Reading Red Women Writers

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

Renny Christopher

Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur by Constance Coiner.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.) $45.

“My study resides, then, at the nexus of two related fronts in the culture wars neglected even by many progressive academics: the effort to expand the literary canon by legitimating working- class writing and the struggle to preserve and revision the history of the American Left” (238).

SO CONCLUDES CONSTANCE Coiner at the end of her valuable new study of two American women writers and their complicated relationship with the Communist Party (CP).  Both of these writers merit such a study, cementing their place in the expanded canon.

When I taught a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, called “John Steinbeck and Meridel LeSueur” only two of the forty students in the class ever heard of Meridel LeSueur, having read her story “Annunciation” in an anthology of women’s writing.

The students were profoundly uncomfortable with the structure of the class-equally divided between the two writers-because they were worried that Steinbeck was a “more important” writer and that he’d be “slighted” in the course.

By the end of the quarter a number of students-not all of them female-vociferously preferred LeSueur to Steinbeck, and had become enthusiastic converts of the expanded canon.

One of the things that aided me in preparing the course was having copies of the galleys of Constance Coiner’s book. Now in print, Coiner’s work not only brings to LeSueur and Tillie Olsen deserved critical attention (both have received attention in article form, but not previously in book form), it also adds a chapter to the history of the left, and serves as an excellent resource for anyone wanting to expand their own canon.

Nurturing and Suppressing Force

Coiner begins her study with a history of “The Thirties’ Literary Left,” in which she historicizes the literary policies and attitudes of the CP, paying special attention to the masculinist ideology of influential figures such as Mike Gold.

She then looks at the history of the CP’s treatment of women, and the experiences of women CP members during the 1930s.  Refreshingly, Coiner neither demonizes nor romanticizes the `30s.  This context, then, stands as an important element of her analysis of the works of LeSueur and Olsen.

For both writers, the CP acted as an important nurturing force for their writing, yet also served to suppress their writing.  Both writers focus on the domestic sphere and women’s social and biological experience, subjects not considered proper for revolutionary proletarian literature.

Coiner’s subtitle refers not just to these writers’ resistance to the dominant culture, but resistance to the very organization that nurtured them-the CP -as well.

Coiner identifies their writing as being a “‘doubled- voiced discourse,’ containing both a `dominant’ and a `muted’ story .  .  .  .  an apparent literary and political orthodoxy recedes and an uneven heterodoxy emerges” (71).

Coiner’s analysis of this “uneven heterodoxy” serves not only as a useful reading of Olsen’s and LeSueur’s works, but also as an insightful look at the ways in which class and gender positions intersect with politics.

Olsen and LeSueur are both midwesterners who grew up in socialist milieus and who joined the CP as young adults.  Both were hailed as important young writers in the `30s, when through periods of silence, they re-emerged in the `60s and `70s.  Their silences were in part due to the harassment both women and their families underwent in the `40s and `50s, which Coiner recounts in harrowing detail.

Along with these similarities, the two writers also have important differences.  LeSueur came from a middle-class background, then, largely by her own choice, moved into the working-class world.  Olsen was born into and remained in the working class.

The class-conditioned difference between their lives, although both suffered greatly, emerges painfully (particularly for a reader of working-class origin), especially so since LeSueur is placed first in the book, and it’s impossible not to compare Olsen’s more repressive circumstances and experiences with hers.

Coiner’s Analysis

Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of monologic and heteroglossic [very roughly, single- and multipled-voiced -ed.] texts, Coiner constructs an analysis of the works of both writers, showing both elements present in their texts.

She demonstrates how their reportage tended toward the monologic (and hence party line), while their fiction tended toward the heteroglossic, and allowed them to deviate from the party’s literary dictates, thus producing their “uneven heterodoxy.”

Coiner has had to face the difficult task of writing critically about living writers whom she respects and admires.  One of the strengths of this study, in fact, is the material from interviews Coiner (and others) have done with both Olsen and LeSueur.  Nonetheless, Coiner does raise important criticisms, especially of “St. Meridel’s” work.

The one point, however, at which I take issue with Coiner’s analysis of LeSueur’s work is in the thorny question of LeSueur’s biological essentialism.  While Coiner does bring up the problem in her discussion of “The Girl,” she deals only perfunctorily with it, although it is a theme that runs through LeSueur’s work, and presents the largest problem for contemporary feminists who would embrace LeSueur’s work.

Coiner offers a footnote in which she reports that LeSueur said in an interview that she doesn’t believe men are inherently violent, yet biological determinism is definitely present in much of her work.

Coiner has chosen her texts to minimize a necessary discussion of LeSueur’s essentialism, relegating to a footnote the essentialism of “Annunciation,” and not dealing at all with LeSueur’s poetry.  This comes not only of a generic bias-she does deal with Olsen’s poetry.  Likewise, Coiner sidesteps what appears to be LeSueur’s opposition to abortion, which appears repeatedly in her stories.

Coiner’s own style is readable and accessible, and “Better Red” fulfills an important function in the way that it records perilously rate texts, such as LeSueur’s mother’s socialist grammar book, of which perhaps only one copy exists.

Coiner remarks frequently on the incompleteness of archival materials, especially `30s periodicals.  it is work like hers that points out the necessity of maintaining such collections because of the necessity of remembering our own history.

The Argument for Class Identity

In her conclusion Coiner makes a cogent case for class studies, decrying the way in which discussions of “race, class and gender” usually only actually deal with race and gender:

This obfuscation of class as a category of analysis has consequences within the academy, forestalling alliances across identities of race, culture, gender, and sexuality among scholars and among our students.  I am reminded of classroom experiences in which students .  .  .  react with surprise and confusion at their identification with the `wrong’ text-the Chinese American who wonders why “Tell Me a Riddle”‘s Eva “is my grandmother.”

Coiner argues that if we identify working-class literature as a “literary category,” then courses in multicultural working-class literature will show students that such identifications are not, after all, “wrong,” but identifications along a different axis-that of class-than they are used to thinking about.

Then, Coiner writes, identity politics can be “scrapped in favor of a political consciousness capable of de-coding the middle-class myth” (that is, the false notion that we are all middle class).

Having taught working-class literature courses a number of times, I can attest to the partial truth of Coiner’s conclusion.  Working-class literature classes have been enormously empowering for many of my working-class students, and they have expanded the view of middle-class students who come to understand their own privileges (a sticky situation, because the outcome is usually a feeling of guilt for these students, a particularly non-useful feeling, since it often leads these students to personalism rather than politicization).

However, as Coiner suggests, working-class students do, then, in my experience, begin to identify across race and gender lines and along class lines.

I believe that working-class literary studies cannot simply be made part of the multicultural curriculum, because class analysis is inherently political in a way that does not lend itself to feel-good liberal dialogue.

Rodney King’s question, “can’t we all just get along?” might stand as the subtext for liberal multicultural curricula which seeks in an integrationist, non-revolutionary way to bring women and minority writers into the expanded canon.  But to bring working-class literature “as” working-class literature into the expanded curriculum is to bring in something that neither the conservative nor liberal wings of the culture wars will really be comfortable with. (When did you last hear Toni Morrison discussed as a working-class, rather than African-American, or woman, author?)

Coiner alludes to this problem when she writes about her “disempowered `ordinary’ students, who can neither hope for nor envision forms of coalition building in an increasingly multicultural United States partly because they lack knowledge of labor history and progressive movements for social change prior to the Civil Rights Movement and feminism’s `second wave.'”

Such an empowerment is a radical, not a liberal, goal, one that Olsen and LeSueur themselves would approve of.

This changed consciousness that is the inevitable result of bringing working-class literary studies into the expanded canon is what makes working-class literary studies-and books like Coiner’s-so dangerous.  And so necessary.

Renny Christopher teaches women’s studies at California State University-Stanislaus.