Peoples Culture and West End Press

Meridel Le Sueur
Meridel Le Sueur

Well. How can we show that America was built by the people? —Meridel Le Sueur

The idea of peoples culture has a long and varied history. The German philosopher Herder wrote of a popular, peasant-based European culture at the end of the eighteenth century. American populism grew out of the farmer-labor politics of the Middle West in the nineteenth century. The Communist Party of the nineteen-thirties to fifties celebrated a peoples culture that included slave songs, working-class narratives, indigenous art and folk music; one of the late manifestations of this cultural revival was the Peoples Songs movement, with such performers as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Paul Robeson.

Another version of Peoples Culture came out of England in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The Marxist educator Raymond Williams, in Culture and Society 1870-1950, addressed a “common culture” which he said was opposed by “violence and fraud.” Studies of working-class culture gained momentum at several of the “red brick” universities such as Birmingham in the industrial north. Later on, a British Worker Writers group toured the United States, searching for similar working-class organizations in this country.

Accepting Imprecision

“Peoples culture” is an imprecise term. While it may mean writings from the working class (often industrial laborers) combined with immigrant, “ethnic,” and multicultural literature, it may also include literature proposing social change from middle class writers. How do we see this work coming together?

Jack Conroy
Jack Conroy, writer of the 1930's, at a Peoples Culture conference in Kansas City in 1978.

West End Press, forming in 1976 around the works of Meridel Le Sueur, accepted the imprecision of the term “peoples culture.” We wanted to bring writers together, not separate them artificially. Working people, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and socially conscious middle class people were the hope of America.  If we persisted in the separation of one group from another, how could we even address the questions of mutual respect that had been suppressed in preceding decades?

We published blacklisted radicals of the McCarthy period, working class writers denied access to the corporate media, and multicultural writers who found it hard to have their work accepted and circulated by a larger audience. We encouraged women writers seeking access to publication, especially when they came from exploited, oppressed, or under-represented groups. Our task became one of representing unheard voices. In this sense “peoples culture” defined what we were about.

Early Voices

Among our first publications were two volumes of the short stories of Meridel Le Sueur, Harvest (1977) and Song for My Time (1977), covering her career as a radical writer from the nineteen-thirties to the fifties; her city novel, The Girl (1978), and her farm novel, I Hear Men Talking (1984), both completed but left unpublished at the end of the thirties; and other books by working-class writers including Drophammer, a play set in a factory by Emanuel Fried (1977); Story of Glass, poems by a young Pittsburgh glass worker, Peter Oresick (1977); and Ransack, a novel of work on a wrecking crew in Cincinnati by Appalachian and urban activist Mike Henson (1980).

Company coal mining town, West Virginia, 1947.
Company coal mining town, West Virginia, 1947.

On the radical side, we translated the last volume by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, A Call for the Destruction of Nixon (1980). Writing in 1973, Neruda had foreseen the fascist coup that resulted in the murder of Chilean president Salvador Allende and hastened his own death in September of that year. We published In a Land of Plenty, poems and tracts by the Appalachian farmer, preacher, and educator Don West (1982). We also published If You Want To Know What We Are, collected stories, essays, and poems of Filipino American activist Carlos Bulosan (1983). Finally, recognizing a lifetime of radical poetry in larger collections, we published a pamphlet of poems by Thomas McGrath entitled Longshot O’Leary Counsels Direct Action (1983).

At the same time, we published first volumes of poetry by younger writers whose class backgrounds or political activism had kept their work from receiving full recognition by the small presses then in existence. Along with Story of Glass by Peter Oresick, our most popular volumes included Take One Blood Red Rose by Appalachian poet Mary Joan Coleman; Lift These Shadows from My Eyes by African American poet Rosemary Mealy; Together We Make a River by Tulsa poet Mary MacAnally; and Speaking in Sign by Kansas poet Teresa Anderson. All these books were published in 1978.     

Our concern with Peoples Culture also opened us to the literature of personal experience. Meridel Le Sueur introduced us to Sharon Doubiago, a passionate, outspoken writer who sought to comprehend America as a whole in her epic poem Hard Country (1982). The book won immediate praise from many quarters. Carolyn Forche wrote, “Sharon Doubiago is a complex of occasions, a brilliant response to Whitman, an American poet, free, spiritual, and gifted.”

Broadening Horizons

As a matter of emphasis in later years, we’ve focused our attention on multicultural writing. We continue to emphasize working class and political concerns, as well as women’s writing, gay and lesbian literature, and the literature of personal experience. We will dedicate more attention to the situation of the displaced, the unemployed, the homeless, and the prison population in the United States. We will directly address political repression where it threatens our society as a whole.

In keeping with the theme of peoples culture, we are looking increasingly to other media besides print culture. In future years you can expect us to expand to CD’s, DVD’s, books representing the arts, and news of the radical arts on our website. We hope to hold events and performances as well as educational forums in the Southwest, and to connect with similar activities across the country. We’ll take an active part in organizing support of peoples culture and defense against attacks on free expression. Again, this is only an expansion, not a change in direction, of the idea that helped to form our press: “Well. How can we show that America was built by the people?”