Muriel Rukeyser begins The Book of the Dead by writing, “These are roads to take when you think of your country,” explicitly linking geography and history to the poem’s central concern, the painful silicosis and death of hundreds of workers in West Virginia from 1932-1935. When Rukeyser writes that “these are roads to take when you think of your country” (italics mine), she is mining recent history to form a conceptual map of America. Rand McNally this isn’t. Rukeyser challenges to reimagine our atlas of the continent, taking in the blood-drenched soil of the continent while firmly keeping to the hope and promise of its horizon.
Catherine Gander has written a remarkable essay called “Landscape, Navigation and Cartography” in her book Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection which acknowledges Rukeyser’s debt to 1930s travel literature and concludes with what I believe is the first Deleuzian interpretation of Rukeyser’s work. Gander compares Rukeyser’s map to a Deleuzian rhizome, a weedy tangle with multiple points of ingress and egress which can’t be flattened to any hierarchical schema.
Gander’s reinterpretation of Rukeyser’s approach is as political as Rukeyser’s poem. For these roads, which could mean the lines of the poem as well as the roads referenced by the poem, to be reinterpreted as rhizomatic means that they become metaphors for what the roads bypass and are crossed by: the complex entanglement of bodies and histories that evades domestication into the Saturday Evening Post image of America, the intensely vibrant and vital yet disenfranchised and endangered populace that in the 1930s began to be codified as “folk,” the rhizomatic America of the working class which scrambles any workable map of the country. If Rukeyser’s poem evinces a rhizomatic structure and relation to the landscape, and if these roads double as a weedy tangle which complicates our history, my question is from what soil do these roads grow and what is it that feeds and fertilizes them? The answer is contained in the title of Rukeyser’s poem. The Book of the Dead is concerned primarily with the dead, slaughtered in a century of wars, racial violence and labor struggles preceding the poem’s construction.
In a poem that references early expeditions into Virginia, conflicts between settlers and natives over colonial borders, and the public works projects that in Rukeyser’s time were reshaping the land itself, the relationship between the land and the history lived upon that land forms the terra firma of the poem, with its own weedy tangles of witness derived not only from the Gauley tunnel disaster but from all the disasters foreshadowing the events in West Virginia. Charted during a time of economic dislocation even more severe and protracted than our own, Rukeyser’s poetic map of America is inflected by struggles between capital and labor that would have been forefront in the minds of her readers but are largely forgotten today. She crafts the poem according to a radical geography that a careful reader can trace to reconfigure her sense of the social landscape. The poem offers a wealth of subtle allusions to labor struggles which I would argue are not arbitrary but carefully chosen. Below, I will discuss a few of these allusions, such as Butte’s struggle with Anaconda Copper, and the building of the Catskill Aqueduct, as well as some of the subtleties of Rukeyser’s description of West Virginia’s geography.
Rukeyser’s subtle use of geography is exemplified by the road which is one possible referent for the first line of the poem, the Midland Trail. Rukeyser charts the road’s course from affluent coastal cities in Virginia back into the Appalachian Mountains where the poem is set. In the 1930s, it was common for wealthy southerners to travel to Appalachia in the summer to escape the heat and humidity of what Rukeyser calls “the Virginia furnace.” As Appalachia is the source of the nation’s coal, the image of the furnace has a double meaning here, also referring to the comforts and industries of the more populous lowlands whose appetites are fed by exploited labor in the hinterlands.
Rukeyser mentions two stopping points on the Midland Trail: White Sulphur Springs, a West Virginia resort which is home to the oldest golf course in the United States, and the King Coal Hotel, frequented by the types of corporate officials and lawyers who would have descended on Appalachia to manage the silicosis epidemic in Gauley Bridge. These affluent retreats stand in stark contrast to the impoverished mining towns across the New River. At the time the poem was written, the New River was a steep and impassable gorge with very few road crossings until the construction of a steel arch bridge in the 1970s. For a traveler in the area, like Rukeyser was, the poorer mining towns west of the gorge would seem separated from the east by a chasm of both class and the land itself, with the homes of the Gauley tunnel victims gouged physically and consciously from the nation’s center of power, isolated by geological and historical strata which Rukeyser’s act of witnessing was one attempt to bridge. As Rukeyser puts it to tourists and readers expecting the picturesque without the tragedies concealed by the landscape, “these people live here.”
The landscape of the poem is inflected not just by class, but by race. Rukeyser’s attempt at a blues in the voice of George Robinson, based on an African American foreman, mentions the racial divide between African American Vanetta, “our town,” and Gauley Bridge, where the need for cheap labor means “they let you stand around.” This may be a reference to the use of vagrancy laws in the Jim Crow south to criminalize the free movement and assembly of African American bodies, laws which drew on racist tropes of African American “laziness.” Rukeyser may have been invoking these tropes ironically, as three-quarters of the Gauley tunnel workforce was African American. When the workers first evinced signs of silicosis, lawyers for Union Carbide dismissed their claims as a “racket,” prompting Vito Marcantonio to respond that the real racket was perpetrated by corporate attorneys and doctors. It has long been a technique of anti-labor American discourse to dismiss exploited labor’s appeals to dignity and respect by misinterpreting them as an expression of latent indolence.
This attention to how class intersects geography and history goes beyond the locality of the poem’s central subject. Throughout, Rukeyser tosses out seemingly offhand references to towns and public works projects, but an investigation of these geographical allusions reveals a deliberate logic. Whether or not these allusions are consciously intended is beyond the point, as they would have percolated in the minds of any Depression era writer, let alone one as politically astute and committed as Rukeyser. That these events are mostly forgotten today is more a reflection of how our politics and sense of history have been corrupted by a reflexive defense of economic power, and a reminder of the importance of reading Rukeyser today.
Rukeyser could have drawn from any number of congresspersons during the debates over the relief bill, but she chose to include a congressman from Butte, Montana. Butte would have had a special resonance with readers in the 1930s as it was the site of several recent labor struggles. Butte was in thrall to the Anaconda Copper Company, at the time as powerful a corporation as Union Carbide (the corporation responsible for the Gauley tunnel disaster). Anaconda’s control over Montana’s politics and its oppression of Butte’s working class was pervasive enough to earn it the moniker of “the copper collar.” In the 1930s, readers would likely have been aware of the dynamite attack on a union hall which led to the undemocratic removal of Butte’s socialist mayor, or the 1920 Anaconda Road massacre where company guards fired on striking workers. In the late ’20s, Anaconda’s employees and shareholders were the victims of a “pump and dump” stock speculation scam. Investors bought company stock when it was cheap, gaining control of the company, then artificially inflated the price of Anaconda’s stock to sell it at a higher price. When the true value of the stock became apparent, investors were wiped out and Anaconda was forced to cut back operations until World War II, by which point most of its activities had moved to South America. For Montana’s workers, Anaconda was a double curse, first by brutally exploiting their labor, then by the evaporation of that labor because of speculation by rich easterners. At the time, such stock market speculations were perfectly legal.
Rukeyser’s use of the Catskill Aqueduct as an example of a major public works project is also inflected by recent history. The aqueduct was commissioned by New York after the city’s growth prompted the government to seek water sources in the Catskill Mountains. Using eminent domain, the state flooded a dozen villages and thousands of acres of farms, displacing over two thousand residents to create two large reservoirs to sate the city’s thirst. These displaced residents were then conscripted along with African Americans and immigrants to construct the aqueduct, and tensions in the labor camps were such that the state created a new police force to prevent the workers from fighting. Rukeyser’s other examples of public works projects, the Liberty and Holland tunnels, also had problems with worker and public safety. Rukeyser’s choice of these projects, deemed necessary for the public good but plagued by social problems, seems telling. There is no patriotic invocation of the Grand Coulee Dam, as you’d find in a Woody Guthrie song. Despite the national pride in taming the continent’s wilderness to power its incipient modernity, there is a constant evocation of the cost in doing so.
Rukeyser’s geography in The Book of the Dead is a geography of loss, places where people have died or suffered. When she ends the poem by invoking America from Maine to Cape Sabel, the latter functions as something more than the southernmost point of the United States. In 1935, Cape Sabel was hit by the worst hurricane to make landfall in US recorded history, wiping out a Works Progress Administration camp of World War veterans who had previously camped in Washington, DC as part of the Bonus Army. The Labor Day hurricane at Cape Sabel compounds multiple tragedies in a single location. The Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn in the Hoover administration, demanding pension payments for the war service of its members, only to have several of its members killed in police raids. The protestors were forcibly removed by General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded US soldiers to violently attack veterans of a foreign war.
That this map of class consciousness has been erased, even as the problems of economic class have persisted and in some cases worsened, reminds us of the vitality of Rukeyser’s project and the need to reorient our map of America to hers. The Book of the Dead was written as an act of witness for her time, but its tapestry of loss contains lessons for our time, even in its smallest details. This is partly a reflection of how careful Rukeyser was as a poet, as well as her commitment to justice and how her ethics influenced each word, image and line. Eight decades after the Gauley tunnel disaster, as well as the other tragedies referenced in the poem, the issues that Rukeyser explores in The Book of the Dead are still the central political concerns of our time – racism, exploitation, inequality, health, and environmental desolation. The roads she takes in her poetic map of this country are still traversed today, and her voice remains an important guide to their pitfalls and their promise.
For more information on stock speculation involving Anaconda Copper, Google Books has two books available discussing the scam, Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore (Overlook Press, 2010), and Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929 by Maury Klein (Oxford University Press, 2001). There is also an article by Henry George, Jr. archived by Google called “Modern Methods of ‘Finance,'” in the December 1903 issue of Pearson’s Magazine, which deals with earlier speculations when Anaconda was called the Amalgamated Copper Company.
John Grant Emleigh of The Montana Standard has written an article about the Anaconda Road Massacre, which can be read here: http://mtstandard.com/news/local/april-anaconda-road-massacre-bullets-fly-on-bloody-wednesday-picketers/article_ee790b4a-aa1d-11e2-9c6f-0019bb2963f4.html.
More information about the Catskill Aqueduct is available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/drinking_water/history.shtml, and from a Hudson Valley magazine article by A. J. Loftin at http://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/August-2008/History-The-Ashokan-Reservoir/. There is also a reference to the Ramapo Water Company’s role in water politics in David Stradling’s book Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills (University of Washington Press, 2007), which can be read for free on Google Books.