“Document Du Jour” Dinner Forum is an opportunity for an AMCS graduate student to present an intriguing or puzzling document or artifact from his or her dissertation research – one that will be of wide interest to Americanists across disciplinary lines – and to puzzle through it with colleagues. We’ll circulate the document along with a brief cover note from the presenter stating the questions s/he is posing, the rationale for posing them, and the relevant interpretive contexts.
This month’s presenter is Meredith Kelling.
In the 1950s, the Minnesotan writer and activist Meridel Le Sueur was gifted a reel-to-reel recorder by the staff of Sing Out! magazine. Le Sueur had been very active during the 1930s, writing about working class struggles (particularly those of women) for leftist publications, before getting blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In Le Sueur, Sing Out! and its co-founder, Pete Seeger (a personal friend), saw a particular skill for collecting the voices of the underrepresented.
For decades thereafter, Le Sueur lugged the tape recorder on her extensive travels throughout the United States and recorded scores of stories from workers and labor activists, the politically persecuted, immigrants, and working mothers. But she had other uses, too. The tape recorder seems to have been a central feature of domestic life, and many of the tapes include hours of family conversation, including children and grandchildren singing, reciting poetry, and interviewing one another. Le Sueur also recorded hours of music—both live performances and radio broadcasts—which makes her an early practitioner of music bootlegging and mixtaping.
Considering the collective hodge-podge of contents of these tapes (many of which were reused and recorded over, adding new layers to the sounds), I interpret the collection of tapes not just as a source for raw materials (such as the interviews), but as a cohesive, expressive work in and of themselves. In my dissertation chapter on Le Sueur’s literary and audio corpus, I trace Le Sueur’s authorial impulse to record and transmit the sounds of the underrepresented along the winding surface of magnetic tape. I argue that these sounds echo the aesthetics and politics that motivated Le Sueur’s literary work, such as The Girl (written in the 1930s, but not published until the 1970s).
In Le Sueur’s gathering of official, broadcasted voices, everyday testimonies and other sounds, I identify the author’s sustained critique of radio, television, and other media forms that shaped public discourse and state action throughout the long twentieth century—particularly as related to the experiences of the American working class.
In my broader dissertation project in literature, in which I analyze a terrain of extra- or para-literary writing by American women for its circulatory and subversive potentialities, Le Sueur’s archive is key evidence of how feminist and Leftist women writers used alternative methods for reaching audiences through literary work—beyond publication of recognizably literary forms. In my analysis, Le Sueur’s archive—a massive body of journals, unpublished pieces, late-published novels, teaching work, and audio recordings—demonstrates the utility of examining women’s writing activities outside of publication. Expanding the scope of close-reading activities to include her unpublished (and audio) work, I argue, makes it possible to fully assess the author’s varied expressive and political powers.
For the dinner forum, participants will be invited to listen to a set of these audio materials in advance, which have been digitized and made accessible by the Minnesota Historical Society, where Le Sueur’s papers are held.
The Americanist Dinner Fora are the flagship intellectual event for the AMCS community. Each month features a new set of speakers exploring a topic relevant to American Studies through the medium of a selected reading. The reading will be circulated the week prior. AMCS PhD Certificate students are expected to attend each of the fora, and AMCS MA students and AMCS Faculty are strongly encouraged to attend.
Register for this event here.