Meridel Le Sueur 1926

Evening in a Lumber Town

Published: New Masses, July, 1926;
Transcribed: for in January, 2002.

FOUR streets in the lumbertown, run from the lumber mills on the bay, between sunken houses, and end abruptly where the forest begins. The sound of the mill, grinding and screaming....the mill fires never stop except on every seventh day on the Christians’ Sunday. At dawn the men go down these streets to the mills and come back at twilight stooping a little. In the evening the night shift men leave the homes and in a steady, living stream move towards the mills.

The half sunken homes – the rain seems to rust and the elements to torture them – lean with the wind and sink into the hard, black northern loam. Within them I se large women moving; from them comes a living odor such as animals produce, an odor of flesh, of dark human stenched interiors. The door slits are blackened by human touch, the wood is worn over the thresholds by the passing of very heavy feet. In the shadow of a porch a woman sits, her face lifted in a kind of idiocy of poverty. Three more women with broad faces like cows sit far back close to the house, half hidden by the dark foliage, their faces are distorted and swollen. This life of excessive labor has marked them. Children run from the doorways add play and scream along the streets.

The very young children are not so violent. They smile shyly, with, naive peasant grace. Two little boys edge up to me, their heads are shaved, round as bullets, they wear black shirts. They seem like animals come to sniff at me, to look at me from out their bland stricken little eyes, and then at last to come and stand without embarrassment in front of me, looking at me very serious. A little boy with smooth poll and bright bland face, bright but uniformly pale, runs by with a dog, turning his elongated face to me as he runs backward, disappearing in the dusk.

Poverty is grotesque. It is violent and abnormal. These faces are the faces of nightmare. This scene is the dark half mad back-ground of a Goya. Poverty is like a violence producing a terrible dwarfing of nature.

Two young girls, with wide toothless mouths and shaggy-hair which leaves their pale faces encased, witchlike, come down the walk beneath the low trees, giggling, they lean upon each other. Their sharp faces have a senseless look that endless labor breeds into the faces of women.

Their dirty aprons hang against their bare legs; their bodies beneath are slim and crooked, with a warm odor like little animals.

The houses, now darkening quickly, seem to have become alive with swarming children. Their faces peer out of the gloom, sharp and wizened. They run and flutter past me. Very small children run like rats through the dusk, scurrying across the streets, crying out to each other, and running upon each other in a wild play, half mad and vicious, striking each other down. A boy with blood on his mouth gets up from the path and runs through the gloom screaming. Small eerie faces with cold inhuman eyes, misshapen heads – these are children conceived in a brawl and delivered by hags.

A man slams the door of a house after him and walks out into the street. He is lean and intense – one of the younger men. He walks with his lean stark face thrust forward. There is a terrible kind of beauty in his face, the spare tragic beauty that is moulded by terror and horror of necessity.

Now the whistle screams. Now the workmen come from the mill, down the streets close together, huddled together. Their black loose clothes are all alike. Like a dark moving mass they come shuffling along heavily, heads lowered, arms hanging, their dark half-drunken faces thrust out. They look drunk, drunk with a deadening concentration. There is the unnatural flush and sullenness of drunkenness. Their concentration is the concentration of themselves against everything, against hungers and terrors...and hourly fears. It is a hard combative identity in them....

Six of them come down the street now close together, moving together like a pack, swiftly and silently, all in black hanging clothes, heavy with perspiration, dark faces under low caps, walking side by side, slouching; all alike; all with small pails, sullen faces, their eyes like the eyes of beaten animals. They come swiftly and darkly down the narrow street from the mill.

A great fatigue seems to pull them down from the chest towards the ground, towards the center of the earth. The younger a man is the less, he carries the mark of that fatigue. The older a man the more he moves in that slouch, his great hands hanging in front, his head bent from his curving back. The younger men look almost drunk with the sullen combative fever, but in the elders there is less of that fever in the eyes. The older men have given in, and in giving in have escaped a little.

Three men exactly like the others come from the far end of the street, walking together, their heads bent as if all were listening to the same sound. They come up to me and pass me, veering a little from their path. I see their faces quite close – the dead look. I think a queer thing as they pass me. I am shocked at first by such a thought. Then it seems quite natural. I think that they remind me of Charlie Chaplin. He may be a wag but he says a great deal about these men, about the exigencies of poverty, the humiliation, the tragic, comic pathos. The shoes, the trousers, the shy defenceless attitude, – all Chaplin’s, in the best sense, terrible comedy.

The street is dark now and confused with the moving of this dark stream of men, huddled, moving together toward houses. The sound of the saw mills seem to increase as the sun sinks. With night the very young men come out boldly upon the streets, lean as wolves. A young girl with an orange scarf around her neck sidles by.

Still the dark men go silently and swiftly, a living stream. Now that I can no longer see them their odor drifts with the other odors. Their large bodies approach, loom, pass me and disappear. There is something bare in them. They are kept close to life, close and intimate to life with its raw hungers. In them is no self consciousness. They do not celebrate their being. They adhere so closely to the terrible, natural things that they are impersonalized, nullified. There exists in them the unconscious vitality of those hungers they live by. Genius might spring from such men, from such spare soil – genius too is born of such stark necessity, a humble necessity, a despair. Despair and humbleness make good ground for hardy growth. Poverty humbles a man low so that nature has her way with him. By her hungers she pulls him to her so he does not forget he was born of her. She keeps him her child. Life here is kept to the bone and the marrow. No excess consciousness, only the blindness of necessity.

To be bound by hungers is beautiful but to be bound by physical hungers only is too low a state for man. But if, going beyond these physical hungers, one could keep this closeness to the need and its fulfillment, still adhere simply to the hunger and its exact satisfaction, life would be purer.

These men have the dreadful simplicity of their physical hungers. For they are dreadful. They live too near the bone. Tragedy is their meat. Defeat is their wine. They are crucified and hung on the black tree of necessity. They die before they are born, and their living on the earth is a black death.

They so home into dark, intimate houses. There is no song and no gaiety. They sit within their close, dead houses. Their women do not laugh. They, the men and women, sit large and silent in the low hanging houses.

It is not a bad town. The houses are not bad houses. They are good houses, made of wood; but they are unkempt. Something in the houses has died, and the houses die also. Their people live too close to a menacing reality which makes houses of no consequence. Pride and possession is gone from them. They are afraid of the luxury of pride or they have no energy for it. These are bare houses without a flower...with bare ground before them.

I wonder if they have any pomp about death, whether there is anything beside this acceptance in their giving up to death – if they have any consciousness of death, or if they are stark and bare without excess in death too.

They must above all like to die together. They move together in life so swiftly, so silently. They must shuffle into death much as they shuffle to work. They must have a living satisfaction in dying together in mines and factories because in life they are always so close together. One of these men, going to work alone, or dying alone, might stop and think. Isolation so startling would start the germ of revolt...

I have seen the face, of men, stiff and proud, already glistening like minerals, dying together as they work, swiftly, huddled against each other and silent.


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