This Day in Jewish History / An Acclaimed American Poet and Activist Dies

American-Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser died in 1980, leaving behind a legacy of protest and a recently published novel, thought to be lost.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On February 12, 1980, American-Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser died, at the age of 66. Although Rukeyser received acclaim at a young age – when she was 21, she won the Yale Younger Poets Competition, and had her first collection published – critics tended to be divided about her work during her lifetime, with some belittling her for her political and philosophical idealism. In recent years, however, Rukeyser’s reputation has grown, and the centenary of her birth, last year, presented an opportunity for a variety of events commemorating her legacy, and even for the first publication of the previously lost manuscript of her only known novel, “Savage Coast.”

Muriel Rukeyer was born in New York City on December 15, 1913. Her father, Lawrence Rukeyser, was a Wisconsin-born construction engineer who came to New York and co-founded a successful producer of sand and gravel – successful until it went bust, in 1932. Her mother, the former Myra Lyons, was from nearby Yonkers. Muriel Rukeyser later said “it was the silence at home” that led her to become a writer, noting that the three subjects never discussed there were “sex and money and death.” She also claimed the only books in the house were a Shakespeare anthology and the Bible.

She attended private school and then spent two years at Vassar College, followed by two years of classes at Columbia University. Her formal education ended when her father went bankrupt. But she was writing poetry the entire time, and by 1935, had her first book of poetry, “The Theory of Flight,” chosen by Stephen Vincent Benet for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series.

Rukeyser was politically engaged, too, from a young age, and in the 1930s, traveled at home and abroad to write about events that mattered to her: To Alabama, to cover the trials of the nine young black men, “The Scottsboro Boys,” accused unjustly of raping two girls, and initially sentenced to death for the crime; to Gauley, West Virginia, where she wrote (in a long poem, “The Book of the Dead”) about the deaths of more than 400 miners who had been unnecessarily exposed to silicon while digging the Hawks Bridge Tunnel there; and to Catalonia, where she went in July 1936 to cover the People’s Olympiad, an alternative to the Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany that never took place because the Spanish Civil War broke out two days before its opening. (Rukeyser’s time in Barcelona was the subject of “Savage Coast,” a semi-autobiographical novel recently found in an unmarked folder in the Library of Congress.)

During World War II, Rukeyser worked for the U.S. Office of War Information, writing text for propaganda posters. In 1944, she published the poem “To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” which was later adopted by both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements in the United States for inclusion in their prayer books. Writing during the Holocaust, she declared that “To be a Jew in the twentieth century / Is to be offered a gift.   If you refuse, / Wishing to be invisible, you choose / Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. / Accepting, take full life.  Full agonies ….”

Rukeyser remained engaged and passionate throughout her life. As part of her protest against the Vietnam War, she traveled to Hanoi, North Vietnam. She was president of PEN’s American Center, a human-rights organization. She wrote prose biographies of the scientist Willard Gibbs and the politician Wendell Wilkie. She lectured and taught, and belonged to a feminist playwrights collective. And this only scratches the surface.

Rukeyser died of a stroke on this day in 1980.