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Literary Archaeology

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April 15, 2013

Muriel Rukeyser’s lost novel and the recovery of work by women writers.

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Image from Flickr via emdot

The People’s Olympiad was meant as a protest to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. Spain elected a left-wing government that year that opted to boycott the Games hosted by Adolf Hitler, and instead offered to arrange an alternative international sports competition in Barcelona for seven days in July. Six thousand athletes from twenty-two nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, registered to compete in Barcelona over Berlin. German and Italian athletes in exile were slated to join them.

But the People’s Olympiad never happened. Just two days before the first races were scheduled to be run, civil war broke out. Spain sunk into a three-year horror that led to the rise of Francisco Franco’s thirty-six-year dictatorship.

Muriel Rukeyser, a young American poet and journalist, had meant to report on the People’s Olympiad for an English magazine, Life and Letters To-Day. She brought with her a large black and orange book, Guide to 25 Languages of Europe, a gift from her editor. The American writer had just published her first celebrated work the year before: Theory of Flight, chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. As a reporter, she’d covered the Hawks Nest mining disaster in West Virginia, as well as the Scottsboro trial in Alabama, during which she caught typhoid fever after being thrown in jail for “fraternizing” with African Americans.

It was Rukeyser’s first trip abroad. After a month in London, where she got the magazine assignment from the British editor, she left for Spain. But her train to Barcelona, carrying many People’s Olympiad athletes, was among the last to cross the border. It was stopped in the Catalonian town of Moncada. Rumors ran through the train until the town’s mayor appeared on a platform wearing a black ribbon of mourning, and solemnly informed all those listening that there had been the “deaths of men in this town today.”

Alongside Catalans, foreign tourists, and the Swiss and Hungarian anti-fascist Olympic teams she traveled with, Rukeyser witnessed the emergence of a fiery collective resistance in the nearby town, participated in a collection for the wounded in Moncada, and wrote letters to her lover, a German exile who had intended to compete in a distance race in the People’s Olympiad. The town gave the train passengers use of a schoolhouse to sleep in; they could hear cannon fire to the north in Barcelona, the city where “white flags [were] at all windows” as a sign for peace. Rukeyser eventually reached Barcelona on a treacherous truck ride and made her way to the stadium. She remembered it years later in a 1974 essay for Esquire: the stadium, she wrote, was “filled with athletes and stranded nationals. We eat beans; they are delicious. News goes around… In the meetings that night, the decisions are made to leave.” Some athletes, however, talked of joining the fighting forces.

The only remaining draft of [Savage Coast] ended up being filed in an unmarked and undated Library of Congress folder—that is, lost.

Rukeyser escaped Spain after five days on an overcrowded Spanish ship. There were rumors that the People’s Olympiad would be rescheduled for October, which, of course, did not happen. Rukeyser attempted to make her way back to Spain to cover the war, but she couldn’t find a way in. “I could not go back; nobody would send me,” she wrote in the Esquire article. “You had to belong to a party or an organization or something, or have a press card. Nobody would give me a press card.” Nonetheless, she wrote later that experiencing war’s earliest thunder marked her. This was, she said, the time where “I began to say what I believed.” She was twenty-two years old.

Later, that autumn of 1936, Rukeyser wrote the only novel of her life, an autobiographical tale written in high modernist style about being a foreigner in Barcelona as war loomed. Each chapter begins with quotations, many from newspapers that seem pasted like clippings. Chapter One opens with a Reuters dispatch: “On Saturday, according to all the latest reports, Barcelona was calm and as yet not a shot had been fired.” These epigraphs give a mournful historical sheen to a fictionalized, and often baldly strange, narrative. Sex and politics loom large here. Individual psychology and momentous social change fuse together, paralleling Rukeyser’s hybridic use of poetry and prose on these pages.

Rukeyser sent the novel to a publisher in 1937, but it was rejected, in rather harsh terms. She nonetheless tinkered with the manuscript for years. But though Rukeyser would go on to publish many more books of poetry and essays—quite often about Spain’s war, which haunted her for the rest of her life—her novel was never published. The only remaining draft of it ended up being filed in an unmarked and undated Library of Congress folder—that is, lost. While interest bloomed in how other major twentieth-century writers approached the Spanish Civil War—Hemingway, Orwell—Rukeyser’s perspective was not part of the narrative.

That might be the end of the story, as it were. But her novel, Savage Coast, was uncovered by researchers with Lost & Found Elsewhere, a project at the City University of New York (CUNY) that is dedicated to releasing twentieth century books that have been overlooked or long unavailable. For the first time, and in celebration of Rukeyser’s centennial this year, Savage Coast will be published in May through Feminist Press, which is heralding it as “the major literary event of 2013.” Publisher’s Weekly, for its part, agrees, calling it “both an absorbing read and an important contribution to twentieth-century history.”

The recovery of the lost novel has historical and literary significance, but as Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, who edited Savage Coast for publication, describes in the introduction, it is also a reminder of the patchy legacies of women writers—even those who, like Rukeyser, were relatively successful in their lifetimes.

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Literature was a feminist front in the 1970s. Recognizing the gender gap in the literary canon—an earlier and urgent echo of the gender gap that is today chronicled in VIDA’s annual byline count—women writers created alternative spaces for their work. They opened their own bookstores and founded their own literary reviews, journals, and publishers. The non-profit Feminist Press was among the latter. It was founded in 1970 by Florence Howe and her husband Paul Lauter, both former Freedom School instructors, and supported by funds raised by the activist group Baltimore Women’s Liberation. The press turned its attention to both literature and scholarship, giving the earliest women’s studies texts a foundation for reaching broad audiences. Today, The Feminist Press operates out of CUNY.

Other feminist literary investigators focused on the writing of women who came before them, searching for lost and forgotten books that deserved new attention. The Feminist Press found another niche in this realm. In 1972, at the suggestion of Tillie Olson, it published Life in the Iron Mills, a novella by Rebecca Harding Davis that had been originally printed anonymously in an 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In 1973, the press published Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, bringing attention to what is now embraced as a fundamental work of literature.

But in the lore of rediscovered authors, most famous is Alice Walker’s recovery of Zora Neale Hurston, who had died in poverty in 1960 and whose literary output had fallen into obscurity. Hurston had, in part, been doomed by the fashion of her time, which elevated social protest novels in the style of Richard Wright—who despised Hurston’s work. Wright damned Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, saying that in the 1937 novel, she “voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” Hurston’s conservative politics did nothing to endear her to her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Walker published an essay in Ms. Magazine in 1975 called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which narrated Walker’s search for the author’s unmarked grave. Hurston had died penniless in a Florida “welfare home” and was buried in a segregated cemetery. Walker had discovered Hurston’s work almost by accident a few years before, when she was researching Vodun practices of black people in the rural South in the 1930s. After navigating a depressing heap of materials written by “white, racist anthropologists and folklorists of the period,” as she put it in a 1979 essay, she stumbled upon Mules and Men, Hurston’s work on folklore in black America, collecting songs, sermons, and stories. Walker fell in love with the book and went looking for the rest of Hurston’s writing, which, it seemed to Walker, was defined by a feeling of “racial health; a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature.”

But Walker’s search for writing about Hurston was less satisfying: she found that Hurston was “casually pilloried” by critics and “consigned to a sneering oblivion.” There was but a single exception: Robert Hemenway. He wrote a biography of Hurston and was, as Walker wrote, the first critic who appeared indignant at Hurston’s absence from the literary canon. “It was Hemenway’s efforts to define Zora’s legacy… that led me, in 1973, to an overgrown Fort Pierce, Florida graveyard in an attempt to locate and mark Zora’s grave,” Walker wrote. She did so, and her account of the experience in Ms. is regarded for igniting revived and lasting interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston.

It is a happy ending, but it is not for Hurston that we might be glad, so much as for ourselves. We now have the fortune of easily finding her stories, novels, and nonfiction in any bookstore, and, just as easily, falling in love with them.

Even those writers who did break through risk being silenced, like [Zora Neale] Hurston, as if they had never put pen to paper at all.

In her introduction to Savage Coast, Kennedy-Epstein suggests that the recovery of Rukeyser’s lost novel “alerts us (again) to the fact that the recuperation of women writers did not end in the 1970s… there is a continued need for archival work that restores feminist and radical texts and puts them in print.” The lack of this painstaking and intentional work risks skewing the narrative of our history and culture, ceding our past to appear more homogenous than it was. It is fair to point to literature’s age-old gender gap that left most female writers on the sidelines—Virginia Woolf famously posited Shakespeare’s Sister as the female counterpart of the Bard who, owing to her social role, would not have written a word.

And yet, if today’s readers are not paying attention, even those writers who did break through risk being silenced, like Hurston, as if they too had never put pen to paper at all.

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Hurston was rescued from oblivion. The recovery of Rukeyser’s lost novel is of a different sort. Rukeyser wrote prolifically in her time, and was heralded by Adrienne Rich as “one of the great integrators, seeing the fragmentary world of modernity not as irretrievably broken, but in need of societal and emotional repair.” Her dozens of books include The Book of the Dead (1938), an acclaimed poetic return to the mining accident she covered as a reporter. A collection of her public lectures, The Life of Poetry, remains one of her most widely-read works. More quietly, she wrote several biographies and translated the work of Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelöf.

The Savage Coast project… complicates and develops Rukeyser’s literary output, curing it of accidental absences that do an injustice to her legacy.

But Rukeyser wrote enough to leave her artistic legacy mixed. While there is certainly no native opposition between poetry and politics, Rukeyser’s passion for radical social causes left a good part of her poetry feeling stilted and forced. Especially as the Cold War unfolded, Rukeyser’s worker-centered social protest cast a shadow over her career. She was monitored by the federal government until the 1970s. But her ecstatic love for the fundamental good in human beings, and her faith in the making of a better world, breathes through her work. Her humor gives it buoyancy. “O for God’s sake,” she wrote in a poem called “Islands,” “they are connected underneath…”

While Rukeyser’s legacy has faded some in the years since her death in 1980 at age sixty-six, she can hardly be described as a forgotten writer, erased in the style of Hurston. And yet, the Savage Coast project is significant nonetheless, in how it complicates and develops Rukeyser’s literary output, curing it of accidental absences that do an injustice to her legacy.

The book’s sheer and belated existence, as well as the sometimes convoluted efforts to honor Rukeyser’s intentions, attests to a fundamental belief that this woman’s voice matters.

The Lost & Found project at CUNY’s Center for the Humanities, essential to the revival of the lost novel, has brought thoughtful attention to resurrecting lost prose, journals, and correspondence from a range of twentieth-century writers. Since 2010, its annual series of chapbooks has spotlighted the pamphlet-length work of Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Jack Spicer, Lorine Niedecker, and, indeed, Rukeyser. Lost & Found Elsewhere is a spin-off of this program, dedicated to publishing the book-length prose that archival researchers uncover. It works with select publishers to make the books widely accessible. Savage Coast is the second book released in this new series.

Rukeyser’s lost novel is fortunate to have been nurtured by the Lost & Found team and Feminist Press, a collaboration uniquely qualified to work with an experimentalist and Modernist text, and an unfinished one at that. To prepare Savage Coast for release, Kennedy-Epstein notes that she worked from the last remaining draft of the novel, which had Rukeyser’s final edits marked on it in pen and pencil. In an editorial disclaimer, Kennedy-Epstein writes, “I have tried to follow her changes to the typescript to the best of my ability, though I have corrected Spanish and Catalan spelling. Otherwise, the spacing is hers, as are the many compound words she created.” Perhaps in reaction to the unimpressed editors of her time, Kennedy-Epstein informs us that Rukeyser “had a stamp made that embossed PLEASE BELIEVE THE PUNCTUATION atop her manuscripts.”

Diligently, Kennedy-Epstein tried to bear that in mind while bringing the manuscript together. What emerges is a lyrical, odd, messy, and brave novel where Rukeyser’s voice is heard in a way it never has been before. The book’s sheer and belated existence, as well as the sometimes convoluted efforts to honor Rukeyser’s literary intentions, attests to a fundamental belief that this woman’s voice matters.

Alice Walker wrote in her 1979 essay, which revisted her recovery of Zora Neale Hurston as “a cautionary tale”:

We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.

Lost & Found Elsewhere isn’t focused on the recovery of women writers in particular, but it is apparent that it is able to do powerful work in uncovering a more complete and complex literary heritage, one where women’s writing is an essential piece. It is a structure for others to model, those who are prepared to dig into the dirt of the past, to be literary archeologists intent on finding what has been lost.

Yes, this is our duty as artists and witnesses. But, fundamentally, this is about joy. The pleasure of encountering these brilliant stories, too long hidden from us, is its own justification.

G

Anna Clark is a writer living in Detroit. Her journalism has appeared in The New Republic, Grantland, The Columbia Journalism Review, Next City, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. Her writing is a “notable” pick in Best American Sports Writing 2012. She edits the literary blog Isak. Follow @annaleighclark.

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One comment for Literary Archaeology

  1. Comment by Jeff Oaks on April 16, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    You may want to talk to Jan Freeman at Paris Press. She’s been keeping Rukeyser’s books in print for years, as well as work by Bryher and most recently Virginia Woolf and her mother. It’s hard work but every beautiful rescue is worth it.

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