‘Salvaging the Symbol in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead’

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The essay seeks to set the framework by which we may appraise the efficacy of the salvaging strategies employed by Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic response to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster in West Virginia in her collection, The Book of the Dead (1938). In seeking to reclaim the lost experiences and objects of exploited miners, Rukeyser’s project to salvage their anonymous suffering at the hands of capitalist greed places her as an artist within the historical materialist tradition outlined in Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1942). The Book of the Dead explores the legacy of European capitalism’s displacement of the Native-American ‘Asiatic’ society as delineated by Marx in the Grundrisse (1939). It is argued that Rukeyser aims to salvage the signs and materials of industrial conflict, such as the insurrectionary figure of John Brown, in order to begin to create the ‘always-unfinished symbol’ against the misappropriating machinations of capitalism, continuing the work of poets such as Herman Melville. The essay argues that Rukeyser’s symbolic framework which aims
to spur the subjective worker to action through imagination invokes a ‘Hydraulic
state’, as in ancient Egypt, inspiring a quasi-religious submission to the higher unity of the hydroelectric dam and those who died creating it. Finally, we explore the implications where this spur to collective working-class action depends upon the consciousness of the human conduit: the irony at the heart of Marxist autonomy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)323-346
Number of pages24
JournalComparative Critical Studies
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


Dive into the research topics of '‘Salvaging the Symbol in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead’'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this