Recovering Muriel Rukeyser’s Savage Coast
June 11, 2013 | by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein
In the Library of Congress archive of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, there is a vast network of one-sided correspondence, incomplete drafts, unpublished texts, notes, proofs, diaries, and datebooks. It is a space of the unfinished, of process, and of radical possibility. Its silences represent the often violent effects of cold-war intellectual suppression, the sexism of editors, and the deaths of lovers. Over the course of six years I came and went, making the trip from New York to D.C., piecing together a literary history about a writer whose life and work are notoriously difficult to map.
The archival breaks, aesthetic pronouncements, and biographical lacunae that characterize Rukeyser’s archive do not feel particularly surprising for a writer whose career and work appear always disrupted and open-ended—visible and invisible at the same time. Rukeyser’s poems, biographies, and essays have persistently challenged the rigid artistic, political, and intellectual binaries that have shaped the twentieth century, and because of this she has experienced a continual burial and recovery. She has been alternately denigrated and admired for being an avant-garde and radical poet, a feminist, a theorist, an activist; for being sexually liberated and a single mother. She has been viewed from both sides of the critical establishment as being either too aesthetically experimental or not aesthetically rigorous enough, as too radical or insufficiently Marxist. These dichotomous readings of Rukeyser highlight the ways in which her work defied and remade the political and artistic programs of her historical moment. “For our time depends not on single points of knowledge,” she wrote in The Life of Poetry, “but on clusters and combinations.”
The Life of Poetry begins on a boat evacuating Barcelona during the first days of the Spanish Civil War. In it, she describes an experience of profound transformation, writing of Spain as the place where “I began to say what I believed.” I followed that thought into her archive and back out again. Almost no one had written on the subject; her writings on Spain were like unmarked graves scattered through her work, identifiable only by a phrase or image repeated and refigured in other works, some of them long out of print, others lost and buried in the archive. But the silences of each gave access to the other: a line in a poem made a map into the archive; the material recovered in the archive made visible not only that which was hidden in her already published work, but elucidated new literary and political histories. Rukeyser wrote about Spain for more than forty years, in every genre. The texts overlap and echo each other; they proliferate across decades and are intertwined with other histories. Always they carry a sense of urgency, and always they return to just five days in 1936.
In July 1936, Rukeyser was sent to Spain on assignment for Life and Letters To-Day to cover the People’s Olympiad in Barcelona, a protest and alternative to Hitler’s Berlin Games. Instead, she witnessed the first days of the Spanish Civil War. Rukeyser was on the last train to cross the Spanish border as the military coup began and a general strike was called in defense of the Spanish Republic. While stranded on the train in Moncada, she met and fell in love with the Rotfrontkämpfer Otto Boch, a “Bavarian, with a broad strong face like a man in a Brueghel picture,” who had been exiled from Germany and was traveling to the Barcelona games as a long-distance runner. Together, Rukeyser and Boch rode in the back of a pickup truck to Barcelona, “a worker’s city” in the first days of the resistance, “jewel-like” and “liberated.” There, she watched the building of barricades, saw the first troops setting off to the Zaragoza front, marched for the “war dead” and was given her political “responsibility” by the organizer of the People’s Olympiad, who said to those being evacuated, “You will carry to your own countries, some of them still oppressed and under fascism and military terror, to the working people of the world, the story of what you see in Spain.”
Forming a kind of craggy geologic site, archives are built by many hands that add things at random and sort them with all the distractedness of someone carrying a baby on one hip. Reading the archive, particularly this one, is a memory game in which things appear parallel and proliferating. One piece of the puzzle arrives in a cardboard box, sometimes just a slip of scrawled, yellowing paper in a manila folder, and then it disappears. The other part—missing text, a strange piece of ephemera—arrives in another box a month, a year, two years later. In one folder is a hand-drawn map of Moncada, where Rukeyser was stranded when the Fascist coup erupted, and a diary entry that meticulously documents every moment of those five days. In another is a list, written in smudged pencil, about the first day of the war: “roosters, “bombs,” “fire,” “breakfast,” “Aaron’s Rod,” “Otto.” There is an outline for a novel, tentatively titled “In the Whale,” after Edmund Burke’s “Spain—a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe,” as quoted in the hallucinatory catalogue that opens Moby-Dick. Tucked elsewhere is a lost poem entitled “For O.B.,” a brochure for the games, unused meal tickets, and a baggage claim from her journey. In a box from decades later is a series of identical clippings from German newspapers in 1972 with an obituary for Boch, who died more than thirty years earlier, at the end of the war.
And then, there is the one remaining draft of the novel Savage Coast, the pages yellowing, the revisions heavy, at times burdensome, a rejection letter hovering above the first pages. Written immediately upon her return from Spain in the autumn of 1936, the novel remained unpublished in her lifetime. It was brutally panned in her publisher’s rejection letter, from 1937, for being, among other things, “BAD” and “a waste of time,” with a protagonist who is “too abnormal for us to respect.” Rukeyser was strongly encouraged to abandon the novel for a “brief impressionistic sketch” of her experience in Spain and to continue working on her poetry. This is to say, the first critics of Savage Coast discouraged Rukeyser from writing the kind of large-scale, developmental, hybrid, modernist war narrative that she had begun—one that is sexually explicit, symbolically complex, politically radical, and aesthetically experimental—in favor of the gender-appropriate lyric poetry of her first book and the brevity of “small” personal narratives.
The rejection of the novel highlights the constraints and expectations of women’s writing in the thirties and forties, when women were often lauded for their smallness and modesty, for writing work that, as Louise Bogan recommended, “concerned itself with minute particulars.” The rejection also demonstrates how the contemporary reader found the hybridity of such a work illegible, particularly the gender transgression implicit in its intertwining of the quest narrative, the romantic plot, the radical documentary, and the epic impulse. Despite this criticism, Rukeyser would never return to the more traditional lyricism of her early work, and she did not abandon the novel; she continued to edit the manuscript, working on it throughout the war, editing and rewriting with an eye, I imagine, toward us, her future readers. I don’t know when she stopped working on the novel entirely, but it was eventually misfiled, left on the outermost edge of the archive, under the heading “Miscellany.”
The discovery and publication of Savage Coast is significant, not only because, as Rukeyser’s large body of work on Spain attests, the Spanish Civil War was an essential part of her poetic and political development, but also because it also provides us with new perspectives on the literature of the period. Written long before Orwell’s or Hemingway’s major texts on the Spanish Civil War—at one point she editorializes, “Hemingway doesn’t know beans about Spain”—Savage Coast is only one of a handful of novels by foreign women on the subject and gives us a more complex understanding of how women positioned themselves within historical and cultural processes, offering a unique view of the political, artistic, and intellectual networks that shaped early twentieth-century global solidarities.
Rukeyser’s work on Spain likewise offers new methods for exploring the relationship between political radicalism and textual experimentation, as she grapples with issues of documentation and aesthetics, attempting to harness what Virginia Woolf called “granite and rainbow,” within a single text. Savage Coast is both a journalistic account of the first days of the Civil War as well as a fragmented and “visionary” lyric about the formation of Rukeyser’s own political, sexual, and artistic subjectivity inside its history. Her writings, then, give us new forms and vocabulary to work with: they change how we will read other works, seek out and represent suppressed histories; they “open out of the future,” to use Derrida’s phrase.
Savage Coast is now available for the first time, from the Feminist Press. It is Rukeyser’s only novel. At one point in the narrative, the protagonist Helen says, “I’ve been wanting a country like this for a long time; I thought perhaps there was none.” I felt the same way when I read the novel for the first time, sitting alone at a desk under the still fluorescence of the library, the pages a little brittle in my hands.
Rowena Kennedy-Epstein is the editor of Muriel Rukeyser’s novel Savage Coast and the edition “Barcelona, 1936” & Selections from the Spanish Civil War Archive. She received her Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center.