Contextualizing BotD, Part 2

In our first class covering Rukeyser’s BotD, we talked about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster, we looked at photographs of the river, dam, and tunnel, and we saw the small roadside cemetery that houses just 41 of the bodies of the miners who died because of silicosis.

We read “The Road,” which I think is about Rukeyser’s drive out to West Virginia from New York, as she describes the sights one might see while leaving the city through the suburbs and entering the backcountry, not terribly far away, and yet an entirely different world. Note her mention of the suburbs, the six-lane highway, the spa, and the tee. She seems to be alluding to wealth and comfort (“Gay blank faces wishing to add history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee”). Note as well her reference to ownership: “These roads will take you into your own country.” Whose country? Do the people living in major cities and the surrounding suburbs, those with white collar jobs, know what she refers to as the “deep country?” Have they ever visited? Maybe for vacation?

We also looked at “West Virginia,” Rukeyser’s poetic backstory for the state; necessary to situate the Hawk’s Nest incident as part of a larger story. “Statement: Philippa Allen” is our first shift into Rukeyser’s use of documents in this poem; this is an actual record from the “Investigation Relating to Health Conditions of Workers Employed in the Construction and Maintenance of Public Utilities,” a 1936 Report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor. Reading it out loud helps to distinguish between Miss Allen’s statements and the questions asked by the committee. Following this section is Gauley Bridge; remember, this is the city where the disaster takes place, and in this section Rukeyser explicitly reminds us that “These people live here.” In this section, she repeats the word glass often, and it is worth noting that silica (you may recognize silica gel packets from a shoe box!) is a component of fused quartz, or glass.

To supplement our next sections of BotD, here’s some more information:

I found a letter from Nancy Naumberg, Rukeyser’s photographer friend. The text is copied below:

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]

I also mentioned the lack of available materials on the Hawk’s Nest incident; here’s a link that lists both books and newspaper articles that were published. Availability of these documents is iffy, but the West Virginia Archives and History Library does have them, so if I’m ever out that way again (which I hope to be), maybe I’ll get to see them. Rukeyser’s papers are part of a special collection in the Library of Congress, another place I’d love to visit. The finding aid can be located here. For those of you who are unfamiliar (probably most of you!), a finding aid is a document that identifies the papers that are part of the collection; these can include letters, notebooks, and other unpublished works. There are also letters collected at the New York Public library.

Moving into the next four sections of the poem, we’ll focus on documentation of silicosis by way of a brief 2010 journal article from Environmental Health Insights, and a source that addresses the living situations of the miners, employment conditions, and the compensation mentioned on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sign in the previous post.

And lastly, outside the NYPL, on Library Way, are plaques by a number of writers, including Rukeyser. This quote is from “The Speed of Darkness.”

Time comes into it.
Say it.         Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

This photograph is from the Muriel Rukeyser Wikipedia page.

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