Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Girl is a novel built around the stories of women and men living under the shadow of the Great Depression of the 1930’s in St. Paul, Minnesota. Meridel Le Sueur herself took down these stories from that time, when she was a member of the Workers Alliance and living in a warehouse with others. Although Le Sueur was unable to get her novel published in 1939—it was too radical, too pessimistic, too unconventional—by 1978 it was resurrected and acclaimed by feminist, literary, and historical scholars, as well as by the reading public.

In choosing an unnamed narrator, Le Sueur substantiates a basic tenet of her writing: to get rid of the “I,” the egotistical, alienated, destructive hero-protagonist who must win or die at all costs. Instead, she seeks to verify the “communal I,” the voices of the collective over the voice of the individual, the voices of cooperation over the voice of the competitor. In The Girl, a chorus of voices participate in the narrative. Gathering at the German Village, a bar and speakeasy, they tell their stories and write their lives. It is indicative of Le Sueur’s emphasis on the collective voice that those who are outside the collective fail. For example, Butch, who insists that he wants to “beat out the other guy,” that he always “must win,” is killed.

The story begins with the arrival of the Girl from a village up the river in Minnesota. The daughter of a large, poor family, she is shy, sensitive, inexperienced, yet hardworking, and she soon wins a place among the others in the bar. The Girl is not only running away from being a burden on her family but also running toward a new life, new experiences,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Girl holds a unique place in women’s literature for several reasons, one being because it is a text rich in the application of matters of literary theory, for those at home in the French school and for those at home in the British and American school. Whether one is interested in “writing the body,” in the psychoanalytical approach to women’s literature, in a historical class analysis, or in a revision of class and gender in women’s revolutionary texts of the 1930’s (as critic Paula Rabinowitz has written), The Girl is a gold mine.

In both form and content, the novel remains one of the most interesting works for feminist and historical scholars and for general readers, both women and men. Although the novel is set in the 1930’s during the Great Depression, there is a community of women survivors who celebrate renewal and the human spirit. Among many contemporary women writers, except for some notable African American authors, one misses this perspective. In a time in which “the feminization of poverty” has become an issue, The Girl is contemporary in its perspective. Its view that women are exploited through economic systems is balanced by its view that they are, by the fact of being women, survivors. Le Sueur’s language is a vital exploration of women’s and men’s sensibilities; she juxtaposes the elegiac and the profane, weaving both in prose closer to poetry than to exposition.

A revised edition by Le Sueur, edited by John F. Crawford, was published in 1990. This edition, with Le Sueur’s afterword and afterwords by her daughter, Rachel, and friends Dr. Neala Schuleuning, a university professor, and Irene Paull, a Communist comrade from the 1930’s, serves as a palimpsest of women’s stories, issues, and lives.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Barrett, Eileen, and Mary Cullinan, eds. American Women Writers: Diverse Voices in Prose Since 1845. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The editors have included a concise biography of Le Sueur as a preface to her short story “Women Are Hungry.”

Gelfant, Blanche H. Women Writing in America: Voices in Collage. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984. In a chapter entitled “Meridel Le Sueur’s ‘Indian’ Poetry and the Quest/ion of Feminine Form,” Gelfant explores the Hopi Indian influences on Le Sueur’s language and structure. Although Gelfant is dealing primarily with poetry, her work also sheds light on Le Sueur’s prose in general, emphasizing its cyclical, repetitive, rhythmic, and lyrical qualities, as well as its patterns of “continual return.”

Le Sueur, Meridel. The Girl. Edited by John F. Crawford. Albuquerque, N.M.: West End Press, 1990. Included in this edition is an essay by Crawford, “The Book’s Progress: The Making of The Girl,” in which he notes the changes made by Le Sueur since the novel was first published in 1978, with explanations as to why they were made.

Le Sueur, Meridel. Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980. Edited by Elaine Hedges. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982. In an extensive introduction, Hedges encapsulates Le Sueur’s published writing, both descriptively and analytically. She traces the genesis of The Girl, noting previous publications of its segments or chapters.

Rabinowitz, Paula. Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Rabinowitz places The Girl in a radical, historical, and feminist context. Le Sueur emphasizes feminine desire and maternity becoming historical narrative and identifies “the masses with the maternal.”