicism, preciosity, defiance, and hatred.

I heard about Le Sueur through the n+1 book No Regrets, which transcribes several discussions about literary regrets (and non-regrets) featuring various women in n+1’s circles, I guess. Le Sueur was mentioned by someone (can’t remember who) as an example of a socialist feminist writer who served as an early literary and political inspiration for the speaker, as someone whose writing synthesised art and activism. I looked up the text of “I Was Marching” online, and once I got to the paragraph I quoted above - so lucid, and so brutally self-aware - I knew I had to read more of her work.

If you have recommendations for similar types of writing (memoirs or fiction with a radical bent), please tell me! I’d be very interested in reading more first-person (as opposed to purely theoretical) political writing, partly as inspiration for my own writing, and partly because I find it very moving on a personal level. It’s always nice to be reminded of continuity - that you’re tapping into a much larger, historical movement.

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