People’s Culture

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

The idea of people’s culture has a long and colorful history in the United States. Some of it originated in poetry and song—including the works of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or “Wobblies”) carried culture around the country as they “rode the rails.” American populism emerged from farmer-labor politics of the Middle West in the early 20th century. Novels such as The Grapes of Wrath grew out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Later came the People’s Songs movement, with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Paul Robeson.

West End Press formed in 1976 with the support of Meridel Le Sueur, one of the leading figures in the people’s culture movement from the 1930s. She believed that an alliance of working people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds represented the hope of America.  Her stories and novels, full of distinctly human gestures and deeds, reflected the aspirations of the American underclass as the true genius of the nation. Our task, she believed, was to represent these voices.

Among the first publications of West End Press were two volumes of Le Sueur’s stories, Harvest (1976) and Song for My Time (1976), and her depression-era novel The Girl (1978). Meridel’s works have continued to prosper over three and a half decades, with total sales reaching 100,000 by 2010. Our other early books by working-class writers included Drophammer, a play set in a factory by Emanuel Fried (1977); Story of Glass, poems by Pittsburgh glass worker Peter Oresick (1977); and Ransack, the story of a young man on a wrecking crew in Cincinnati, by Mike Henson (1980).

We also published first volumes of poetry by young writers of diverse backgrounds. These included Take One Blood Red Rose by Appalachian poet Mary Joan Coleman; Lift These Shadows from My Eyes by African American poet Rosemary Mealy; We Will Make a River by Tulsa poet-activist Mary MacAnally; and Speaking in Sign by Oklahoma poet Teresa Anderson. All these books were published in 1978.

Teresa Anderson translated the posthumous volume by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, A Call for the Destruction of Nixon (1980), in the book’s authorized English edition. Neruda foresaw the fascist coup that resulted in the murder of Chilean president Salvador Allende and hastened his own death in September 1973. Around the same time we published In a Land of Plenty, poems and tracts by the Appalachian farmer, preacher, educator, and activist Don West (1982), and If You Want To Know What We Are, the collected stories, essays, and poems of Filipino immigrant Carlos Bulosan (1983). We also published a pamphlet of poems by radical poet Thomas McGrath, Longshot O’Leary Counsels Direct Action (1983).

Our concern with people’s culture helped open us to the literature of personal experience. Meridel Le Sueur introduced us to Sharon Doubiago; we published her epic poem Hard Country in 1982. The book won 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.” Doubiago’s recently released two-volume memoir My Father’s Love is a stirring memoir of her own traumatic history.