Meridel Le Sueur and ‘The Fetish of Being Outside’: A manifesto for writers
Meridel Le Sueur in the 1930s.

Meridel Le Sueur, in one of her better known articles, “I Was Marching,” writes about, or confesses, the awkward, uneasy contradictions of watching a strike as a member of the middle class:

“I stayed close to the door, watching. I didn’t go in. I was afraid they’d put me out…. I saw many artists, writers, professionals, even business men and women standing across the street, too, and I saw in their faces the same longings, the same fears.”

The middle-class gaze toward trade unionism, in this case the Minneapolis strike of 1934, is often branded as trivialized.

In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, for example, strikes are seen as the primary impediment of the petit bourgeoisie in the fictional Ohio city of Zenith. And yet, Babbitt comes to respect the organizers of the strike that shakes the city. The political shift of George F. Babbitt who, abandoning his socio-cultural normalities, identifies organizer Seneca Doan as the reverse image of himself, “a born orator” with “a mighty good head on him.” And, indeed, it would stay a reverse image—Babbitt couldn’t abandon the middle class harmony for the industrial proletariat and returned to the comfort of his complacency. He returned to defending, as Le Sueur put it, “various attitudes of cynicism, preciosity, defiance, and hatred.”

In an old 1930s edition of New Masses, poet Horace Gregory justified the middle class’s reluctance to join the Communist Party and their various attitudes of cynicism, preciosity, defiance, and hatred. Le Sueur responded aptly with a piece titled “The Fetish of Being Outside”—a name that might be misread as an encouragement for writers to go outside and touch grass, which the article does recommend doing, but is instead a reference to the tortured writers’ desire to cynically remain an outsider; an outsider to meta-narratives like capitalism and communism, groups or political parties, and events like collective action and historical progress. “[T]his holding off of the artist from a group is artificial,” she argued, a “hangover from an old society.”

In a politicized time as today, one in which bookstores boast a number of titles in which the authors are clearly “taking sides,” even if it’s in a limited yet good-hearted liberal sense, Le Sueur’s article pushes writers to go further. There are many today who understand Le Sueur’s statement: “You cannot be both on the barricades and objective or removed at the same time. I suppose you can but you are likely to receive the bullets of both sides.” But this taking sides is often undertaken in an individualistic way, one in which the writer is the outsider passively associating with collective actions and beliefs. Le Sueur goes the extra step to find a “new and different way as an individual” that stems “only from a communal participation which reverses the feeling of a bourgeois writer.”

Meridel Le Sueur, whose writing is itself a byproduct of her experience as a woman living through the Great Depression and a member of the Communist Party, talked about a new kind of writer that would be produced by proletarian collective action, the counterweight to bourgeois writers attempting to remain “objective” under “the assumption that the creative worker is not an economist and cannot understand deviations, and political theory.” (Or, in the case of today, pretending to understand deviations and political theory through “objectivity”.) It’s the antithesis to middle-class cynical writers who claim to follow no ideology, wanting to address society while remaining outside of it. Le Sueur’s article is a manifesto for a renewed militant form of writer with direction and full belief, one who’s a part of a larger collective movement and consciously so.

This article, published in the February 1935 New Masses, is posted here online for the first time. Readers can find inspiration in Le Sueur’s formulation of writers with “communal sensibility” and “full belief” who can “produce a movement, even a miraculous form that has not hitherto existed.” Writing at a time of fascism strutting across Europe, her passion is painted bold. Readers of today, going on a century later, will have to assess how parallel the danger is now compared to then. We have left Le Sueur’s original pronouns.

The Fetish of Being Outside’ by Meridel Le Sueur

In times like these, points of view are important; they represent what you will be called upon to act from tomorrow. They are not static or simply curious parlour flora any more. I would like therefore to give my position too on some of the problems brought up by Horace Gregory in a recent issue of The New Masses. I have also been struggling with these problems and look forward to the impetus of a communal discussion of them at the Writers’ Congress in May.

Every point that Horace Gregory raises is extremely vital and indicates a middle-class malady I believe, a sickness common to all of us nourished on rotten bourgeois soil. These are important because it may be from these peculiar maladies that we break the old forms of psychic reaction to an old society and create a new nucleus of communal interaction.

I would like to say first that I believe an act of full belief very difficult to the bourgeois mind, a reflex from nineteenth-century romanticism, Darwinism, etc., and that this belief is the action, the function of the writer, this is his peculiar and prophetic function to stand for a belief in something that scarcely exists, as Mr. Gregory points out, but the writer must create from this belief the nucleus of a new condition and relationship of the individual and society and all the problems involved in that new orientation. Of course this is moving in the chaotic dark of a new creation, admittedly, but it is exactly this movement that is the “action” of the creative worker. This I believe pertinently brings up the various points Mr. Gregory states and is related to them all, the individual and the group, the objective fetish of the old literature, being outside and at the same time inside, being above or removed from “splits” and party lines, etc., and left and right “deviations.”

As for the individual and the group: Joining has always been obnoxious to the bourgeois artist because of his false orientation to the middle-class groups and because such groups in an exploiting world are spurious and false groups, an accretion of individuals. An organic group pertaining to growth of a new nucleus of society is a different thing. You do not join such a group, you simply belong. You belong to that growth or you do not belong to it. As a matter of fact you cannot simply attach yourself to the Communist philosophy. It is a hard, difficult, organic growth away from old forms, into entirely new ones. You cannot “join” it in the ordinary middle-class sense as you can join the Rotarians or Kiwanis or any similar group. There are no organic groups in middle-class society because all groups are a subtle hypocrisy since capitalism is based upon the exploiting ability of every individual against every other one.

So, I feel strongly that this holding off of the artist from a group is artificial, a hangover from an old society.

Growing from this subtly and connected, is the assumption that the creative worker is not an economist and cannot understand deviations, and political theory. This again is something entirely different from understanding or participating in the political theory (if any) of, say, Hoover and ilk or the economics of the donkey or the elephant. This again I believe is a hangover, a curious infantilism and exhibitionism of the bourgeois artist. (These are instinctive in us and difficult of removal and should be looked at, I believe, in a clear light as being tendencies of us all.) We have put on this infantilism as a cloak because we could not function in the merchant world, or rather didn’t care to function, and had to keep ourselves out of it by appearing childish or strange or macabre creatures, like [Nathaniel] Hawthorne going out only at night, or [Edgar Allan] Poe taking refuge in strangeness or the [Gertrude] Stein infantile inarticulateness—these of course are extreme, but the extreme is the only way to prove the fallacy of middle courses. If you have to have some excuse for not entering the counting house, being a child or eccentric are both good. Why shouldn’t the artist be in the vanguard in a well integrated society, the most mature, with the greatest powers of psychic synthesis and prophecy and the fullest grasp of vital tendencies toward life or toward death in that society?

In this crisis political and economic activity are no longer specialized and theoretic classroom sociology. They represent an accumulation of forces, a direction of energies and tendencies that show whether you are going to get enough to eat, get married, whether your child will be born alive or dead, or whether you are going to be thrown out on the streets tomorrow. They have become highly integrated emotional, contemporary facts, happening to a lot of people, making the contemporary composition. The artist can no longer take refuge in infantilism, or the supposition that he has not the kind of mentality to understand economic thought because this is the dynamic stuff of the composition of our time and he cannot take a double course and be part of it and still apart from it. It is impossible and the closer we approach the crisis where these elements come together in dynamic clash the more this will be so. You cannot be both on the barricades and objective or removed at the same time. I suppose you can but you are likely to receive the bullets of both sides.

For myself I do not feel any subtle equivocation between the individual and the new disciplined groups of the Communist Party. I do not care for the bourgeois “individual” that I am. I never have cared for it. I want to be integrated in a new and different way as an individual and this I feel can come only from a communal participation which reverses the feeling of a bourgeois writer. What will happen to him will not be special and precious, but will be the communal happening, what happens at all. I can no longer live without communal sensibility. I can no longer breathe in this maggotty individualism of a merchant society. I have never been able to breathe in it. That is why I hope to “belong” to a communal society, to be a cellular part of that and able to grow and function with others in a living whole.

This leads of course directly to the problem of objectivity. This also has something to do with the writer’s precious naïveté about party lines and splits, comes possibly from his fetish of being an outsider. I feel strongly that this being outside the demarcations of economic and political positions (which directly had to do with the betrayal of the Austrian workers, with men tramping over the snow, with women shooting from the roofs of the Karl Marx House in Vienna and all these undoubtedly individuals, and perhaps even objective individuals to themselves) represents a real deviation of emotional and psychic hangovers and difficulties of a new orientation to the writer who has always been alone in a merchant society, which boils down to a desire real and definite enough to take a middle course, very dangerous and from which our life and death of the future will emanate. Objective writing can never provide will or purpose and is related to the liberal formal ideal of neutrality and disinterestedness. This of course is only carrying Gregory’s position to its dangerous conclusions.

I cannot understand or sympathize with the subtle equivocation that exists in Horace Gregory’s entire position. Why want to be an outsider when you see and admit sight of the promised land as Gregory does; why choose to walk around the walls of Jericho merely? Yes, it seems equivocal and dangerous and I mention it bluntly because I am sure he, like the rest of us from the middle class, has a difficult orientation to make; but it seems very dangerous to me to want at the same time to be in and to be out.… You must accept the discipline of the party and yet you must be objective and individual and outside. You must act and yet you must not act, you must be individual and again objective. This is like saying I will fall in love and I will not fall in love, I will remain outside, cunning, keep my head, etc. And just as disastrous to any final heat of creation or action. He says also he cannot write in the heat of conflict. I don’t think anyone demands this but what we do demand is heat. You can’t hatch anything without heat.

“Objective” removed “individual” writing at this time doesn’t give birth to anything.

It seems to me Gregory’s position shows a dangerous hangover integration with his class still. Not actually of course but these half equivocations lead by a devious route straight back to all the old alignments. Even nationalism. He says he is a nationalist. Believes in America. So do I, not knowing any other breast for nourishment, but to believe only in difference smacks too much of the nineteenth-century scientific thought that disassociated and dissected every living organism and left us a horror of parts and broken pieces and—equivocations.

Double entendre, equivocation, a subtle hypocrisy under an apparently frank ideology seems to me dangerously akin to the habits of the middle class.

My stand is that I feel that all this old ideology is dead. I have always felt this subtly, internally, but now it is proven, stands in broad daylight, as an actual physical decay. I see it now. It is known. Every day I see people rotting, dying in this dead class like plants decaying in a foul soil. I feel I, myself, have rotted and suffered and threshed in this element of the bourgeois class like an organism in a decaying pool with the water evaporating about you and the natural elements of your body and desires in stress and your hungers decaying and rotting and stinking to high heaven.

I have felt the impossibility of growth both as an individual and a creative worker in that class, and how all these ideologies are reversed now and do nothing but strangle one and diminish the possibilities of integration and growth.

I, too, like Gregory, have wanted to be a writer of fine poetry. So do we all, like a fine bloom, but you cannot grow a fine bloom by equivocation, by only half growing a fine bloom. This is where the “action” of the writer or creative worker of any kind comes in. It is an action of belief, of full belief. There is some kind of extremity and willingness to walk blind that comes in any creation of a new and unseen thing, some kind of final last step that has to be taken with full intellectual understanding and with the artist, a step beyond that too, a creation of a future “image,” a future action that exists in the present even vaguely or only whispered, or only in a raised arm, or a word dropped in the dark but from these, because of full belief, he will produce a movement, even a miraculous form that has not hitherto existed. Even the lowest forms of life are able to step out in this belief into a new element and grow a new orientated fin or organ that makes creative alignments.

It is difficult because you are stepping into a dark chaotic passional world of another class, the proletariat, which is still perhaps unconscious of itself like a great body sleeping, stirring, strange and outside the calculated, expedient world of the bourgeoisie. It is a hard road to leave your own class and you cannot leave it by pieces or parts; it is a birth and you have to be born whole out of it. In a complete new body. None of the old ideology is any good in it. The creative artist will create no new forms of art or literature for that new hour out of that darkness unless he is willing to go all the way, with full belief, into that darkness.

You cannot blow a trumpet by only half putting it to the lips or even a fraction of an inch away from the lips. You can only blow a trumpet by putting it completely to the lips.

Of course, as Gregory says, we see no strong victorious worker. Most of the time in the past we have seen nothing but the horizon of prairie out here with Chicago, the hog butcher of the world, thrusting a bloody head out of misused Illinois corn soil. Our song is, as he says, “broken, truncated,” but important to the writer is to go off the deep end (heaven knows it ought to be as easy as stepping off a rotting Ward liner that is sinking a mile a minute).

To be willing to do any less leads to an abortive birth, to fascistic tendency in writers, to reformism, back into the old ideology, into the enemies’ camp, into preserving a stinking individualism, objectivity, retreat, and even leads finally to the abortive creation of oneself as an artist and individual.

You can’t have a unity with the nether world and the dangerous dust that falls from bourgeois ideology. Belief is an action for the writer. The writer’s action is full belief, from which follows a complete birth, not a fascistic abortion, but a creation of a new nucleus of a communal society in which at last the writer can act fully and not react equivocally, in a new and mature integrity.

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Taylor Dorrell
Taylor Dorrell

Taylor Dorrell is a freelance writer and photographer, contributing writer at the Cleveland Review of Books, reporter at the Columbus Free Press, columnist at Matter News, and organizer in the Freelance Solidarity Project union. Dorrell is based in Columbus, Ohio.