Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur

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Overview

Better Red is an interdisciplinary study addressing the complicated intersection of American feminism and the political left as refracted in Tillie Olsen's and Meridel Le Sueur's lives and literary texts. The first book-length study to explore these feminist writers' ties to the American Communist Party, it contributes to a reenvisioning of 1930s U.S. Communism as well as to efforts to promote working-class writing as a legitimate category of literary analysis. At once loyal members of the male-dominated Communist party and emerging feminists, Olsen and Le Sueur exhibit in their writing tendencies both toward and away from Party tenets and attitudes—at points subverting formalist as well as orthodox Marxist literary categories. By producing working-class discourse, Olsen and Le Sueur challenge the bourgeois assumptions—often masked as classless and universal—of much canonical literature; and by creating working-class women's writing, they problematize the patriarchal nature of the Left and the masculinist assumptions of much proletarian literature, anticipating the concerns of "second wave" feminists a generation later.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Olsen and Le Sueur have not faltered in their determination to raise the voice of working class women. Nor have they ceased to encourage, work for, anticipate a just world. Better Red is a meticulous scrutiny of two exceedingly important creative and political lives."—Alice Walker

"Better Red is a great read a dense, fact-filled, lively book about two women writers who were active Communist Party members and who, out of a deep understanding of working women's lives, wrote against the often bossy, misogynist grain of the Party line. Many know Olsen and Le Sueur as feminists, but this is the first book I've read that tells us about these writers' involvement in the Communist movement. Like Olsen and Le Sueur, Coiner has not been afraid of the word 'Communist'."—Grace Paley.

"What a joy to read Better Red! It's the best book I've read on American working class writers since Cary Nelson's Repression and Recovery. Coiner gives us a brilliant study of the hard and committed lives and triumphantly birthed works of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur deeply enmeshed in the stories of their lives as working women and as Left-wing political activists. She works her way in and out of these vibrant Thirties fictions to note the way these fiercely talented women negotiated between necessary labor and creativity in the family and the Left communities they fought to keep alive. The anguish and struggle over political issues and life with men and children captivates and heartens the reader who reads with fascination the story of some unjustly neglected Left feminists as Coiner reweaves the torn fabric of the history of American literature and intellectual life."—Jane Marcus, The City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center

"Better Red is a unique interrogation of the relation of the 'personal' to the 'political' in the writings and careers of two of the richest and most relevant authors of the Great Depression generation. Other feminists scholars may have first opened the door on the hitherto hidden tradition of radical women writers of the Old Left, but Coiner's engaging multifaceted study of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur deftly removes the door from its very hinges so that scores of other fascinating and talented left-wing artists may be reclaimed by Coiner's successors. Coiner accomplishes this through a felicitous blend of revisionist cultural history, dual biography, and a feminist literary criticism distinguished by its gendered view of class."—Alan Wald, University of Michigan

"Better Red helps a new and often sceptical fin de siècle generation perceive the artistry and the reach of two of the most striking writers to emerge from America's 'forgotten' decade, the 1930s. Coiner's book presents a rare combination of theoretical sophistication and political dedication."—Paul Lauter, Trinity College and President, American Studies Association

"Incisive and beautifully argued, Better Red goes a long way toward explaining the blindness of the critical establishment regarding issues of class. Coiner brings working-class writing into the heart of discussions of twentieth-century American literature."—Linda Wagner-Martin, University of North Carolina

"...[a] scholarly and sympathetic study."—Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

"...[a] fascinating study....I was most impressed by Coiner's deft and nuanced analysis of particular works both as reflections of and resistances against the accepted proletarian aesthetic....Scince feminists have made Meridel Le Sueur into a virtual goddess figure, it is as refreshing as it is necessary to find a scholar who is willing to point out the ironies and inconsistencies in her writings....I recommend this book....This book is solid history, subtle literary analysis, and just plain absorbing reading."—Minnesota History

"...Coiner's study gives us hope, a reasonable expectation, that the needed democratic mass movement for freedom and justice will rise again."—Monthly Review

"Better Red demonstrates that [Coiner] is, indeed, a theoretical whiz....[an] incredibly rich portrait...of two legendary left-wing female writers."—The Journal of American History

Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
Blending criticism, biography and oral history, this dense feminist study draws striking parallels between two working-class women writers-Tillie Olsen (born 1912?), whose fiction (Tell Me A Riddle; Yonnondio) has won acclaim, and Meridel Le Sueur (born 1900), novelist (The Girl), reporter and short-story writer who became a cultural icon among feminists in the 1970s. Both were loyal members of the U.S. Communist Party, and both, as emerging feminists, rebelled against the party's entrenched sexism. Coiner, who interviewed Olsen and Le Sueur extensively, observes that both writers made emotional deformities, family relations and the developing consciousness of children central to their writing. By confronting experiences that shape women's lives-pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, battery, rape, sexism, isolation-both writers fulfilled the maxim "the personal is the political," while challenging the acquisitive individualism and patriarchy that they saw as warping features of capitalist society. Conceived as a dissertation, this book will be of most interest to informed readers.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Blending criticism, biography and oral history, this dense feminist study draws striking parallels between two working-class women writers-Tillie Olsen (born 1912?), whose fiction (Tell Me A Riddle; Yonnondio) has won acclaim, and Meridel Le Sueur (born 1900), novelist (The Girl), reporter and short-story writer who became a cultural icon among feminists in the 1970s. Both were loyal members of the U.S. Communist Party, and both, as emerging feminists, rebelled against the party's entrenched sexism. Coiner, who interviewed Olsen and Le Sueur extensively, observes that both writers made emotional deformities, family relations and the developing consciousness of children central to their writing. By confronting experiences that shape women's lives-pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, battery, rape, sexism, isolation-both writers fulfilled the maxim ``the personal is the political,'' while challenging the acquisitive individualism and patriarchy that they saw as warping features of capitalist society. Conceived as a dissertation, this book will be of most interest to informed readers. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195056952
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/30/1995
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1 The Thirties' Literary Left 15
2 "Scratch a Communist ...": Women and the American Communist Party During the Depression 39
3 Meridel Le Sueur: Biographical Sketch and Reportage 72
4 Le Sueur's The Girl, "Our Fathers," "Annunciation," and "Corn Village" 108
5 Tillie Olsen: Biographical Sketch and Thirties' Publications 141
6 Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties 174
7 Literature as "No One's Private Ground": Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle and Silences 192
Conclusion 226
Notes 241
Works Cited 261
Index 275
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