Women on the Breadlines
"Women on the Breadlines,"
Meridel LeSueur's first piece of reportage
for the New Masses, the writer, an unemployed mother of two, places herself
among the "women you don't see": those who are single, out of work, and
hungry. She was criticized for her "defeatism" by the editors, who were
annoyed that such women were not joining the organizations of the working
class and that this writer was not striking a more hopeful note. Implicitly, her
stance suggested that narratives about the breadlines needed modification
when it was women who stood on them.
Because the hungry woman had no
place on the breadlines, she rarely figured in the headlines either. Women are forced to manage families on their
own, without the help of men. They want any job possible to support themselves.
The ongoing issues include the following: 1) how individuals are valued, how ordinary people
fare in American society, and what opportunities exist for them; 2) what is the nature and role of
the state and how it responds to real and perceived threats; 3) how people are connected to one
another and to the places in which they live; 4) how the young respond to the world they will
inherit; and 5) how newcomers fare in the U.S.
After 1945, writers
showed far less interest in wealth and poverty, power and
powerlessness, the situations of ordinary workers, and so forth
One cause for this lessening
of interest was the disaffection of many writers from politics because of the failures of
Communism, the chief sponsor of engaged literature for more than two decades.
A second cause
was the developing sense in American literary culture that, as the English writer George Orwell
put it in his widely-read 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” politics was “a mass of
lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia” and that political engagement killed real art. But
“politics” and “political” are elastic terms, as indicated by the wide acceptance of the idea that
“the personal is political.” As I hope to show, American writing after World War II was still
deeply engaged, and not just at the personal level.
The Depression and Early 1940s