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Modern Girls in the Midwestern City: Kay Boyle’s Process and Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl



Cet article explore deux bildungsromans modernistes : Process (1925, publié en 2001) de Kay Boyle et The Girl (1939, publié en 1978) de Meridel LeSueur. En s’attachant à la façon dont le corps féminin sexualisé interagit avec l’espace physique et géographique, l’auteur met en lumière la relation ambivalente (appartenance et aliénation) des deux protagonistes, Kerith Day et « the Girl », qui sont amenées à se construire au prix d’une confrontation douloureuse entre espace domestique et espace professionnel, et en se mesurant avec le paysage urbain du Midwest.

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In four directions from a bronze fountain, Cincinnati, Ohio. Streets curl into the hills and wired inclines above them stand sharp like long-legged birds in fume. The hills lean away from the smoke, lean away from the river that cleaves them. Kerith Day made a song against the city, shouting it as she drove above the river” (Process 1)

  • 1  This article developed from a paper presented at the 2012 Society for the Study of American Women (...)

1These lines open Kay Boyle’s novel Process and establish the importance of urban geography to the protagonist’s development.1The vivid description of Cincinnati landmarks creates the landscape among and against which Kerith struggles, a domestic and economic embrace she ultimately escapes. For Kay Boyle’s character Kerith Day, and for Meridel Le Sueur’s “Girl,” the Midwestern city is integral to the identity claims of the Modern Girl coming of age in early twentieth-century America.

  • 2  See Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent book The Warmth of Other Suns for a compelling account of the Gre (...)

2Many scholars have written on the development of American urban spaces, from sociological treatises on cities as sites of transformation to historical works detailing the opportunity and exploitation found by young men and women since the nineteenth century. Scholars of American literature examine this site as well: The “country-to-city tale” was a “staple of women’s magazine fiction since 1910,” according to Maureen Honey (29), and a standard plot in many novels featuring New York and Chicago (Wilson 1991). At the turn of the century and early into the new century, the city became the symbolic locus of mobility and self-transformation even as in reality it was the industrial engine transforming the nation into a modern economic entity. The city represented anonymity, danger, autonomy, and possibility for young women. The industrial city was also sold as a site of economic and political opportunity to immigrants and migrants. Roughly six million African-Americans left the rural South in a “Great Migration” to Midwestern and Northern cities between 1910 and 1970, forever changing the nation and American literature.2

3Modernism as a twentieth-century literary movement is associated with cities, the publishing opportunities of “little magazines” and intellectual community of literary salons springing up in New York, Chicago, London, and Paris. “American modernism sited itself in the city,” writes Guy Reynolds. “All share the quintessential modernist belief that the city is the locale for new ways of thinking and feeling; and all use the city in a symbolic way, as icon of progress or more disturbingly as index of cultural disintegration” (Reynolds 79). Reynolds focuses on male writers such as Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos, explaining that “women were writing about the city, but their chosen city space happened not to be mechanical, industrial or technological, or indeed, American” (80). Reynolds elides the contributions of Kay Boyle and Meridel LeSueur, who, I would argue, straddle the Modernist aesthetic of the 1910s-1920s with the later realist concerns of proletarian or interwar social problem novels, and demonstrate the inextricable nature of gender, sexuality, class, and geography in identity formation.

  • 3  See Elizabeth Wilson, The Contradictions of Culture: Cities, Culture, Women (2001).

4“If the City is a text, how shall we read it?” asks Joyce Carol Oates, and indeed many literary scholars discuss urban space as a setting within which characters enact their dramatic struggles or as a symbol or progress and “allegory of amoral dynamism” (Oates 11, 18). Susan Merrill Squier writes that, “in its many guises—as symbol, theme, setting, even character—the city speaks fluently of woman's public and private life, of her literal and literary confinement in patriarchal models for experience, and of her struggle to win freedom from such constraints in life and art" (Squier 6). These scholars often forward unexamined definitions of the “city,” focusing on the major metropolis and ignoring the burgeoning industrial cities of the Midwest. They also tend to discuss “the city” as a stable paradigm producing categorical experiences. Perhaps literary scholars need to consider the work of feminist geographers such as Linda McDowell, who argue that "space and place are gendered and sexed, and gender relations and sexuality are 'spaced' (…) places are contested, fluid and uncertain. It is socio-spatial practices that define places and these practices result in overlapping and intersecting places with multiple and changing boundaries, constituted and maintained by social relations of power and exclusion" (McDowell 65, 4). Women became increasingly visible in public urban spaces since the end of the nineteenth century, their physical bodies imbricated in larger material conditions and power relations that tested and reset social, psychological, and physical boundaries.3 For the Modern Girl coming-of-age in the 1920s and 1930s, the geography of the city was a place of possibility and peril, of anonymity and alienation, developing and negotiating identity.

Kay Boyle and Meridel Le Sueur: Life/Writing

  • 4  According to Historical Statistics of the United States, Cincinnati recorded a population of 401,2 (...)
  • 5  See Spanier (1986, 2001) on the novel’s genesis, loss, and recovery. Spanier also calls the novel (...)

5This article examines the Midwestern cities of Cincinnati, Ohio and St. Paul, Minnesota, as the geography negotiated by female protagonists coming of age in two strikingly similar novels. Process, Kay Boyle’s first novel, was written in France in the mid-1920s about her youth in Cincinnati, a city of over 400,000.4 Perhaps Boyle’s least known novel, the manuscript was rejected by a publisher, lost, and not rediscovered until 1999 by Sandra Spanier, Boyle’s biographer.5 Kay Boyle was born in St. Paul in 1902 and spent a nomadic childhood before her father opened a garage in Cincinnati, in 1916 (Spanier 1986, 8). She was a prolific writer, a member of the avant-garde literary expatriate movement, and a social activist after returning to the United States in 1941. Process, which depicts her “involvement in the radical labor movement as a teenager in Cincinnati,” began Boyle’s career of writing in an autobiographical vein; indeed, as Spanier notes, “Nearly everything she has written has sprung immediately from her personal life” (1986, 3).

  • 6  See Hapke, Pancake, or Rabinowitz, for instance.

6Boyle’s birthplace of St. Paul, Minnesota, a city her family quickly departed, serves as the setting for Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl. Le Sueur was more firmly rooted in the American Midwest, born in Iowa in 1900 and living in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Like Boyle (1902-1992), Le Sueur’s life spanned most of the twentieth century (1900-1996), and her writing career spanned over sixty years. A prolific writer and activist, Le Sueur set her bildungsroman in St. Paul, a city of almost 288,000 in the 1930s. Her “politically committed” and “progressive regionalism,” as Julie Mickenberg calls it, is evident in The Girl (143, 146). The novel’s feminist socialist content kept it from publication until 1978, although individual pieces were reprinted as short stories throughout the 1940s (Puente 106, note 1). The novel is usually read with a feminist lens, celebrating the maternal power of women, or in the context of the Communist Party USA and proletarian literature, with comparison to Tillie Olsen or Agnes Smedley.6 Her work has not, to my knowledge, previously been compared to that of Kay Boyle, yet a comparative examination of these two novels reveals insight into the primacy of the Midwestern city to the modern female bildungsroman. Guy Reynolds has argued that, “while male fictions by Dreiser or Dos Passos deal with a traditional politics of class, the politics of female urban modernism is focused on identity, especially the construction of sexual and national selves” (Reynolds 80). I question, however, his separation of class from identity and sexuality. In both novels, but perhaps especially The Girl, the protagonists’ growth cannot be separated from urban economies and spaces. Both novels are grounded in autobiography, both mix modernist stylings with left-political theory, and both offer bildungsromans that situate the protagonists’ sexual and psychological growth in the Midwestern city.

At Home in the City

  • 7  See also Anne Reynes-Delobel and Kevin McCabe on Boyle’s modernist language. McCabe claims, “Boyle (...)
  • 8  This rewriting of home-space corresponds to Thomas Foster’s claim that “modernist women writers re (...)

7Boyle’s Process demonstrates a commitment to both radical politics and artistic theories; it is written in an innovative, lyric language that Suzanne Clark has called “radical fluidity” (Clarke 324).7This stylistic mobility reinforces the novel’s sense of porous geographic and psychological boundaries—between home/work, alienation/belonging, and freedom/constraint (McCabe 30). Boundary-crossing is evident in the domestic space above the family business, a garage where Kerith works as an unpaid switchboard operator. Kitchen, lounge, and bedrooms occupy the same building as the shop in a neighborhood of shuttered and defunct factories. This home-space also serves as the location for political meetings.8 A working-man attending the meeting believes the space is “the elegant office of a boss, with Turkey rugs,” as its position above the shop indicates commercial space, yet “the rugs, the pure lemon lamp, long soft chairs and lounge, the walls cleared to reproductions of Brancusi brasses” are incongruent with the cause of radical labor (Process 12-13). This does not seem to be the home of laborers or political activists, with its attention to comfort and aesthetics. Domestic, economic, and political boundaries are crossed, disrupting expectations of activities and bodies belonging to specific locations.

8But this is no utopian location successfully merging multiple purposes in one site. Rather, Boyle’s linguistic flexibility conflates exhaustion, heat, and poverty in the setting and mood. She writes, “The shop was low in the street, wide windows opened and veined with electric wires. Heat rolling up with the dust fell on the naked floor, full and unspent. Windows sucked heat in their white cheeks” (6). Work and home are conflated with the physical body in sensuous language that evokes anticipation and claustrophobia. Rather than a retreat from the grit of capitalism, Boyle implicates the domestic in the economic and political institutions constraining Kerith. Her bedroom view is industrial, a lumber yard and box factory where even the walls look “exhausted” (26); it is this urban enervation she seeks to escape. The descriptive language instantiates the merging of physical space and bodies that feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz claims is endemic to urban space:"The city is made and made over into the simulacrum of the body, and the body, in its turn, is transformed, 'citified', urbanized as a distinctively metropolitan body" (242). In Process and in The Girl, this article will demonstrate, the city organizes and influences physical experience, family life, and sexual relations.

  • 9  Gentry notes that this style caused Le Sueur’s work to be rejected by the Communist Party USA, whi (...)
  • 10  Paula Rabinowitz states “Perhaps no woman writer of the 1930s more consciously narrated the female (...)

9The Girl is set a decade later than Process, in the economic despair of the Depression, with the unnamed “Girl” recently arrived in St. Paul. She works “at the German Village,” a bar, as the opening line tells us, “where I was lucky to get a job in those bad times” (The Girl 1). Like Boyle, Le Sueur’s style is lyrical, experimental, bordering on stream-of-consciousness, but The Girl’s voice narrates in unmediated innocence, creating a greater intimacy with the uneducated protagonist than Boyle’s third-person omniscient point of view.9 This perspective articulates the usually ignored consciousness of young working-class women as she negotiates the alienating urban environment.10 The Girl is from a rural village two hours from St. Paul. It is economics that instigate her migration to the city; although she is leaving a home-life of poverty and abuse in the countryside, her lonely move to the city is not her choice. Simply, there are too many mouths to feed at home (30). Rural home life is never romanticized to contrast against an alien city. Poverty makes home literally unstable—“we moved from one house and city to another in the Midwest”—and physically dangerous. As the Girl tells her friend Clara, “my papa thinks everybody done him wrong and he beat us all, beat my mama too. He just beat us because he saw what he wanted and couldn’t give” (9). The father’s rule represents the power of patriarchy in the home, but without the traditional attributions of security, warmth, and comfort often associated with family or home.

  • 11  Indeed, Mam might be right: “There, freed from the bonds of rural social control, they were in dan (...)

10Cast from this domestic space, the Girl moves to St. Paul in search of work and creates, eventually, an alternate home and family. She has been warned of the dangers of the city: “My mam had told me that the cities were Sodom and Gomorrah, and terrible things could be happening to you” (1).11 And indeed St. Paul is a dangerous environment for a poor young woman. The Girl, unskilled and uneducated, finds work as a waitress, where men proposition her and try to “feel her up or slap her on the buttocks” (2). While the German Village provides a stable job, it is sufficient only for survival. Her friend and co-worker Clara prostitutes herself for extra money in a vain effort to save for her middle-class dreams. Although the Girl rents a room in the city, it never serves as a setting for any scene in the novel or is even described, and she often “slept on a couch [at work] because it was too late to go to my room” (19). When she can’t afford rent she moves in with Clara, but again Le Sueur leaves the Girl’s domestic living space undescribed. Thus in both novels the space of ‘home’ is also a workplace, highlighting the city’s economic centrality. It is a physical space containing more than biological family, where customers and other relationships occur. This is domestic space as “social process,” site of transaction and instability (Jacobson 7).

The Street

11The “mean streets” of the city are the site of mobility, transaction, public exposure, and vulnerability. Yet they are the vital lifelines of a city, connecting and creating access, marking boundaries and neighborhoods. Young women must leave domestic space to enter the public sphere in search of work and freedom. If home is a site of patriarchy, constraining the realization of individual identity for young women coming of age, do the city streets offer relief?

12In Process, Kerith is a young woman seeking freedom from home, the literal site of patriarchy, and from the oppressive conservatism of Midwest American life. Home offers a sense of belonging in her intimate relationship to her mother, a physically weak but politically radical figure. But her father and grandfather embody alienating patriarchy. Kerith opposes their wishes by taking a paid job outside the home. Her growing independence is fed by her physical escape from home and linked to sexual awakening. She wanders the city and surrounding countryside in her car. From Mount Auburn and the University, to Eden Park, to the industrial buildings and tenements, the city is exhausted, dissipated, and dirty. Manufacturing sites are described in the language of physical reproduction and sterility: “Factories were closed as they passed them, walls sagging spent from the taut window-frames. Kerith saw them, factories conceived before the perfect machine erection, enduring unborn, aborted from the age-womb transfused with life of the workers” (4). Cincinnati’s distinct geography is described through Kerith’s psychological lens as spent and barren. This is not a productive urban landscape, bustling with activity and opportunity, industry filling the land with goods, but rather the empty and despairing shell of concrete and failure. This malaise infects the citizens, and urban denizens are described as akin to zombies: “The hill sagged open on the river, the city like a tarnished frill at the lean crook of its elbow. They drove down into the outskirts where drugstore windows bleared the corners, and from the intimacies of movie shows oozed a watery discharge of faces” (23). Like their environment, they are exhausted, dirtied, and rendered “non-human” (72). The smoke, the streetcars, the dirty river filled with “cigaret stubs and sewerage,” are a dystopian urban landscape (32).

  • 12  An undated, unsigned letter to Malcolm Cowley from a union organizer in Cincinnati in 1921 describ (...)
  • 13 Being Geniuses Together is Robert McAlmon’s 1938 autobiography revised and with added chapters by K (...)

13The city represents both familial and capitalist patriarchy, forces which Kerith seeks to escape (Ellis 33). This freedom is aided by her car and her involvement with the radical labor movement. Kerith drives organizers of the Farmer-Labor party, attends meetings and hands out leaflets. This element of the plot is directly drawn from Boyle’s life.12 In Being Geniuses Together,13Kay Boyle remembers muckraking reporter Lincoln Steffens’ visit to Cincinnati: she “was allowed (…) to drive him and Mother in our Model T Ford to the hall where he was lecturing” (Boyle 1984, 22). When not working or involved in politics, Kerith exploits her automobility to leave the city. She takes her mother and others into the countryside, driving “recklessly always, and yet with a firm agility” that suggests competence and physical prowess (73). Again Boyle uses language suggestive of border crossing or merging, in this case of car with body: “the bond and belief and pure subjection between herself and the car” enables her to control the mechanical technology, and “she was the attractive body drawing it to her direction and will” (73-74). As Deborah Clarke notes in her book Driving Women, in Process “the car reinforces the power of the female body,” and Boyle’s language implies the car as an expression of Kerith’s growing sexuality (65).But this automobility does not enable an escape from what the city represents. In the countryside, a small mob of men with guns and dogs disrupt the picnic to throw them off private property, revealing the reach of capitalist patriarchy. The scene briefly offers sexual threat premised on land ownership; Kerith is trespassing and has no rights, the men suggest, or power (48-49). Although it is described as “pure” and “cool” in contrast to the city, the rural landscape is no idyll, no place of greater freedom, but itself policed by violent institutions operating by exclusion and definition.

14The streets of St. Paul Minnesota are also controlled by power relations imbricated by gender and class. As a young woman, the Girl is viewed as a sexual object and commodity when displaying herself in public. These patriarchal assumptions policing women who wander the city are dangerous to the Girl’s freedom, as her very presence can be construed as illicit sexuality: “I was lucky to have Clara showing me how to wander on the street and not be picked up by plainclothesmen and police matrons,” the girl says. “They will pick you up, Clara told me, and give you tests and sterilize you or send you to the women’s prison” (1). That is, if suspected of prostitution and immoral behavior she can be physically detained, sentenced, and potentially sterilized. Gentry notes the reality of involuntary sterilization based on eugenic principles: the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in Buck vs. Bell reinforced states’ eugenic interest in protecting against moral and mental “defectives” via sterilization (n. pag). Later in the novel the Girl is subjected to testing and threatened with sterilization by a social worker, a government representative. “The girl is maladjusted, emotionally unstable, and a difficult problem to approach,” the report reads. “She should be tested for sterilization after her baby is born. In our opinion sterilization would be advisable (114). This surveillance and policing in the “public interest” conforms to the phenomenon encountered by Modern Girls around the world (as described by Weinbaum et. al.), where “supposed sexual transgressions—her expression of sexuality as such, her interest in same-sex or interracial sexuality and in sexuality outside marriage—made the Modern Girl into a body in need of policing by nation-states, social reformers, and missionaries as well as national bourgeoisies” (16).

  • 14  These spaces are, as Linda McDowell notes, "defined, maintained and altered through the impact of (...)

15Unlike Kerith, the Girl is too poor to own a car, and thus lacks the protection and freedom afforded by automobility. Rather, her physical body is exposed on the city streets. Even Belle and Hoinck, owners of the German Village bar, are unable to escape the city in a car even though they own one; they joke about leaving St. Paul for Canada, where you can “get land” and “live cheap as dirt,” but even the Girl “knew that car wouldn’t cross the Mississippi” (13). Lacking a comfortable home-space or money for excursions, roaming the city is one of few free entertainments available. The novel is peppered with references to St. Paul landmarks like the University Club and auditorium where Clara picks up men, Rice Park, the Garrick movie theatre, the tenements on Seventh, and the river levee.14 The Girl spends time wandering the city streets looking for her boyfriend Butch. These sites ground the novel’s setting and shape the Girl’s coming-of-age in the interactions of physical, institutional, and relational power available to poor young women in 1930s St. Paul.

  • 15  Heise argues that “Sexual identity for all urban residents is geographically contingent, for it is (...)

16As with Kerith Day, the Girl’s coming-of-age involves her sexual awakening. A “virgin from the country,” she awakens to her own desires for Butch: “The sight of him seemed to make me light up like a wick caught fire,” she says; “It was like he was a magnet pulling me” (2, 1, 9). Much of the novel’s first half involves the Girl’s negotiation of female sexuality: repelling unwanted advances, reveling in her feelings for Butch, and mediating the moral and economic constraints upon her growing desire. She must come to terms with wanting to fulfill her desire outside of marriage, which they cannot afford—as Butch says, “You can’t get married on nothing” (41)—although they plan for a future together, owning a “service station on County Road B” (9). They have no privacy in the crowded city, and must scrape together money for a “filthy dollar hotel room” with a “dank hall with the stinking toilet running at the end” (45). The Girl loses her virginity in this unromantic, barely private setting, and the experience itself is one of alienation and pain: “I hurt (…) I didn’t know it would be like this. Nobody tells you the truth” (45). Le Sueur’s use of ugly, realistic details of setting mingle with the Girl’s oddly lyric description of her “awful wonderful need” to create a sense of transformation, a growth of identity not rhetorically softened in a mythical language that ignores the effects of poverty and urban space.15 Sex brings her closer to Butch, to her own body, and to the shared experience of women and the joy, pain, and risk that intimacy brings (45-46).

Beyond the City

17For both Kerith Day and the Girl, the ability to leave the city develops after their respective sexual awakenings. Escape as the physical movement out of the city and the oppressive systems it represents is not possible until Kerith achieves what Kevin McCabe has called a "sensual emancipation" (24). Claiming a mature identity entails recognizing her desire and acting on it. Just as Boyle’s language throughout the novel merges body and landscape, so Kerith’s conception of freedom is always embodied: “She wanted to feel her body lean and sharp in freedom” (19). Boyle’s language throughout the novel is oddly alienating, what Anne Reynes-Delobel has described as a Modernist use of abstraction generating intensity of images (10). Kerith’s “coming of age,” like the Girl’s, is both physical and (hetero)sexual. She chooses between two men, Soupault, a French veteran of the First World War studying at University, and Brodsky, a radical. Kerith is drawn to lean, dark Soupault, who is distant and unknowable: “He was like a remote animal……It was what she had needed, to find him so, indifferent and absorbed in the perfect unknown knowledge of his body” (31). Her quest for identity is also a search for the alien and unknown.

18As with the Girl, the crowded city makes finding a space for unwed sexuality difficult. Both the countryside and Soupault’s room in the city are locations for their sexual encounters, avoiding a conflation of nature with desire. An encounter down by the river merges natural objects and images (pines, wave, flame, roots) with physical touch and the transformation it promises (knowledge, voice, silence). Kerith tells Soupault she wants to be “again of the earth” before the description of a sexual act:

Soupault’s fingers stirred soft voices in the fallen pines. Kerith felt the slow prescient movement of his fingers. The wave of her being was poised for the clear break into final knowing (…) Kerith’s fingers lifted on his throat, shriveled in the deep glowing flame of his throat. She felt her body lifted frail and clamorous from its roots of silence” (34)

19But Boyle does not associate sexual intimacy with rural settings or nature, supporting a dichotomy of city and country. A later encounter takes place in Soupault’s rented room and recycles similar images of fingers, silence, and knowledge:

His room closed about them like a fist. Words could open the fingers of the room, uncurve them separately from the palm. But Soupault did not speak . . . She thought of words that could uncurve the future, sounding them in her throat. And then she set herself in silence in the moment with him, immutable, willing against any beyond knowledge, accepting the solid grace of the closed moment. (67)

20Sexual intimacy with Soupault represents an integral part of Kerith’s coming-of-age, but it is not simply physical desire or growth into mature womanhood socially constructed as marriage and motherhood. Rather, the language of awakening is an awakening into the unknown, the indifferent, into will itself.

  • 16  See also McCabe, 31.

21It is through this sexual and spiritual awakening that Kerith “escapes” the constraints of the city, the patriarchal family, the capitalist workplace, and her own youth. “I am the miracle,” she realizes, “looking into her hands, ‘I am the perfect ego released’” (87). Much as in the description of intercourse above, the focus is on fingers and hands, capable organs of production as well as reception. Kerith’s coming-of-age is symbolized by her decision to leave Cincinnati, to marry Soupault and go to France. This act mirrors Boyle’s own life, as she married French student Richard Brault and returned with him to France. While marriage may seem to some feminist readers like a capitulation to patriarchy, Boyle’s language of courtship avoids conventions of romance. “Love,” the term or its attendant concepts, are not articulated. The marriage proposal, such as it is, is mutual and couched in terms of physical escape: “‘We’ll just go away together,’ said Soupault. ‘Until the time comes to go on to something else,’ she said” (88). This “Until the time comes to go on to something else” foregrounds temporal contingency, without illusion of the permanence of love or marriage. The institution of marriage is secondary to the physical mobility it allows them. Their engagement is not stated in the text, but implied by a ring, “white and hard on her finger” (94). The bare winter landscape in which this scene is set reinforces the cold logic of this freedom. These textual and stylistic choices might help readers understand that Kerith’s growth to self-awareness is not undermined by her strategic union; rather, as Jade Ellis has argued, the novel “impart[s] an innovative notion of female independence” that does “not reject the integration of marriage” (35).16 Kerith is defying her father and grandfather, the immediate patriarchs, to enter an egalitarian marriage with the foreign Soupault. As Boyle described her own first marriage in Being Geniuses Together, “Our life together was going to be a confirmation of our impatience with conventions and our commitment to something called freedom in which we believed so passionately” (13). The trope of marriage becomes an act of rebellion and hope, a rejection of patriarchy and an evolution of identity.

22Leaving Cincinnati, and leaving America, are Kerith’s route to self-realization. Yet Kerith’s mother, Nora, articulates a note of cautious realism. “I don’t want people working against the established powers. They’re too perfectly established. I simply want people to go off and accept a new way of life,” Kerith says. She sees this continued growth as a physical journey, “Away from the factories,” said Kerith, “away from the shops and offices. As it comes to them, to drop the tools and slowly evolve anew way of life. Establish a new superiority” (50). Boyle subtly emphasizes the youthful naiveté of this declaration, following it with the narrative remark, “It seemed so easy to her as she said it” (50). It is Nora who hints that self-realization is not to be found in a physical location, but is rather a psychological process. Nora, herself a labor activist long-married, asks “Where can you turn but inward? Where else can you go?” (50). Thus, even as the novel closes with Kerith’s preparations for departure, there is a sense that the “process” of self-realization to which the title refers is not at an end nor to be satisfied by geography, but is continuous and internal.

23Le Sueur’s novel concludes with a similar sense of narrative-closure-as-opening-to-possibility, with the Girl having left and returned to the city, creating an alternative community grounded in a “turn inward,” as Nora might call it, into her body’s reproductive potential. When she becomes pregnant, Butch urges her to get an abortion, illegal but readily available in St. Paul. Depression-era St. Paul is not the place or time, Butch believes, to bring a child into the world. He has just seen his brother killed when both are attacked as strike-breaking scabs, and now he cannot find work. The city, which drew so many for its promise of jobs, now has none to give: “There is too many after one job in a city,” Butch complains (13). In desperation, he and the Girl become involved in a bank robbery plot that ends badly. The Girl drives the escape car, symbol of mobility, but escapes the botched job with only a wounded and dying Butch. “I drove fast. I drove very well,” she reports, escaping pursuit and the surveillance of the city south, into rural Iowa, where Butch dies in a riverside shack (85). In three instances the Girl leaves the city, and two relate to death, her father’s and Butch’s. While some critics, like Anthony Dawahare, call Le Sueur an “anti-urbanist” who sees “the city as the site of oppression and alienation for the working class,” I would argue that The Girl does not idealize rural geography nor contrast the country to the city as a utopian idyll (422). As in Process, rural America is no more welcoming to young women and their dreams than the city.

  • 17  Le Sueur continues a theme analyzed by Maureen Honey in women’s periodical fiction of the 1920s: “ (...)

24Le Sueur’s use of natural images and organic language, coupled with her negative depiction of the city, has led critics like Dawahare and Stacy Alaimo to discuss her fiction as anti-urban or environmental. As Alaimo claims, Le Sueur “presents remarkably vivid images of the earth as a human body and the human body as vitally connected with the earth” (Alaimo 55). In The Girl, desire and sexual awakening are expressed in images of fertility and growth, as when the Girl says “I got desires now. It all broke on my tongue like some wild sweet fruit. As if my bark was breaking in spring …. I felt a great root springing down and a great blossom springing up” (53). Physical experience of her body is articulated organically, contrasting to the harsh and alienating environments she inhabits, such as St. Paul. This language supports ideas of connection, especially among women, and the transcendence of isolated individualism. Through her sexual experience and pregnancy the girl overcomes urban alienation to feel a sense of belonging to a community of women.17 After losing her virginity she is comforted by women at the German Village and thinks “I feel my own little belly and I know the body of all women” (48). This sexual awakening and coming into her own physicality leads to a realization of self-worth: “I am the Treasure,” the Girl declares (119). Much like Kerith, sexual maturity is integral to a sense of power, but coming to sexual awareness is a struggle negotiated through the constraints of urban patriarchy.

  • 18  See Rabinowitz, for instance, on how Le Sueur “revises the proletarian novel to speak a language o (...)

25Rather than escaping the Midwestern city, as Kerith does, the Girl returns to St. Paul but creates within its boundaries an alternative to the alienating norm. The community of women they build, first living together in a tenement and then in an abandoned warehouse, contrasts to her rural biological home and the Relief Maternity Home where she was briefly kept. The women create a space of belonging within the hostile city, where the Girl grows into knowledge and belonging. She says, “Now I know the whole city and the way it is and the way those in it can be together” (102). Although this space is no more physically welcoming—it retains the hallmarks of poverty, cold and dirty and contingent to discovery, with enough to eat always a question—it offers acceptance rather than hostile surveillance or violent threat. This space, an abandoned warehouse with no heat, no light, and holes in the floor, becomes “neo-domestic” space characterized by mobility, mutability, and relationships (Jacobson 29). The site is decidedly feminine, a space of women only, an alternative to the patriarchal power symbolized in the city and its legal and capitalist institutions. This community, notes Puente, espouses a feminist “ethics of care” (102). It is among these women that the Girl delivers her child, another girl, celebrating the hope for the future represented by childbirth. The Girl has been criticized as an essentialist celebration of maternal power, but like the engagement that ends Process, it can be read as integral to coming-of-age within the limited possibilities available to young women.18


26In both Process and The Girl, the Midwestern city is a site of opportunity and oppression, a place to explore and escape, a geography of belonging and of alienation. Both protagonists reclaim gendered behavior that feminism subsequently found suspect—marriage and motherhood. But both do so in ways that exceed boundaries—of geography, gender, and genre. If the City is still, as sociologists claim, “Characterized as a place where sexuality is loosened from the constraints of family, religion, and education, … where all manner of sexual activities and subcultures flourish” (Ellingson et al, 349), then these fictional Modern Girls achieve growth within and against social and geographical constraints. As a genre the bildungsroman chronicles the protagonist’s growth, education, and self-making. By situating poor young women in urban environments controlled by classed and gendered institutions, these texts question the notion that the bildungsroman depicts limited classed experience to forward a male middle-class ideology that “valorized individual change” over social transformation (Pancake 292). Both Process and The Girl should simultaneously be read for their critiques of class and gender, such that Kerith and the Girl’s coming-of-age are clarion calls of social protest.

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1  This article developed from a paper presented at the 2012 Society for the Study of American Women Writers conference. Thanks to fellow panelists Lisa Udel, Kristin Jacobson, and Emily VanDette, as well as to Anne Reynes-Delobel for suggesting this revision. Thanks to Devin Bryson, at Illinois College, for his translation of the abstract and keywords. I would also like to thank Sandra Spanier, who introduced me to Kay Boyle when I was a graduate student at the Pennsylvania State University, and for whom I transcribed the found typescript of Process as a research assistant.

2  See Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent book The Warmth of Other Suns for a compelling account of the Great Migration. On the Black Chicago Renaissance, and its connection to the Great Migration and to the Harlem Renaissance, see Bone and Courage.

3  See Elizabeth Wilson, The Contradictions of Culture: Cities, Culture, Women (2001).

4  According to Historical Statistics of the United States, Cincinnati recorded a population of 401,247 in 1920, 451,160 in 1930, and 455,610 in 1940; St. Paul reported populations of 234,698 in 1920, 271,606 in 1930, and 287,736 in 1940.

5  See Spanier (1986, 2001) on the novel’s genesis, loss, and recovery. Spanier also calls the novel a Kunstlerroman (growth of the artist). Another Boyle biographer, Joan Mellen notes, “Thomas Seltzer, the New York publisher….had rejected Process, calling it ‘the hectic outburst of untrammeled youth’” (75). Boyle’s first published novel was Plagued by the Nightingale, in 1931.

6  See Hapke, Pancake, or Rabinowitz, for instance.

7  See also Anne Reynes-Delobel and Kevin McCabe on Boyle’s modernist language. McCabe claims, “Boyle explores the transitional propensity of language and the ways in which the demiurgic and fluxional nature of words opens up individual selves to growth and freedom and communal experience" (23).

8  This rewriting of home-space corresponds to Thomas Foster’s claim that “modernist women writers reimagined domesticity in order to reject its positioning within the binary framework of the ideology of separate spheres” (Foster 2). The resulting displacement he terms “homelessness at home,” escaping the boundedness of the domestic sphere and the gender ideology it reinforces to construct an independent identity. Foster argues that this homelessness is symbolic, indicating “that this identity is neither completely determined and essentialized nor inherently spatialized in the ways that the ideology of separate spheres represents women as being” (11).

9  Gentry notes that this style caused Le Sueur’s work to be rejected by the Communist Party USA, which expected social realism, and suggests “that Le Sueur in fact deterritorializes modernism itself, appropriating its formal modes of representation in order to realistically depict a subjectivity shaped unapologetically by the needs of the body” (n. pag.).

10  Paula Rabinowitz states “Perhaps no woman writer of the 1930s more consciously narrated the female working-class subject than Meridel Le Sueur” (542).

11  Indeed, Mam might be right: “There, freed from the bonds of rural social control, they were in danger—it was felt—of succumbing to temptations of every kind: immorality, illegitimacy, the breakdown of family life and bestial excess appeared to threaten from all side. (…) In particular, female virtue and respectability were hard to preserve in this promiscuous environment” (Wilson 2001, 73). Cities were “increasingly unmanageable spaces that were in the grip of crime, poverty, and vice” reported on by urban sociologists in the early twentieth century (Heise 290).

12  An undated, unsigned letter to Malcolm Cowley from a union organizer in Cincinnati in 1921 described a teenage Kay Boyle as "a prodigy. She was then writing stories which sold, or so mama bragged, anyhow she won all literary prizes in High School. She wrote poetry, too, I believe. She was a 'free spirit' and 'flaming youther"...."a worry to mama and her friends but excused because she was a 'genius'”(Newberry Library, Kay Boyle Collection, Box 8 Folder 473).

13 Being Geniuses Together is Robert McAlmon’s 1938 autobiography revised and with added chapters by Kay Boyle. It was published by Doubleday (1968), New Directions Press (1984), and North Point Press (1985). For a useful discussion of Boyle’s revision, see Craig Monk, Writing the Lost Generation. Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008 (chapter 6, “Revision and Textual Authority,” 139-60).

14  These spaces are, as Linda McDowell notes, "defined, maintained and altered through the impact of unequal power relations," and in the novel class and gender hold the reins of power (5).

15  Heise argues that “Sexual identity for all urban residents is geographically contingent, for it is in space that sexuality is marginalized and regulated” (317).

16  See also McCabe, 31.

17  Le Sueur continues a theme analyzed by Maureen Honey in women’s periodical fiction of the 1920s: “There is a theme that mitigates the isolation of urban life, however, and that is the heroine’s attempt to build a community of women who are themselves struggling toward fulfillment outside the family” (Honey 33).

18  See Rabinowitz, for instance, on how Le Sueur “revises the proletarian novel to speak a language of women’s memories and women’s experiences” but “verges on essentialism” (545).

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Beth WIDMAIER CAPO, « Modern Girls in the Midwestern City: Kay Boyle’s Process and Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl », E-rea [En ligne], 10.2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 04 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Associate Professor of English, Illinois College, Jacksonville
Beth Widmaier Capo is the author of Textual Contraception: Birth Control and Modern American Fiction (Ohio State University Press, 2007) as well as articles on William Faulkner, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, and Caresse Crosby.

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