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Overviews of The Book of the Dead


Muriel Rukeyser

The Book of the Dead will eventually be one part of a planned work, U.S. 1. This is to be a summary poem of the life of the Atlantic coast of this country, nourished by the communications which run down it. Gauley Bridge is inland, but it was created by theories, systems, and workmen from many coastal sections -- factors which are, in the end, not regional or national. Local images have one kind of reality. U.S. 1 will, I hope, have that kind and another too. Poetry can extend the document.

[Muriel Rukeyser, "Note," at the end of U.S. 1 (New York: Covici and Friede, 1938), the volume in which The Book of the Dead is included.]


Nancy Naumberg

April 6, 1937
Dear Muriel,

I wanted to give you a few of my personal reactions to Gauley Bridge, and also to suggest a general outline. First, following your first two sentences, I would suggest describing the disease, and its symptoms. Then, telling the story of Viv. Miller as we drove to view the tunnel, about which I had heard so much. Through his story, the background of the tragedy. In other words, as in the story I told Eliz. do it chronologically, only this time getting in the facts as much as possible.

Stress, through the stories of Blankenship, Milleretc. [sic] the necessity of a thorough investigation in order to indict the Co., its lawyers and doctors and undertaker, how the company cheated these menout [sic] of their lives, and the miserable conditions under which they now live; stress the relief situation, the inadequacy of it, how far they have to go to get it, how the silicosis men are put on the heaviest kind of work relief with the tunnel bosses in charge and how many of them are too sick to work, how when Jones and Robinson testified, they were taken off work relief, and only put back on because of Congressional pressure.

Stress the importance of silica rock -- use Robinson’s testimony for silica dust stories, show how we heard that the men working there have been bought offby [sic] the Co. Show how the tunnel itself is a splendid thing to look at, but a terrible thing to contemplate. Show how a similar condition must not be repeated, how there must be adequate precautions taken in industry, how adequate compensation lawsmust [sic] be enacted, how the whole thing is a terrible indictment of capitalism.

Are you going to the modern museum showing tomorrow nite?

If you want me to help you write this with you in the morning, let me know.

Nancy [Naumberg]

[letter to Rukeyser from Nancy Naumberg, who accompanied the poet to Gauley Bridge; in the Muriel Rukeyser papers, Library of Congress]


Louise Kertesz

"The Book of the Dead" is based on the poet’s personal investigation of the survivors, the site, and the documents relating to an event which occurred in a valley in West Virginia in the early thirties. Two thousand men were digging a three-and-a-quarter-mile tunnel under a mountain from Gauley’s Junction to Hawk’s Nest in Fayette County so that a river could be diverted as part of a hydroelectric power project. When it was discovered that the rock through which they bored had a high content of valuable silica, the contracting company had the men drill the rock dry, to get more silica out faster. As Time magazine put it, many of the workers "died like ants in a flour bin" of silicosis, which is incurable and leads in effect to strangulation. The workers and their families tried to get compensation, but an investigation before Congress was blocked, and lawyers charged the workers 50 percent of the meager compensation they finally received. In "The Book of the Dead" the poetic extension of the document makes the facts live in a larger dimension, connecting them . . . with the eternal dualities in the cosmos (essentially, power and annihilation) and with the poet’s continuing elaboration of a reconciling vision. To the young poet the Gauley tragedy was a striking contradiction: men tapping a vast source of energy and being destroyed in the process. The social injustice of the situation is fascinating to the poet in its larger framework; "The Book of the Dead" is not principally the attack on capitalism reviewers such as John Wheelwright (Partisan Review) wished she had written.

[from Louise Kertesz, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980), 98-99.]


Walter Kalaidjian

"The Book of the Dead" [is] a modern tour de force in its experimental fusion of poetry with nonliterary languages drawn from journalism, Congressional hearings, biography, personal interviews, and other documentary forms. The revolutionary signifying practice mounted in this work effected a key displacement of "literature" itself as a bounded, disciplinary field. Rukeyser’s bold language experiment touched off a subsequent critical debate that shook foundational assumptions on both the left and the right concerning the status of proletarian poetics, lyric form, documentary conventions, modernist representation, and poetry’s proper audience. To begin with, the poem’s subject -- Union Carbide’s ruthless mining practices at its Gauley Bridge hydroelectric project in West Virginia -- was so controversial that it riveted national attention throughout the mid-decade. Here was a fast-breaking corporate scandal whose agitational power could not be contained, like typical labor disputes, to the 60,000 or so readers of New Masses. Broadcast as front page news and carried in such widely read journals as Time, Newsweek, The Nation, and Science, the Gauley Bridge story spread to millions of Americans. It offered a site for Rukeyser’s poetic critique of industrial capitalism and equally important, a chance for intervening in, and shaping, the era’s public mind.

Briefly, the story begain in 1929 when Union Carbide contracted through one of its local subsidiaries, the New Kanawha Power Company, to divert water through a three-quarter mile tunnel to be dug from Gauley’s Junction to Hawk’s Nest, West Virginia, for a hydroelectric plant which, in turn, would sell the power generated to another Carbide subsidiary, the Electro-Metallurgical Company. While excavating the tunnel, the company came upon a mother lode of from 90 to 99 percent pure silica that Carbide eventually exploited as a precious by-product for Electro-Metallurgical’s steel processing operation in Alloy, West Virginia. The accepted method of mining silica, based on existing research and technology at the time, was to employ hydraulic water drills, safety masks, and frequent relief teams so as to minimize worker exposure to the lethal silica dust. But in a greedy bid to cut costs, Carbide drilled the shaft dry without any prophylactic equipment, thus releasing tons of toxic dust that eventually led, according to subsequent congressional hearings, to the silicosis deaths of an estimated 476 to 2,000 miners. Particularly insidious were the conglomerate’s methods of concealment that entailed bribing company doctors to misdiagnose silicosis as pneumonia, pleurisy, and tuberculosis and, even more outrageously, hiring the local moritician to bury the dead at "$55 / a head" quickly out of sight in the makeshift graves of a nearby cornfield. What Carbide expected would quietly cost merely the lives of a few workers instead became a front page media event, every bit as horrific as its more recent industrial disaster of the mid-1980s in Bhopol, India.

Intervening in this scene of corporate avarice and coverup Muriel Rukeyser boldly employed poetic discourse to recount these troubling signs of the time. Traveling to the site of the Carbide atrocity with friend and photographer Nancy Naumberg, Rukeyser seized this opportunity to gather informant narratives, interviews, and eyewitness testimony that she would later edit, cut, and mix into a radically new generic form. Rukeyser moved beyond Soviet-style proletcult by crossing verse and reportage, thereby giving a human face to the oppressive regime of industrial capitalism in the United States. Her poetic strategy rearticulated the ideological signs of class revolution to a more popular and decidedly feminist discourse.

[ from Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique (New York: Columbia UP, 1993), 162-63.]


Michael Davidson

Muriel Rukeyser’s "The Book of the Dead," published in U.S. 1 (1938), offers a striking synthesis of narrative poetry and documentary culture as it emerged through various federal agencies (Works Projects Administration, Federal Arts Project, Farm Security Administration) and through collaborative projects such as those of [James] Agee and [Walker] Evans. It is against the backdrop of the era’s photojournalism and investigative reporting that "The Book of the Dead" must be read, fusing as it does techniques of modernist pastiche and montage with partisan reportage and editing. . . . Rukeyser maintains the photojournalist’s perspective upon lived experience, creating a gap, as she says, between "The man on the street and the camera eye." Furthermore, she builds her poem on themes of death and renewal familiar to readers of modernist poems like The Waste Land. The fragments she shores against ruin are not the voices of Homer, Dante, or Baudelaire but of George Robinson, Arthur Peyton, and Vivian Jones -- anonymous actors in an industrial tragedy that must be included in any national narrative.

The camera eye that records "the man on the street" was more than a metaphor for Rukeyser; it was an aperture through which she often looked during the 1930s, both as a poet and as a social activist. She was intimately connected to the worlds of photography and film through her participation in the Film and Photo League and Frontier Films (for which she served on the board of directors). . . . For Rukeyser, film provided an ideal synthesis of individual creativity, collective work, and ethical pedagogy whose technical manipulation often served as an analog for poetry . . . . The poet, like the film editor, deals in "rhythms of length and relationship." In language reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein, Rukeyser extols the "ethical’ value of editing. . . .

. . . .

All of this has relevance for "The Book of the Dead," a poem built upon documentary techniques and materials taken from the congressional record. The poem tells of a West Virginia mining tragedy in which workers were exposed to excessive amounts of silica while digging a tunnel near Gauley’s Junction as part of a hydroelectric dam project. To extract the silica, a valuable mineral used in the processing of steel, workers were forced to mine the tunnel dry instead of using wet drills. The tunnel was not adequately ventilated, and workers were not required to wear masks, even though the New Kanawha Power Company, which contracted the job, well knew the deadly effects of toxic dust on the lungs. Many miners contracted silicosis and died by slow suffocation, and when survivors sued the parent company, Union Carbide, their claims resulted in minimal compensation. What little money they did receive was absorbed by lawyers’ fees. The company’s attempts to conceal its illegal drilling practices became the subject of a federal investigation, from which numerous testimonies in the poem are derived.

[from Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1997), 140-142.]


David Kadlec

At the congressional hearings mandated by House Joint Resolution 449, a silicotic bench driller named George Robison was asked to testify regarding the working conditions in and around Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. Robison spoke of threats and beatings used by white foremen to coerce black workers back into the mountain after interval dynamite blasts. Reentering the bore within minutes of each shoot, teams of muckers and drillers could see only with difficulty through a haze of white silica. As work resumed at the head, accelerated rounds of dry drilling forced fresh jets of mineral straight back into the faces of workers. Pails of drinking water carried into the shaft looked like buckets of milk. In describing the deathly white residue that coated the tunnel’s interior as well as the "flour-sprinkled" woods around its mouth, Robison treated the white congressional committee to an unsettling image. "As dark as I am," Robison told the committee chairman, "when I came out of that tunnel in the mornings, if you had been in the tunnel too and come out at my side, nobody could have told which was the white man. The white man was just as black as the colored man."

. . . .

Barred from painting himself the color of his superiors, Robison chose to switch the black-and-white terms of his congressional testimony. In so doing, he reversed an image that might have stood for the color-blindness of capitalist exploitation. Shifting literal to figurative description, the supernatural "blackening" of white workers suggested that, far from being a class-based phenomenon, silicosis was a disease of racial proportions. At the Gauley Bridge tunnel, the absorption of white dust would have made a black man of even a white congressman who emerged, in the morning that follows from a dark day of work, from the opposite end of a racialized spectrum of exploitation. Within the conventional limits of racial performance, Robison’s metaphor suggested that, if racial identities were initially written on the surface of the body, they could be written more firmly across its invisible interior. The idea that white men could be blackened by industrial poisons affirmed not only that race was unfixed, but that, as a social construct, race was central to the story of the Gauley Bridge diaster.

. . . .

Amid a series of Depression Era social documentary poems, including Charles Reznikoff’s verse renderings of southern court records (1932) and Mike Gold’s and Tillie Olsen’s poetic fashionings of letters from workers (1934), Muriel Rukeyser’s "The Book of the Dead" (1938) was unique in its effort to adapt the conceptual premises of new visual technologies to a documentary retelling of the Gauley Bridge tunnel story. Plumbing the disaster and its aftermath through trial transcripts, letters, interviews, and descriptions of conventional and medical photographs, Rukeyser used the pentrating gaze of the X-ray to bridge high-modernist with more politically acute social-realist aesthetics. In her Gauley tunnel poem, however, the poet’s arcane exposure of capitalistic mechanisms of erasure was bought at the cost of the historical racial dimensions of Hawk’s Nest. While the feminist social poet had been criticized by male peers for promoting "unscientific" varieties of socialism in "The Book of the Dead," her sharp portrayal of the class basis of industrial exploitation was nothing if not doctrinaire. In the congressional testimony upon which Rukeyser based much of her poem, X-ray images had provided a conceptual framework for George Robison’s account of the racial makeup of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. These same images prompted Rukeyser to envision a gendered poetic release from industrial capitalist exploitation. But modern visual technologies -- particulary those deployed in state photographic and radiographic campaigns -- also blinded the social poet to the black-and-white depths of the Depression Era’s worst incident of industrial poisoning. Excavating the material of class consciousness from workers’ bodies, and deciphering its encryptions through poetic methods engendered by new visual technologies, Rukeyser restored a universalizing whiteness to the blackened workers that Robison had summoned before the congressional committee. Sacrificing racial to class interests, "The Book of the Dead" illustrated that, during an epoch much celebrated for its sweeping radical alliances, modern visual technologies could be used to limit the spectrum that these alliances encompassed.

[David Kadlec, "X-Ray Testimonials in Muriel Rukeyser" (Modernism/Modernity 5.1, 1998: 23-47), 24-26.]


John Lowney

The grim facts of Gauley Bridge became widely known in the mid-1930s, but only after the radical press uncovered information that was otherwise either ignored or actively suppressed by Union Carbide officials. First the New Masses and the Peoples Press, a radical Detroit labor tabloid, and then, noticeably later, mass-circulation news magazines publicized the facts that are routinely summarized in critical studies of "The Book of the Dead." What remains understated—and even unstated—in readings of Rukeyser's poem, though, is that the majority of those workers exposed to the dust were black migrant laborers. Because they were neither white nor long-term residents of the area in which they died, their deaths were barely noticed in the local media at first, and the cause of their deaths was disputed long after "silicosis" became a familiar term in front-page headlines. The politics of remembering and forgetting that "The Book of the Dead" investigates have as much to do with race as with labor. Rukeyser underscores the racial politics of Gauley Bridge not only through the stories and testimony of black workers and their families, but also through the metaphor of whiteness—the "white glass" of silica. The symbolic associations of this metaphor proliferate with the poem's accumulation of voices defying Union Carbide's systematic silencing of witnesses.

. . . Affirming that African Americans are representative of the American working class is one thing; depicting how they are representative is another problem altogether for white writers committed to revolutionary change. This challenge is born out in a number of proletarian novels, such as the Gastonia novels of Mary Heaton Vorse, Fielding Burke, and Grace Lumpkin, in which the relative silence of black characters belies the claims made for multiracial unity. More often than not the presence of black characters in proletarian fiction tells us more about the white characters' ability, or lack thereof, to combat racism on behalf of working-class solidarity. It is precisely this challenge of representing black workers without suppressing their voices that explains the dialogic documentary structure of "The Book of the Dead."

The most comprehensive study of the Gauley Bridge tragedy, Martin Cherniack's The Hawks Nest Incident: Americas Worst Industrial Disaster (1986), makes very clear how important racial politics were in the initial response to workers' claims. Cherniack, a physician with expertise in occupational disease, underscores how racial politics have informed local memory of this historical incident even generations later. He documents a remarkable tale of official concealment of information, concealment that assumes that black migrant laborers' lives have little value. To his surprise, Cherniack found that not only had Union Carbide officials eliminated from the public record all incriminating information about the deaths of workers, but local residents that he interviewed were reluctant to blame the company as well. When asked why so many people died during and after the project's completion, most of the informants old enough to remember the 1930s reiterated the company's initial explanation: black workers died not from silicosis but from pneumonia resulting from their own self-destructive behavior (such as drinking or gambling outdoors before open fires). The statistics cited by Cherniack explain why such dismissive accounts of so many deaths could persist. Fewer than 20 percent of the workers involved in the New Kanawha Power Project were long-term local residents. The majority of the workers were migrant laborers, who were quick to seek work in this early year of the Depression (1930). Almost two-thirds of these migrant laborers were southern blacks (17). Of the construction workers who spent all or most of their time working within the tunnel, that is, the workers who were most exposed to danger and disease, a disproportionately large number were black (18). The story that Cherniack unravels is certainly one of corporate greed and deceit that cost many workers their lives, but the racial politics dividing the workers and the local region make this tale more complicated. It is also a tale of local distrust of, if not contempt for, the black migrant laborers who occupied the inadequate, overcrowded housing quarters in the racially segregated local towns and the camps built by the Virginia construction company (Rinehart and Dennis) hired by Union Carbide (Cherniack 17-33).

from "Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead'" in "How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?": The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Anne E. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.


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