By Michael Thurston
Muriel Rukeyser was born on 15 December 1913 in New York City. She attended the Fieldston Schools and matriculated at Vassar University (Poughkeepsie, NY). From 1930-1932, she attended Columbia University in New York. Rukeyser’s first book of poems, Theory of Flight, was chosen by Stephen Vincent Benét for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1935, and this book began a literary career spaning the rest of Rukeyser’s life and much of the rest of the twentieth century.
As central and continual a part of Rukeyser’s life as poetry was her deep political commitment. Beginning in the late 1920s, Rukeyser was heavily involved in political activism on a set of issues ranging from the Scottsboro Case to the Spanish Civil War to feminism and the American aggression in Viet Nam. Indeed, Rukeyser spent much of the 1930s in political action. She traveled to Alabama to cover the Scottsboro case (catching typhoid fever in a sheriff’s station there) and worked for the Internation Labor Defense, which handled the Scottsboro defendants’ appeals. She wrote for the Daily Worker, went to Spain to cover the People’s Olympiad, an international anti-fascist games set up as an alternative to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. While Rukeyser was in Spain, the Spanish Civil War broke out and she was evacuated. Her experience formed the basis for Mediterranean, first published as a pamphlet by (and for) New York Writers and Artists Committee, Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy in 1937. Rukeyser also, and perhaps most famously, traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate for herself a rash of silicosis cases among miners there (the cases, and the Congressional Investigation into them, had received a good deal of coverage in the American media). The research she conducted there was fashioned into The Book of the Dead, Rukeyser’s astonishingly powerful poem sequence (published in 1938, in her volume, U.S. 1).
Though often attacked by critics on the political Left and Right alike, Rukeyser continued to write and publish poetry throughout her life. Among her best, and most important, books are: A Turning Wind (1939), Beast in View (1944), The Green Wave (1948), Elegies (1949), Body of Waking (1958), The Speed of Darkness (1968), Breaking Open (1973), and The Gates (1976). She also published biographies of Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Hariot; fiction; plays and film screenplays; translations of work by Octavio Pax and Gunnar Ekelöff; and, in 1949, The Life of Poetry.
Similarly, politics continued to inform Rukeyser’s life and work. It was, in fact, Rukeyser’s feminism and her vocal opposition to the War in Viet Nam that drew the attention of a new generation to her poetry in the 1960s. She served as President of PEN’s American Center to fight for the human rights of writers around the world. The centrality of political work, and the connection between that work and Rukeyser’s literary career, is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that a thwarted attempt to visit Korean poet Kim Chi Ha on death row in South Korea forms the basis for her last book’s title poem, “The Gates.” Rukeyser died on 12 February 1980.