Reading Muriel Rukeyser Now

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Sarah Ehlers

Unfinished Spirit:
Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century
By Rowena Kennedy-Epstein
Cornell University Press, 2022, 228 pages, $32.95 hardcover, $15.99 E-book.

IN 1971 THE literary scholar Hugh Kenner published a tome titled The Pound Era that instituted the poet Ezra Pound as a figure for the category of “modernism,” and set in motion a narrative that proved remarkably persistent about how modernism should be studied and taught. The version of modern U.S. poetry invented in The Pound Era, based in Pound’s dictum to “make it new,” was part of a narrative of modernist poetic experimentation that equated revolutions in form with revolutionary content.

Published at a moment when the New Critical methods that dominated academic institutions during the Cold War had become diffuse, Kenner’s study established Pound as a synecdoche for a specific version of modernist aesthetics that focused on the poet’s formal innovations — while sidelining his fascist politics.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, scholars of the U.S. literary left have challenged canonical narratives like Kenner’s by recovering the work of left writers repressed by the Cold War New Critical hegemony. More recently, scholars have demonstrated how the recovery of left literary traditions allows us to think anew about how we read and teach — and the institutional dynamics that condition those practices — amidst the political struggles of the present.

From within such historical and critical contexts, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein asks in her enthralling and auspicious study Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century: “What if it had been the Rukeyser era and not the Pound era?” (160, emphasis added)

An accomplished and prolific writer, Rukeyser, as Kennedy-Epstein points out, remains relatively understudied in comparison to other writers of her generation and, when she is studied, is mostly appreciated as a poet rather than an activist writer who experimented across diverse genres and media.

As Unfinished Spirit demonstrates, to pose the “what if” question of naming a literary-historical era for Rukeyser instead of Pound is also to ask: What if our imagination of the modernist period merged with the figure of a radical left, bisexual, Jewish-American woman poet who fought fascism rather than defended it?

Or as Kennedy-Epstein puts it: “What if the spirit of our age is an ‘unfinishing’ one, neither fixed nor closed but polyphonic and polymorphous? And what if we thought and taught through that?” (161)

Loss and Recovery

Kennedy-Epstein is a major scholar of Rukeyser. She has published a critical edition of Rukeyser’s previously undiscovered 1930s-era Spanish Civil War novel Savage Coast (Feminist Press, 2013) and coedited with Eric Keenaghan The Muriel Rukeyser Era: Selected Prose (Cornell, 2023). She is currently at work on a critical biography of Rukeyser.

As scholar and editor, Kennedy-Epstein demonstrates a commitment to rigorous archival research that in many ways is in the spirit of Rukeyser’s own political and artistic commitments. In the introductory chapter of Unfinished Spirit, Kennedy-Epstein repeats a line from Rukeyser’s 1949 book of essays The Life of Poetry: “When the books do not exist, we must visit the houses for the papers themselves” (Life, 95)

In The Life of Poetry, this line opens to Ruketser’s meditation on how easily art is lost and on the rights of the reader to what might be saved. She references, among other fragments of literary history, geographer and Emily Dickinson scholar Millicent Todd Bingham turning the key to the camphor-wood chest that held bundles of Dickinson’s undiscovered poems, as well as the obstacles Rukeyser herself encountered while researching for her experimental biography of the scientist Willard Gibbs.

“How much shall we leave to natural waste here?” Rukeyser asks. “How much of the loss is the story of our art….?” (95)

The recovery of Rukeyser’s work is nested in her own urgent call, as she writes elsewhere in The Life of Poetry, to acknowledge the “buried, wasted, and lost” that exists within “any history.” (85) As Kennedy-Epstein writes in reference to Rukeyser’s instruction to “visit the houses for the papers”:

“Aware of the ways in which people refuse to see and to connect, Rukeyser asks us to look beyond what is most easily visible — the published text, for example, whose very existence as an object that we can hold means we already accept, to some degree, the value judgment of a literary and cultural marketplace invested in upholding (or, at times, breaking) norms — and go to the archives.” (Unfinished Spirit, 23-24)

Kennedy-Epstein carries out this instruction, generating a new biographical and literary historical account of Rukeyser through analyses of previously unearthed, or at the very least seldom analyzed, archival materials. In so doing, she presents valuable arguments about the methods and stakes of archival work, of literary historical recovery, and of received ways of interpreting modern American poetry and its legacies.

Muriel Rukeyser’s Trajectory

Born in New York City in 1913, Muriel Rukeyser’s literary and political commitments were activated while an undergraduate at Vassar College in the early 1930s. Rukeyser left Vassar at eighteen and, in 1932, traveled to Alabama where she reported on the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African American men who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women.

“Not Sappho, Sacco,” Rukeyser wrote in Poem Out of Childhood — a poem included in her first book, Theory of Flight (1935), which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize.

The shift from Sappho to Sacco [i.e. from ancient Greek lyric poet to martyred 1920s anarchist — ed.] indicates Rukeyser’s Depression-era shift to a poetic shaped in terms of subject matter and style by the historical horizon of capitalist crisis. In her poems from the 1930s, Rukeyser would innovatively combine poetic lyricism with documentary modes and materials.

Perhaps the most well-known example of Rukeyser’s innovative poetic practice is her groundbreaking documentary poem sequence The Book of the Dead (1938), composed from materials she gathered during her 1936 travels to Gauley, West Virginia, to document the deaths of hundreds of workers, most of whom were Black migrant laborers, from the lung disease, silicosis.

Later that same year, Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to cover the People’s Olympiad, an antifascist alternative to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where she witnessed the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and fell in love with the German antifascist runner, Otto Boch.

In Unfinished Spirit, Kennedy-Epstein forgoes readings of oft-studied works such as The Book of the Dead to illuminate the diversity of Rukeyser’s political commitments as well as her experiments in prose genres such as the novel, the essay, and biography.

The first three chapters focus on the significance of Rukeyser’s writing about Spain. Together, they suggest that Rukeyser’s experiences of the Spanish Civil War reverberate across her work and are thus central to a comprehensive understanding of her political and artistic commitments.

“Rukeyser’s texts on Spain refract and interconnect, recurring and proliferating across her life, creating a history that encompasses, intertwines, and documents a changing twentieth century,” Kennedy-Epstein writes:

“… The ‘moment of proof’ she experienced in Spain is a call to action, something somatic, a personal history, and the story of the multitude; it is also a line that appears in a poem, a novel, an essay, a prologue, winding its way across literary time.” (32)

Spanish Civil War Archives

Chapter 1, “Costa Brava,” begins not with Rukeyser in Spain but with Kennedy-Epstein immersed in archival materials at the Library of Congress, where she discovered Rukeyser’s unpublished Spanish Civil War novel Savage Coast. (An edition of Savage Coast, edited and with an introduction by Kennedy-Epstein, was published by Feminist Press in 2013.)

Kennedy-Epstein’s account of her experience in Rukeyser’s Library of Congress archive establishes an effective and sometimes moving entry point for the analyses that follow, reinforcing the book’s over-arching argument that Rukeyser’s experimental texts are at once finished and unfinished, located in specific histories and open to radical possibilities in the present.

The second chapter concentrates on Savage Coast, situating its analyses of the novel (which, as Kennedy-Epstein notes, Rukeyser also asserted was “not a novel”) within its contemporaneous reception by publishers and friends. (59)

Combining deft analyses of the multi-genre and multimodal aspects of Savage Coast with exacting examinations of archival materials, Kennedy-Epstein shows how gender and literary politics suppressed Rukeyser’s initial attempts to publish the book.

The multiple afterlives of Savage Coast are the subject of Chapter 3, “Mother of Exiles: Spanish Civil War Writing.” With reference to a range of published and unpublished work, Kennedy-Epstein traces the evolution of Rukeyser’s Spanish Civil War writing in the politically committed and formally experimental poems Rukeyser would compose in subsequent decades, and demonstrates how specific techniques, lines, and figures recur across Rukeyser’s literary career.

For example, the moment when Rukeyser is told that she must “go back to America and tell of what she saw in Spain” recurs in different ways across her body of work, as does the figure of Otto Boch. (77)

In this chapter Kennedy-Epstein makes important claims for Rukeyser as an experimental writer who — by challenging the definitional boundaries of documentary, lyric and epic — also expands conceptions of the political work of the poem.

For Rukeyser, poems might serve an archiving function, “archiving resources that she wants us to know and engage with.” But as Kennedy-Epstein observes, Rukyser’s poems also assert new ways of “making visible the process of constructing history through the fragmented, documentary, and open-ended nature of the works.”

In so doing, Rukeyser goes further than writing a “revisionist” history by creating “a formal structure that disrupts notions of linear or hegemonic time.” (79)

Spirit of Collaboration

Unfinished Spirit is an exemplary book-length, single-author study. It is notable not just for its deep engagement with Rukeyser’s archive but for its suggestive use of archival materials as interventions in the politics of the present.

Even while the book is centered on Rukeyser, its second half focuses on Rukeyser’s collaborations with women artists to illuminate new aspects of Rukeyser’s modernist and left-feminist milieu. Placing literary texts and archival documents in conversation with contemporary feminist theory, Unfinished Spirit also suggests possibilities for collaborations across time.

If Savage Coast was in many ways the guiding text of Unfinished Spirit’s first half, then Rukeyser’s 1959 The Life of Poetry is perhaps the guiding text of the second.

Chapter 4, “Bad Influences and Willful Subjects: The Life of Poetry, ‘Many Keys,’ and Sunday at Nine,” demonstrates how the gender politics of The Life of Poetry “become fully legible” when read in conversation with unpublished materials in Rukeyser’s archive — specifically her 1940s “The Usable Truth” lectures.

These would become the basis for The Life of Poetry, the radio series “Sunday at Nine” developed for KDFC in San Francisco concomitant with the publication of The Life of Poetry, and the unpublished 1957 essay about women poets, “Many Keys.” (91) Kennedy-Epstein situates Rukeyser’s lectures and radio scripts in relation to The Life of Poetry, to think through how Rukeyser transgressed the boundaries of forms, disciplines and media in her resistance to the conservative gender politics of the Cold War.

To make this argument, Kennedy-Epstein uses the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “willful subject” (a subject who stubbornly keeps going in the face of being brought down) and of the “willfulness archive” (documents handed down where willfulness appears as a trait).

Kennedy-Epstein suggests that the “willful subject” is found in Rukeyser’s archive and in documents that act as archives. Interpreting texts this way, she also argues, requires the reader to act as a “willful subject.” (111-112)

Chapter 5 turns to Rukeyser’s collaborations with the photographer Berenice Abbott to highlight the significance of women’s collaborations — especially interdisciplinary collaborations between the arts and sciences — to expand scholarly thought on Rukeyser’s engagements with science and on the role of collaboration in modernism more broadly.

Abbott, like Rukeyser, was engaged in documentary projects during the Depression, and produced the photographic series Changing New York (1939) under the auspices of the Federal Art Project.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Kennedy-Epstein shows, both Rukeyser and Abbott aimed “to develop new methods for demonstrating the uses of and relationships between the arts and sciences.” (115) To illustrate, Unfinished Spirit reproduces the 1940s photograph of Rukeyser’s eye Abbott made with her Super-Sight camera, a photographic method she developed to create highly realist images.

Kennedy-Epstein analyzes the incomplete record of Rukeyser’s and Abbott’s collaborations on the photo-text project So Easy to See — the final version was either never completed or has been lost — using drafts and correspondence to illuminate how these women artists troubled the bifurcation of the arts and sciences.

By reading the collaborations between Rukeyser and Abbott in terms of queer desire, this chapter also continues the fourth chapter’s arguments about the sexual politics of Rukeyser’s work.

Unfinished Work

Some of the conceptual limits of Unfinished Spirit are apparent in the book’s final chapter, which attends to Rukeyser’s unfinished biography of the influential anthropologist Franz Boas and the related archive she began to construct from Boas materials she collected, now housed at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Despite decades of research, sometimes interrupted by the responsibilities of new motherhood and economic difficulty, Rukeyser never completed the Boas biography. She did, however, travel to Vancouver Island, where she lived with and interviewed the Kwakwaka’wakw people, whose “artistic practices, myths, and lives were foundational to Boas’s theories.” (136)

Like the previous chapters, this chapter provides valuable new insight into Rukeyser’s biography, political commitments, and artistic practices. Yet it sometimes strains to make the case for the place of Rukeyser’s Boas project within the context of Rukeyser’s career and the legacy Kennedy-Epstein wishes to construct.

Kennedy-Epstein notes that Rukeyser was “aware of her position as an outsider” while on Vancouver Island, and she acknowledges that Rukeyser’s engagements with Indigenous peoples are part of “a long legacy of cultural appropriation and engagement with the narratives and artistic practices of the Pacific Northwest Coast.” Yet the chapter does not dwell much on this realization before proceeding to argue for the “groundbreaking effect” such experiences had on Rukeyser’s subsequent work. (150)

In the same way that other chapters argue for the centrality of antifascist activism and feminist collaboration for expanding the rubrics of modernism, this chapter might have addressed the ways in which modernism is also marked by forms of cultural appropriation.

Whose Era?

In the conclusion to Unfinished Spirit, Kennedy-Epstein posits the question with which this review opened, “what if” the modernist era had been named for Rukeyser. The concluding chapter is fittingly titled “The Rukeyser Era,” and the volume of Rukeyser’s selected prose that Kennedy-Epstein subsequently coedited with Eric Keenaghan is titled The Muriel Rukeyser Era.

The very question of “whose era,” Keenaghan and Kennedy-Epstein suggest in the Editors’ Introduction to The Muriel Rukeyser Era, begins to “reorient our position to hierarchies of literary and cultural influence and to teach and read a more expansive version of the twentieth century into our present.” (6)

The importance of Kennedy-Epstein’s archival research and her recovery of Rukeyser’s unpublished and unfinished work — in Unfinished Spirit as well as in her present and future work on Rukeyser — cannot be overstated. Most striking to me about the book’s “what if” questions, however, is not how they prompt thinking about the literary-historical past, but rather how they ask us to imagine the relation of that past to the present and future.

In her book The Zukofsky Era, Ruth Jennison meditates on what it means for a poet’s name to signify an era, and she observes that “an era might describe an aleatory field, where any moment possesses the potential to generate alternative historical narratives striving toward the transformation of the present.” (10)

Such a transformational spirit, encapsulated in the idea of the unfinished is (at least to this hopefully willful reader) is the strength of Kennedy-Epstein’s study of Rukeyser.

Unfinished Spirit will be essential to the study of Rukeyser and to left women’s writing going forward. It is a major contribution to recent book-length studies of Rukeyser such as Catherine Gander’s Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (Edinburgh, 2013) as well as new scholarship on the legacies of early-twentieth century left women’s writing, such as Rosemary Hennessey’s In the Company of Radical Women Writers (Minnesota, 2023).

The book at its best when, immersed in archival materials, it draws connections across texts and contexts to demonstrate a conception of history that counters familiar repression and recovery schematics. At moments, however, I found myself wanting Kennedy-Epstein to reckon a bit more with the distance between the past and present.

For example, the book might have given more attention to the nuanced historical differences in how early-twentieth-century left women writers deployed the terms of feminism, as well as to some of the potential blind spots in Rukeyser’s approach to questions of cultural appropriation.

In the final pages of Unfinished Spirit, Kennedy-Epstein evokes Walter Benjamin’s image of the angel of history, turned toward the past and watching wreckage pile at his feet, as a way to understand Rukeyser’s own “vision for how we might engage the waste and ruins of total war and explore the ‘state of emergency’ that is not ‘the exception, but the rule,’ as Benjamin wrote.” (161)

Indeed, one might imagine Rukeyser facing this debris of history — but perhaps she sees the piling of waste in a completely different way. The piling of debris is not just a quantitative marker of grand disaster, but sedimented layers of materials re- and decomposing toward other possible arrangements and political means. “This,” Kennedy-Epstein concludes, “is the Rukeyser era.”

And might we also begin to imagine Rukeyser turned the other way? Back to the wreckage, she tries not to gather the debris, but brings it with her toward another possible horizon.

Works Cited

Jennison, Ruth. The Zukofsky Era: Modernity, Margins, and the Avant-Garde. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Keenaghan, Eric and Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, eds. The Muriel Rukeyser Era: Selected Prose. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2023.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1996.

July-August 2024, ATC 231

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