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On "The Road"


Stephanie Hartman

The first section of "The Book of the Dead," "The Road," claims the national significance of the Gauley Bridge disaster and its centrality to modern American identity. By making the small town, rather than a city such as New York, emblematic of modern America, Rukeyser shifts focus from modernity's towering achievements to its effects upon working-class people; she wants to explore not just its highlights, but the "whole picture." From the first line, "These are the roads you take when you think of your country," Rukeyser forthrightly sets readers within this terrain and implicates them in the events described. The roads transverse America, displacing the city—moving "Past your tall central city's influence" (OS 10)—in favor of a decentered, dispersed version of the country, in which the small rural town of Gauley Bridge is able to stand as a locus of modernization.

from "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.


John Lowney

Highway U.S. 1 was integral to the formation of the United States. According to the FWP guidebook, it remained "as it was in Colonial and early Federal days the chief line of communication between the centers of the Atlantic Seaboard States" (FWP xi). Most importantly for "The Book of the Dead," this north-south highway was also crucial during the Civil War; south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, "the route . . . traverses an area that has seen more bloodshed than has any other on the North American Continent" (FWP xii). The first section of "The Book of the Dead," entitled "The Road," invokes the relationship between narrative, place, and audience followed by the American Guide Series. Its direct address to "you," traveling by automobile through "your own country," appeals to the reader with the New Deal rhetoric of national purpose that informed the diverse local projects initiated by the Federal Writers Project. Yet underlying this presumed commonality between writer, place, and reader is a subtle interrogation of what "you" would consider "when you think of your country." As "The Road" moves from its initial invocation of "your country" toward a more specific focus on the local sites surrounding Gauley Bridge, Rukeyser accentuates those texts that authorize national unity:

These are roads to take when you think of your country
and interested bring down the maps again,
phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,

reading the papers with morning inquiry. (OS 10)

From these official means for defining modern nationhood—maps, statistics, newspapers—the narrative goes on to emphasize the social differences that contradict such unity, especially the class differences that divide Gauley Bridge and also distance the narrator from this locality. Whereas the traveler seems at first to be a typical tourist, enjoying the luxury of a "well-traveled six-lane highway planned for safety," Rukeyser disrupts any bourgeois notions of objectivity associated with tour guides by foregrounding the privileged class position and metropolitan vision of the speaker (and her photojournalist companion). Likewise, she insists that her readers consider their own investment in the narrative: "Here is your road, tying / / you to its meanings" (OS 11). Neither the speaker nor the reader is exempted from the power relations underlying this plurality of meanings.

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.


Leslie Ann Minot

We can also gain some insight into Rukeyser's sense of how an image or object "carries" a meaning by looking at the concluding passage of "The Road," where she writes:

                                Here is your road, tying

you to its meanings: gorge, boulder, precipice.
Telescoped down, the hard and stone-green river
cutting fast and direct into the town. (OS 11)

Again, the road is offered to the reader as something that belongs to her or him. The road is possessed by the reader, but it also possesses the reader, compels her or him, "ties" her or him to its "meanings." These meanings are not abstract, philosophical statements, ideas, or values—they are listed simply as "gorge, boulder, precipice." As symbols, they may be inscrutable. but you ignore them on a real road only at your peril. They make demands on you by their actuality.

from "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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