"North Star Country": Writing Democracy in the Midwest
Meridel LeSueur | North Star Country, Duell, Sloan, 1945 | reprint: The Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage Book Series, University of Minnesota Press, 1998 | 321 Pages
There’s lots of talk of populism these days. Thrown around by pundits on the left and the right, the word lands like a grenade, exploding into fierce debates. Cynics call populism the death knell of the republic. Supporters see populism as the potential savior of a nation fractured by social and economic inequities. In its many manifestations, it demands our attention.
Though historians often like to compare today to the Gilded Age, contemporary appeals to and rejections of “the people” more directly echo the 1930s and 1940s. Then, as now, a range of political actors laid claim to this sometimes amorphous entity. From Father Charles Coughlin and Huey Long to Floyd Olson and Henry Wallace, popular politics found multiple expressions in a time of intense tumult.
North Star Country, published by Meridel LeSueur in 1945, speaks to us from that moment. Centered on the history, geography, and culture of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, it otherwise defies definition. The book blends genres without fear in ways that might mystify modern readers. More of an evocation of regional spirit and outlook than folklore or history, its episodic reportage captures the voices of diverse people as often as it describes them. Folk wisdom jostles archival research and poetic prose nestles alongside pointed criticism. The author, in retrospect, called it “a history of the people.” Perhaps it is best to let her speak for herself.
LeSueur’s own orientation mattered greatly. Raised by noted socialists Marian and Arthur LeSueur, she soon charted her own path. A brief flirtation with acting in the late 1920s led her both to Hollywood and to an anarchist commune in New York City. From there she drifted back to the Twin Cities. After an abbreviated stint as the radio voice of General Mills’ Betty Crocker, she settled into writing. The 1930s saw her publish short stories and essays in the so-called “little magazines” that sported left-of-center politics. LeSueur also garnered praise for her inspired reporting of the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike.
As the only woman to speak out at the left-wing American Writers Congress in 1935, she reminded that mostly Eastern audience of the Midwestern proclivity for popular protest. That said, she could write about interior lives too. Her novel The Girl (1939) deftly explored the hardscrabble life of an anonymous working-class woman in St. Paul.
After this promising literary start in the milieu of the Popular Front—a 1930s social movement that loosely brought together those committed to industrial unionism, anti-fascism, and anti-lynching with appeals to common people in desperate times—the maverick writer found herself blacklisted for associating with the Communist Party. In the early 1970s, LeSueur again enjoyed acclaim when second-wave feminists and anti-war protesters rightly resuscitated her reputation. They embraced her as a feminist foremother. Until her death in 1996, LeSueur remained committed to the civic power of everyday people.
In his magisterial history of the Popular Front—The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso, 1998)—historian Michael Denning described LeSueur’s writing as “lyric feminist regionalism.” She stands out as a clear example of how the Popular Front not only broadly aligned a range of left-of-center positions and people but also sported regional variants. Place mattered in radical politics.
North Star Country proves more regionalist than feminist. As one of the twenty-eight volumes commissioned as part of the American Folkways series, it no longer attracts attention the way other books in the series, such as Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country (1942) or Carey McWilliams’s Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946) still do. Even those who recognize or study LeSueur often ignore the book.
Its melodic prose and profoundly people-centered orientation deserve better. LeSueur’s radical commitment to regional democracy is easy to denigrate as utopian or romantic. But do not—as Harvard professor and literary critic Howard Mumford Jones did upon the book’s arrival—mistake her ideology for simplicity or narrowness or naiveté.
Long before neoliberal notions of inclusion, LeSueur imagined “the people” broadly: women, immigrants, native-born Yankees, the poor, Indigenous people, and workers all found their way into its narrative. She often called out imperialism or environmental degradation in North Star Country. But LeSueur could hold more than one commitment in her head and her prose at the same time. She envisioned her work as connecting the stories of diverse people across vast differences, warts and all.
In North Star Country, LeSueur committed herself to a small property and proletarian vision of American democracy even as she deployed stories and characters and voices that made clear the racial, class, gendered, and xenophobic limits of it. Her nuanced critique of what Thomas Jefferson once called an “empire for liberty” nonetheless seized on and amplified its persistent democratic potential. In so doing, LeSueur made a different choice than many do today. She knew that democracy was not about founding documents or political appeals but instead the ongoing struggle to make it real for everyone. For her “the North Star Country’s long cradling of democratic institutions…demanded new techniques and laws of common and individual rights, suggesting always the necessity of broader forms of democracy.”
North Star Country layers story upon story to make this essential truth clear. At root, the book is more than a history or a collection of tales. North Star Country’s most significant contribution stems from the commitments that produced it. Ultimately, the work offers a powerful and thoroughgoing example of how to write nonfiction democratically.
We should pay heed to this way of writing—and being—today. LeSueur’s largely forgotten book matters now more than ever. In a time when appeals to “the people” again ring across the land, her Popular Front-inflected expression of regionalism deserves fresh consideration. In its prescient reclamation of people’s history—and without ignoring the region’s decidedly checkered past—North Star Country reflects the best of what Midwestern writing and the Midwest itself can be.