North Country Sage
This article first appeared on January 10, 1999 in In These Times.
When I was a boy, I had a premonition that I’d learn my purpose in life when I reached 27. I even had an image of The Moment in my head. It would be like watching a film of a shattering wine glass, run backwards. All the scattered shards would leap up off the floor, and the glass, whole again, would gleam as a symbol of the new life I was about to live.
The great revelation actually came when I was 23, but it felt exactly as I’d imagined it. I was living in San Francisco, 2,000 miles from my home in Michigan, and working as a file clerk in an accounting firm. One night as I was browsing in the basement of City Lights Bookstore, my homesick eye caught this title: North Star Country, by Meridel Le Sueur. It was a history of the Upper Midwest, my turf, told in the voices of Indians, Grange farmers, housewives, striking laborers — all the people who’d been left out of The Oxford History of the America People. The very first sentence, the invocation, was this Norwegian immigrant’s prayer: “Should all things perish, fleeting as a shooting star/ O God let not the ties break that bind me to the North.” That, I realized, as I thought gloomily about the drizzly Pacific winter outside, could have been my nighttime prayer, too.
By the time I finished reading North Star Country, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Four months later, I left San Francisco, which I figured had too many litterateurs, anyway, and moved back to Michigan, hoping to write a book about the “modern folkways” of the Upper Midwest: deer hunting in November, high school hockey tournaments, apple cider mills, fishing shanties and all the other little customs that made us different from the rest of America.
North Star Country, the book that inspired this pipe dream of mine, was originally published in 1945, as part of the American Folkways series, which was edited by Erskine Caldwell and also included such volumes as Mormon Country by Wallace Stegner and Golden Gate Country by long-fogotten Gertrude Atherton. It lapsed out of print soon after I discovered it, and when Le Sueur died two years ago, I figured it was gone forever. But North Star Country, the best nonfiction book ever written about the Midwest, is alive again, reissued this past fall by the University of Minnesota press.
Its author, Meridel Le Sueur, was one those Depression-era “proletarian” writers, like Nelson Algren and Richard Wright, who got their training working for the Federal Writers Project, and ever afterwards went into the city streets and the small towns to look for material. As a member of the Minnesota project, Le Sueur was given the task of traveling around the state, recording folk sayings. Years later, when she got the commission for North Star Country, she decided to use her collection of tales and proverbs as the basis of a new kind of book: a biography of a people that blurred the lines between fiction and history, sociology and folklore. The explorers, generals and governors who dominate most history books were given cameos, but North Star Country was, at its root, “a history of the people of the Midwest, told from their dimensions in their language.”
In Le Sueur’s book, the commonest settler was given the mythic dimensions of a Bunyan or an Appleseed. There are no statistics on immigration or agriculture in North Star Country. But there is a sketch of the footloose sailor Cleng Peerson, the “Puck Moses” who led the first boatload of Norwegian immigrants to the American prairie. And when Le Sueur writes about corn, the staple of Ojibway Indians and Scandinavian farmers, she has to describe the shucking technique of Ed Doggett, who once represented Freeborn County, Minnesota, at the National Corn Husking Contest, “a greater sport to watch than a Big Ten football game.” To Le Sueur, that crop was the “Corn Mother,” the seed from which the entire Midwest grew.
Le Sueur believed that a writer has to live among her material the way a farmer lives in his fields; she called her work “my life’s crop.” No writer with “distance,” no one who hadn’t felt the turning of season after season, could have come up with this description of summer-into-fall in the North Country:
The fine flesh of farm women smells of summer, of the hot kitchen. Then the harvesters come and there is the odor of sweet summer hay cooked in the blazing sun, of wheat chaff blowing sweet, corn standing tall, wind ripe over the ripe fields and the smell of many kinds of ripeness, seed and the fruition before death.
North Star Country is a pastiche of songs, yarns, sketches and journalism. One chapter is a description of the Minnesota State Fair. The next, a history of the first white explorers. It’s disorganized, impressionistic. She didn’t believe in narrative or biography, at least in the way most historians do. Books in which a few great men drive the action forward were undemocratic, “like capitalism, the good distributed to a few favored players.” The story of the North Star Country was the story of millions, so she tried to meet, and write about, as many as possible. Near the end of the book, Le Sueur marches with drivers in a Minneapolis trucking strike, then rides a milk train, where she meets a farm boy returning to his World War II submarine duty. They talk, and he rewards her with this poetic speech, one of dozens recorded in North Star Country.
‘Lord,’ he kept saying, along with some stronger language, ‘that’s the earth there under the snow. The sea’s like a prairie sometimes on a still night, but the sea you can’t get your spurs into. The prairies now, you can get your knees in. There she is — America!’
Le Sueur spent years away from the Midwest before she learned to see it so. She was born in 1900, in Iowa, the stepdaughter of a radical lawyer who consorted with troublemakers in all shades of red — anarchists, socialists, Wobblies. Originally, she set out to be an actress, and went to Hollywood, but producers there thought he nose looked like a Jew’s or an Indian’s, and asked her to get it bobbed. She refused, and the only work she could get was as a stunt double. (Le Sueur’s cousin, Lucille, was more successful, undergoing the necessary operation and changing her name to Joan Crawford.)
After the falling out with L.A., she moved up the coast to San Francisco, where she worked as a waitress and factory worker and began writing short stories and articles for lefty publications like Masses.
Le Sueur’s writing career was just taking off when the Depression hit, but like many other radical authors, she found the ’30s “a good time to be a writer.” She published her best known piece of journalism, “I Was Marching,” an account of her participation in a Minneapolis truckers’ strike, and her only full-length novel, The Girl. Le Sueur collected material for that book by copying down the life stories of women she and her daughters lived with in an abandoned warehouse.
It’s hard to imagine an earthier writer than Le Sueur, or a more determined one. During the early ’40s, she was still considered respectable enough for a Rockefeller Historical Research Fellowship, which provided the cash to finish North Star Country. But after World War II, the bill for her left-wing beliefs came due. Publishers dropped her books from their backlists, and the FBI did whatever it could to keep her from working. Boarders at a rooming house she ran were told their landlord was a subversive. Le Sueur tried teaching a correspondence course, but the bureau wrote harassing letters to her students. She was even fired from several waitressing jobs because of her red past.
Outside of a few articles in radical publications, her only writing then was a series of children’s biographies about wholesome American heroes like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett. But even with these, Le Sueur made a political — specifically a feminist — statement. One of the books is about Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, a woman Le Sueur was distressed to see unmentioned in any monument to the president.
Le Sueur’s writing never made her rich, or even gave her a secure income. To support herself in middle age, she sewed garments in a sweatshop and worked as an attendant in an insane asylum. In those years, she also became interested in the Indians of the Southwest, and lived in an abandoned bus in Santa Fe so she could spend time with them. (The bus was also Le Sueur’s favorite way to travel. She rode it to Kentucky to visit Lincoln’s birthplace, to Washington to march against the Vietnam War. The close quarters and long trips gave her plenty of opportunity to talk to people.)
Le Sueur lived 96 years, long enough to become a heroine again. The women’s movement that arose in the 1960s saw her as a proto-feminist. She won a Wonder Woman Award from a group in New York, and spoke at a U.N. conference commemorating the Decade of the Woman.
Le Sueur was an early feminist, but the independent women she wrote about during the Depression were of a different order than today’s college-educated career women, for whom living alone is a lifestyle choice, rather than a survival technique.
In her 1934 essay, “Women Are Hungry,” Le Sueur distilled the hardscrabble philosophy of the hand-to-mouth women she knew in the Twin Cities: “Keep alone as much as you can, look out for yourself. Keep away from men and marriage, because there isn’t anything in it for a girl but a horde of children to be left with. Lie low, get along, beg, borrow or steal, go a lone wolf’s way.”
Le Sueur went a lone wolf’s way in the literary world, too. She wrote deep into her old age, but she published little new work after 1960, mainly because she had abandoned narrative — linear writing was a male art form, she thought — in favor of an “organic,” feminine style that expressed the cyclical nature of the world, the interdependence of all living things. For years, she labored over an extended work called The Origins of Corn, a series of psalms to the mother food of the Midwest, the kernel that to her was as important as the first atom of the universe. “American corn did not come from Europe or Asia,” reads one fragment. “It is thought and flesh of the Americas, transmutation of communal love, Indian solidarity. Bountiful yields, rich protein, small and portable it could be carried by nation-building people, planted grown milled on new land, in a hole in the forest, migrant up the Mississippi, builder of new cities where wanderers could stop and because they had corn.”
It’s been eight years since I discovered North Star Country, and I haven’t yet written my big book about the Midwest. But Le Sueur inspired me to take my notebook into places I never would have gone before: a “tent city” erected by the homeless on the lawn of the Michigan State Capitol; a neighborhood full of Southern-born auto workers in Flint, Michigan; the headquarters of a striking union in Decatur, Illinois. So maybe I’m writing it in bits and pieces, deposited in little magazines and newspapers all over the region.
“I have waited for younger historians to continue this history of the people beyond the end of World War II,” Le Sueur wrote 40 years after North Star Country was first published. Le Sueur never believed in endings, at least in writing. She knew she would end, but the people of the Midwest would go on and on after her death. Their story would have to be continued. There are hundreds of us working on that, I think. We’re extending her work, a few words at a time.