Meridel Le Sueur, who reported on the plight of the poor during the Depression and celebrated the free spirits of early Americans in her fiction for children, died on Nov. 14 in Hudson Memorial Hospital in Hudson, Wis. She was 96 and had lived in the hospital's residential unit in nearby St. Paul, Minn., for the last few years.
Miss Le Sueur, a native of Murray, Iowa, grew up among the radical farmer and labor groups that informed her youth, like the Populists, the Farmers Alliance and the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World. Her first story was published in a literary magazine in 1927, and she kept writing into her 90s.
Her mother and stepfather, Marion Wharton and Alfred Le Sueur, were ardent socialists who imbued her with an idealism that never left her. Just beyond their Middle Western kitchen the world was filled with eloquent radicals: Big Bill Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, Lincoln Steffens and Emma Goldman.
Largely self-taught, Miss Le Sueur teamed with kindred souls in literary communal relationships and, sent East by her mother, moved in with Goldman while attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She came to know John Reed and met Theodore Dreiser and Edna St. Vincent Millay at Mabel Dodge's literary salon.
She won acclaim in 1927 for her story "Persephone" and again in 1934 for "The Horse," a strange, powerful novella. With her distinctly personal style of journalism, she rendered detailed observation with a sense of political urgency. She reported on bread lines and unemployment offices and on deserted mining towns and desolate farms.
Blacklisted during the McCarthy period, she continued to write, turning out experimental prose works, novels and poems and storing them in her basement in Minnesota.
Her highly praised children's books, in which she interwove history and regional lore in poetic prose, included "Little Brother of the Wilderness: The Story of Johnny Appleseed," "Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln's Mother," "Sparrow Hawk" and "Chanticleer of Wilderness Road: A Story of Davy Crockett."
Miss Le Sueur's own wilderness relented as collections of her prose began to appear in the 1970s. Her recovery culminated in "Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980" (Feminist Press, 1982), a clear reflection of how she had listened from childhood to the stories of immigrants and Indian women.
An early milestone in her career was "North Star Country" (1945), the story of how Minnesota and Wisconsin were settled. It was reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 1984. Her recent work included "The Dread Road" (1991), a novel about a mining strike in Colorado.
She is survived by two daughters, Rachel Tilsen of Hudson and Deborah Le Sueur of Graton, Calif.; 8 grandchildren; 27 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:10 EDT