Muriel Rukeyser. Image via The Poetry Foundation.

On February 8, Trent University hosted a special guest to come and give a talk on her current research surrounding what she describes as “a forgotten decade.” Dr. Rosemary Hennessy comes to us all the way from Houston, Texas where she is a Professor of English and the Director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University.

Dr. Hennessy came to Trent to talk about her current research on the 1930’s, and more specifically, on the astounding career of a woman named Muriel Rukeyser in a presentation rather aptly titled “Intimate Environments: Considering the Muriel Rukeyser Archive.” Arthur had the distinct pleasure of meeting up with Dr. Hennessy a few hours before the presentation, and was able get a closer encounter with the material and the mind behind it.

JP: What drew you to the subject of Muriel Rukeyser and women such as this in this time period?

RH: It is very interesting to understand the reference point of these women at this time, and specifically women who would have aligned themselves on the left. So here, I am interested in the passion of politics: so where does the role of emotion or of feelings feature in this work of witnessing? Muriel Rukeyser was a reporter and to interpret her understanding of what is happening, it is very interesting to me.

JP: What specifically will you be covering tonight in your talk to the Trent community?

RH: Well, Muriel is from New York, and she ‘borrows’ her father’s car to go to West Virginia with a friend, a photographer friend [also female]. So in West Virginia, several publications had been covering the story of these miners who were building a tunnel, and when they were building it they discovered pure silica, and so the tunnel became a mine. The owners knew what silica could do to a person, but there were no protections for them so hundreds of them were dying. A lot of these miners were Black, and had been recruited from the south. But Muriel and her friend were heading there with plans to create a photojournalism project, which at the time was a fairly new form of reporting. This unfortunately never materialized; however, what did materialize was a poem called “The Book Of The Dead” [in a collection of the same name]. This is what I will be focusing on mostly tonight.

JP: I understand that Muriel had a bit of a background in physical chemistry as well as writing and poetry. Seems like a bit of an odd mix, don’t you think?

RH: Well it’s so interesting, when she’s doing all this she is about 23. She had gone to college for two years but had to drop out due to the Depression and a lack of funds. So when she went back to New York, she did a number of things in a number of different fields including anthropology; she took flying lessons; and all the while constantly writing. In terms of the science side of it, she did seem to take a shine to it. After writing The Book of The Dead, she wrote a biography about a man named Josiah Willard Gibbs who was the founder of physical chemistry. Now, I know very little about science, but this biography made it clear that Muriel must have learned a great deal about physical science, mathematics, and so on in order to do this. But she didn’t focus on the science too much — she really made it special by incorporating the history, and the science of what he was doing, and then why someone who did such an amazing thing, didn’t want, and didn’t receive much recognition at all. So she’s interested in that: how these figures in history don’t get the recognition they deserve and how that happens.

JP: It sounds as though Muriel Rukeyser was an extraordinary woman in the 1930’s to be so accomplished at such a young age, is she an exception to other women in this time period? This has to be way out of the ordinary for a woman in this time.

RH: Here’s the thing: on one level, yes, we might think that; but the more we look at the 30’s the more interesting the decade becomes. Yes, a lot of what you’re saying is correct, she was unusual. But on the other hand, for poor and middle-class people whose lives became unraveled due to the economic Depression, extraordinary things became ordinary. The other thing is, during that decade, there was a lot more progressive politics that was already kind of happening in the 20’s but then became more front and center in terms of national discourse and change. And women were part of that. That’s why I became so interested in the decade because the more I learned, the more I started realizing, there were a lot of women doing extraordinary things. And in some ways, in the decades that followed, partly because of the war, the progressive politics kind of got sidelined alongside government censorship, and then the cold war followed. So a lot of radical writers were in the shadows, underground, writing in code and all sorts of things.