Meridel LeSueur (1900-1996)
Contributing Editor: Elaine Hedges
Classroom Issues and Strategies
For both LeSueur pieces, some knowledge of the Great Depression of the 1930s is helpful--the extent of unemployment, the fears about the future of American society, the disillusionment of many writers and intellectuals with the capitalist system, and especially the impact of the depression on women. Our popular images of the period are of men standing in breadlines and selling apples. LeSueur was one of the few writers to focus on women, who also lost jobs, faced starvation, and were abandoned by husbands who were forced to seek work elsewhere.
"Annunciation" is one of the rare pieces of literature to concentrate on the feelings of a pregnant woman-- an especially ground-breaking subject when LeSueur wrote her story. Students might be asked if they know of or have read other stories about pregnancy and childbirth, and why these subjects have not figured importantly in our literature until recently. As female experiences, have they been considered less important than such quintessentially male experiences as hunting or warfare?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
As indicated above, the depression of the 1930s is the historical context for both pieces of writing. Instructors might want to ask why women have tended to be ignored in accounts of the depression.
Both pieces emerged from LeSueur's personal experience. She herself experienced unemployment and poverty during the depression. She knew, and for a time lived with, the kinds of women she describes in "Women on the Breadlines." "Annunciation" is based on her own experience--her decision during the depression to have a child as an affirmation of faith in life, despite uncertainties and fears about the future. The story shows her own personal faith, rooted in a belief in the continuity of natural and human life. That belief, often expressed through a celebration of nature's recurring cycle and of the human life cycle, can be found in her writings throughout her career.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
"Women on the Breadlines" is a piece of journalism. Though the emphasis is on factual observation, with details conveyed through short, simple declarative sentences, it is not "objective" reporting. (Students might be asked what "objective" writing is and whether in fact there is such a thing.) The reportorial voice doesn't keep itself distinct from the material it describes, but, rather, identifies with the women and their suffering. Is this kind of journalism--called "reportage" in LeSueur's time--similar to the personal or "new" journalism written today?
Does the style, in its directness and simplicity, effectively capture the lives and feelings of the women described? Is it, despite being journalism, in any ways a "literary" style? Note LeSueur's use of imagery: for example, a scrub woman with hands "like watersoaked branches." Can students find other examples of figurative language?
Also examine the structure of "Women on the Breadlines." It develops through a series of vignettes or portraits. Are these arranged in any particular order? Does the piece develop, as a short story might, toward a climax? What might be the difference between this kind of journalistic feature story and a literary short story?
"Annunciation" is written in a more lush, lyrical, descriptive style. Contrast this to the more clipped style of "Women on the Breadlines." How is each style appropriate to the contents and purpose of each piece?
The pear tree is, of course, the central symbol in "Annunciation." Trace the process whereby the tree takes on meaning for the narrator, in relation to her pregnancy; what meanings does the tree eventually hold for her, and how does it become a symbol of her faith in the future? Students may need to be encouraged to read carefully, to elicit the full set of meanings that the tree--and the cycles of nature--have for the narrator. Some students see only darkness and doubt and have difficulty recognizing or understanding the narrator's affirmations.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Other writings in the anthology that describe the depression can be compared and contrasted in content and style to "Women on the Breadlines."
In its use of the cycles of nature and of human life, "Annunciation" can be profitably compared to Whitman's use of such cycles. (Whitman was an important influence on LeSueur.) The story can also be compared effectively to Silko's "Lullaby."