The Senses of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead

Catherine Gander

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    When Muriel Rukeyser travelled to Gauley Bridge in 1936 to report on the industrial disaster that had led to the deaths of over 700 miners, her findings led her to write what is arguably her masterpiece – the 1938 poem series The Book of the Dead. Of all Rukeyser's writings, this hybrid work of documentary techniques and metaphors, of testimony and elegy, has attracted the most critical attention. However, analyses of the series have tended to focus on the ways in which the poet adopted and adapted documentary methods in order to offer a leftist ideological critique on capitalist-born social injustice. The purpose of this article is not to negate such readings, but to offer alongside them insight into a more ethical-philosophical approach that I believe guided Rukeyser's entire career. Via an examination of the ways in which Rukeyser employs the human senses to articulate the complexities of human political, metaphysical and social relations, this article explores the influence of the Zionist Martin Buber on the poet. Rukeyser acknowledged Buber's writings in her later work, but I contend here that they played a large part in the formation of her poetics, especially in connection with her documentary aesthetic. Whilst several critics have noted, albeit often superficially, the Marxist flavour of Rukeyser's poetry in The Book of the Dead, I argue for the influence of Buber over Marx in terms or responsibility, community and dialogue. Both Rukeyser's and Buber's methods of expressing and promoting these ethical necessities rely on a synaesthetic response to the world. Where Buber advances a dialogue between the self and alterity through transcendent personal encounter, Rukeyser locates such encounter in the poem, arguing for an exchange that leads to creation, and to personal and interpersonal growth.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)175-194
    Number of pages20
    JournalEuropean Journal of American Culture
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2012

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