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Pillars of Process: Muriel Rukeyser, Franz Boas, and the Poetics of Birth


In a 1947 letter to Ernst Boas, the son of anthropologist Franz Boas, the American writer Muriel Rukeyser confesses, “May I tell you how, as it begins to open before me, how much this inquiry into your father’s life is meaning to me? The stories are very beautiful, the clues to further meaning are illuminating. I begin to see the power of the connections. I am very happy to be doing this.”[1] In the same letter she writes that she is pregnant, a “happy” complication to the work. Rukeyser was writing the first biography of Boas, “the father” of American cultural anthropology, commissioned by his son in 1942, the year of his father’s death.[2]  Uniquely suited for such a task, she was on the forefront of the emergent field of science history, having just published her biography of the mathematical physicist Willard Gibbs the same year, which marked the beginning of her turn to life-writing as an “exploratory and experimental” entrance into a new “way of thinking,” as Eric Keenaghan has noted.[3] While Rukeyser would write numerous biographies, the Boas project is significant—it was the only authorized biography she was commissioned to undertake, and it was the only one where she built the archive on which the narrative would be based, contacting Boas’s colleagues and family members and cataloguing their correspondences, collecting his journals and private writing, and traveling to Vancouver Island to live with and interview the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, whose artistic practices, myths, and lives were foundational to Boas’s theories. While the Boas biography was never finished, despite decades of research, Rukeyser’s engagement with the methods and origins of cultural anthropology would be career-defining, as she would find fruitful directives for her own work in many of the ideas and practices she encountered through her research on Boas and her time on Vancouver Island. As Catherine Gander writes, “Her lifelong poetic project of America was arguably informed partly by Boasian anthropological motives; she consistently sought both to comprehend and to reconstruct the usable tradition of her culture.”[4] In this sense, then, Rukeyser would move beyond Boas as her main subject, looking past him towards the histories and material cultures that would help her formulate strategies that challenged the gender, racial, and formal ideologies of the Cold War.

Rukeyser was undertaking this biographical project in an increasingly hostile climate, in which her own life—as a radical, queer single mother—was often used to justify the dismissal of her work. She was called a “threadbare” Sybil, a lesbian Helen, and a “gloomy humanitarian” in a period where women’s lyricism was encouraged to eschew the philosophical and historical in favor of “minute particulars.”[5] Like many left-aligned writers, the expansive, multi-modal forms that made Rukeyser so successful in the 1930s were, by the mid-1940s, “rejected automatically by publishers and editors, not because of a deficiency of literary quality, but because they [had] dared being critical of prevailing political and cultural reaction.”[6] Rukeyser’s incomplete biography of Boas is one of a series of midcentury projects that remained unfinished or unpublished because her work, and life, were seen as anathema to the political, literary and gender orthodoxies of the Cold War.

At the same time that she was confronting her own marginalization, she found in Boas’s life and work useful avenues for articulating these experiences, ones that argued for the value of aesthetic productions across cultures and races, and that showed how “all human activities may assume forms that give them esthetic values.”[7] These ideas helped her move away from the Western imperial sources that privileged certain bodies—and by extension certain kinds of artistic production—over others, and allowed her to challenge the aesthetic prescripts of the New Criticism.[8] After the birth of her son, in 1947, while she was immersed in the Boas biography, finding new sources became even more imperative, as she sought to develop a language to write about women’s lives—their desires, the experiences of birth and motherhood, and their intellectual and artistic practices in patriarchy. Formulating a poetics of birth that explicitly engages the body as a site of knowledge, Rukeyser’s work in this period culminates in her 1958 collection Body of Waking, her first book of poems published in nearly a decade, that includes her writing on birth and motherhood and her engagement with Indigenous cultures. Kenneth Rexroth describes the poems in a review as an “implicitly philosophical poetry . . . [where] the meanings of life are not analyzed and explicated, they are responded to and embodied.”[9]

One of the most important legacies of cultural anthropology on the twentieth century was the groundbreaking thinking on sex and gender undertaken by Boas’s colleague Ruth Benedict, along with her student and partner Margaret Mead, whom Rukeyser was in correspondence with about the biography. It was their comparative ethnographic work that would show that biology alone is not one’s destiny, that gender is not a stable category, that sexual desire is fluid, that “the pain of childbirth” was a pain “one could follow with one’s mind”—ideas that would become crucial for Rukeyser in the postwar years as she was writing about sex and birth.[10] As the feminist anthropologist Marilyn Strathern writes, “It matters what ideas one uses to think other ideas [with].”[11] In this sense, Rukeyser’s work on Boasian cultural anthropology and her experience with the Kwakwaka'wakw and their artistic and cultural practices that emphasize a “language of process” gave her new ideas “to think with,” as she found the forms to articulate the bodily life that has been denigrated in Western culture, that has “separated ourselves from ourselves” (The Life of Poetry, 88). The experiences of birth, of choosing to have a child alone, of the ways in which these experiences are shaped by sexism, and of the joy she found in motherhood despite that, influence the kind of work she was producing, informing her research interests and formal strategies—birth and death, myths, masks, counter-histories, critiques of gender and nationalism and of the bodily forms of knowledge we exclude from our histories and texts. As she writes in her poem “A birth”: “Beginning of truth-in-life, the rooms of wilderness . . . / My tearflesh beckoner who brought me to this place” (88).

Rukeyser’s engagement with Boas and his circle began in an undergraduate anthropology course at Columbia University in 1933, as a student of Ruth Brunzel (Boas’s own student and colleague). Her earliest political and journalistic activity grew out of this class and was shaped by the antiracist theorizing and activism of the group. While at Columbia, Rukeyser became the publicity chairman for the “Conference on Negro Student Problems,” and the event’s committee included Boas, as well as radical intellectuals and artists from Alain Locke to Augusta Savage. For her role as publicity chair, Rukeyser traveled to Alabama to report on the trial of the Scottsboro Boys for the Student Review; the leaflets for the event provided evidence for her arrest in the Jim Crow south.[12] Her friendship with Zora Neale Hurston, whom she also met through Boas, would prove equally important. Hurston’s own “philosophizing about . . . [the] international scheme of things” resonated with Rukeyser’s developing political and literary aesthetic, and Hurston asked Rukeyser to accompany her on an ethnographic trip to the south in the mid-1930s.[13] Rukeyser didn’t go, but Hurston’s innovation of an ethnographic practice that “transgresses the boundaries between academic objectivity and subjective insight” and transforms the Boasian role of participant-observer into one of “observing participation,” as Fatimah Tobing Rony describes, can be seen in a range of Rukeyser’s own documentary journalism, from her writing on Indigenous performance at a festival in the Coachella valley in 1939 to her ethnographic narrative, The Orgy, published in 1962.[14] The influences of cultural anthropology and transnational Indigenous artistic practices can help us better understand some of Rukeyser’s most recognizable poems of the second-wave feminist movement about birth and sex, and they can be traced in a lost film script, The Mask, as well as in her germinal text on art and crisis, The Life of Poetry (1949). Similar to the ways Rukeyser drew on her experience during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) over decades and texts, she embedded her research on Boas into her writing like clues. Rukeyser’s engagement with cultural anthropology is vital for reading her multi-textual, midcentury project in which she develops experimental counter-narratives to the binaries of a Cold War thinking that leave Indigenous and other forms of knowledge “starved” (Life of Poetry, 88). In this sense, Rukeyser’s unfinished biography of Boas helps us better understand her groundbreaking poetry on gender, birth, and the body, while at the same time making visible the influences of Indigenous art and thought on the development of a postwar feminist poetics.

An Untapped Archive

Working in the archive of the American Philosophical Society, Rukeyser was the first researcher to begin to collect and catalogue Boas’s material history, from Germany to the Pacific Coast, constructing a narrative of his life as well as the lives he recorded, piecing together a history that we can reorient ourselves within. As Isaiah Lorado Wilner writes, “We can investigate the Indigenous origins of global consciousness if we make use of new methods to study an untapped archive: the corpus of thought and action collected by anthropologists.”[15] Rukeyser’s scholarly influences can be traced directly to Boas’s own intellectual project, which she was cataloging, but also to those of his collaborators and students—women, Black, and Indigenous theorists and researchers. In the early twentieth century, Boas’s circle engendered new understandings of race, gender, sexuality, immigration, nationalism, and culture itself.[16] In her 1943 obituary of Boas, Ruth Benedict summarized one of his central conceits—that “if we are ever to understand human behavior we must know as much about the eye that sees as about the object seen”—a concept, as Gander has shown, essential to “Rukeyser’s own belief in the necessity of responsible, reciprocal witness.”[17] Boas’s work, and that of his most important colleagues, collaborators, and students—Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, Paul Radin, and Edward Sapir—challenged the hierarchies of difference that defined the political and social world of the nation state.[18] His theorization of cultural relativism was essential for demonstrating that race is a social reality, not a biological one” and would prove vital to antiracist critiques of Nazism in Europe, Japanese internment, and Jim Crow laws in America during the time Rukeyser was forming her own critique of war culture and state violence (King, Gods of the Upper Air, 9).[19] However, as many scholars have shown, the ideas that Boas and his circle propagated arose from their engagement with Indigenous knowledge systems, and, as Wilner writes, the anthropologists arriving “amid the maelstrom of colonialism . . . were the tape recorder of an emerging global society,” where “Indigenous intellectuals converted the people who had come to categorize them into mediums of Indigenous thought,” and thus influenced our understanding of modernity itself (“Transformation Masks,” 4).

The materials Rukeyser collected for her biography are an archive inside the larger Boas collection in the American Philosophical Society Library, called the “Boas-Rukeyser Collection.” It is a space that helps us understand the cultural contexts, narratives, impulses, and interconnected origins that Rukeyser deemed important to Boas’s work. Despite never being finished, Rukeyser’s Boas biography was full of promise when she began in 1942. Originally, she was contracted with Doubleday to write the biography, as well as to publish two of her poetry collections and the Willard Gibbs biography.[20] By 1950, however, Rukeyser felt unhappy at the press after they delayed and rejected many of her other projects (The Life of Poetry would be published by Wynn instead). When they declined to publish a Boas reader along with the biography, which Rukeyser believed essential to her project, and then refused to increase her advance “to the sum adequate to allow me to deal with the material, which includes—at Philadelphia—a collection of 65,000 letters, among other papers,” she decided definitively to get out of her contract.[21] Working closely with Dr. Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley, a student of Boas, and in regular correspondence with Ernst Boas, Rukeyser spent years trying to find funding for the project. However, she could not get support from any foundation, not even from the American Philosophical Society itself, where the Boas papers were housed, because, as Gander notes, she had an “unscientific background” (Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary, 154). By 1951, she joined Angus Cameron’s list at Little Brown. He eagerly agreed to take the Boas biography and reader, as well as her new books of poems, and she was filled with excitement “that the plan [I had] been heading for the last twelve years has at last matured” (Rukeyser to Collins, April 11, 1951). However, by 1952, Cameron and thirty-one of his authors had become part of a targeted campaign by the right-wing, anticommunist “vigilante sheet” Counterattack.[22] A campaign against Cameron was begun in 1947 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who accused him of communist sympathies after he rejected Orwell’s Animal Farm, and culminated with Louis Budenz (former editor of the Daily Worker) naming Cameron in the Jenner committee.[23] By 1952, Cameron, having refused to renounce, was fired and went into hiding. Rukeyser’s contract had not been publicly announced at the time, so she was not included on the original Counterattack list. Nonetheless, she still found her advance money frozen. As she wrote in a letter to Ella Winter, one of the thirty-one authors named, who had fled to London by then, “The Dragon is at breakfast here, and there’s steak for breakfast.”[24]

This would be the beginning of an increasingly hostile period for Rukeyser, ending with the American Legion trying to get her fired from her teaching job at Sarah Lawrence in 1958 for communist activities. In another 1953 letter to Ella Winter, Rukeyser discusses the deep difficulty of the period, including the problems of living for a year without steady income, with a young child, the bureaucracy of single motherhood before women had equal protection, and the forbidding political climate:

I have tried to get a passport; and have still to turn in affidavits about the changing of my name from Muriel Wolff back to Muriel Rukeyser, and the fact of Laurie’s name being Laurie Rukeyser. My affidavits have to be signed by two friends who knew me under both names. But I have not been able to plan anything, really, because I have not earned anything for a year and more—not since Little, Brown. I have made about thirty starts—some that I wanted and some “practical” ones—all of them false starts. But I feel that clearing myself through this past month may clear all my air. I will finish my Willkie book, now, I am sure. Because I seem to have taken the whole Little, Brown forbidding and cutting off money and rights as part of a general forbidding. . . . The climate here is very poor; but then I think of all your floods and fogs and illnesses. This climate is a record one, however; the Times has a weirder report every day. And today Dulles assured the Senate that the US Govt would not sign the codes of human rights, rights of women, and the genocide convention.[25]

Rukeyser’s unfinished work on Boas is a key to understanding the conditions of her fragmented midcentury life, but its unfinished nature also shows how her work continued to develop and grow despite the lattice of anticommunist and antiwoman strictures that she would learn to work around and through, a history that only becomes visible as you follow her in and out of the archives. Her research and writing on Boas, which at first appears marginal, not worthy of study because of its incompleteness, is in fact central to her literary and political projects, taking us deeper into the forms she used to find a language for birth, for process, and for the sources of American culture that might contradict the violence of Cold War thinking. Despite going unacknowledged, Rukeyser’s effort to write the narrative of Boas’s life, one that gave us “the foundations of all the social sciences that we have,” as she declares in the book’s synopsis, would have lasting impact.[26]  She would contribute to the apparatus, the archive, and the narrative of his biography that future scholars would depend on.[27] Rukeyser’s intellectual labor, though, is vastly undervalued, nearly invisible. In Charles King’s book, for example, one of the most recent renderings of the importance of Boas’s work on contemporary culture and thought, he consistently relies on the “Boas-Rukeyser Collection”—the material Rukeyser gathered to write her book and her early outlines—but Rukeyser is not cited as an intellectual source, only the collection is, as if the material aggregated itself. Her unfinished project on Boas offers a sense of the ways in which her intellectual work shapes that of others, and the ways her own searching, her own investigative scholarship, lays the foundations for the radical forms and thought that we work within today. In the synopsis of Boas’s life, Rukeyser describes him as a person who did not allow life to “be separated, he would not allow . . . fragmentation,” writing that “he made out of these scenes and of his life a growing adventure in unity” (“Book Synopsis”). In fact, this is the story of Rukeyser’s own life, where “the process never stops . . . we are offered the continual opening of the spirit” (“Book Synopsis”).

Vancouver Island

In 1949, almost two years after the birth of her son, Rukeyser traveled with him to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to live with and interview the Kwakwaka'wakw people (then called by the settler-colonial name Kwakiutl) about Boas, whose collaboration with the Pacific Northwest First Nations would be foundational to his work. The notes from her anthropology class in 1933 detail Boas’s perilous trip to the same Northwest coast she would arrive at a half-century later. In traveling to Port Hardy to interview the subjects of Boas’s early work, she wanted to understand how the anthropologists were received and perceived by the people they were documenting. She recalls this period of research in her own ethnography, The Orgy, about the Puck Fair celebration in County Kerry, Ireland:[28]

I was ten years back, on the north of Vancouver Island with my small son, not yet two years old; on the track of Franz Boas, I was, and one of his informants had just told me why they liked him—we liked Boas she said—you know why? and told me something I could get from no book in the world. We liked him because he was on time for meals. I looked out to where my little son was sitting on a huge cedar log with two little Kwakiutl boys, twins, and my own was showing his “old friend car”—a red metal car the one toy he had brought. Perhaps it was battered and more silver than red, where the paint had worn; he had lost it that morning, and the twins had helped him find it in the long pale grass. The informant said to me, It is good that you brought your child with you; you know none of these white scientists bring any family with them. . . . no children, nothing; they just appear here, one white man, another white man, asking us silly questions and mispronouncing. You know what our chief amusement in the summer at Port Hardy is? Telling lies to white scientists. (Rukeyser, The Orgy, 15)

Rukeyser’s account highlights an essential aspect of her work on Boas and of her larger midcentury project: her goal of reorienting our forms of knowledge away from nationalistic and paternalistic ideologies, of presenting more complex cultural origin stories, and of using all of our resources—from myths to poetry to scientific methods—to challenge pernicious hierarchies. By taking cues from the people she was visiting and using some of the tools developed by Boas and his circle to analyze that circle itself, Rukeyser begins to demonstrate the ways in which whiteness and masculinity were constructed through social and disciplinary knowledge systems. In her account of her trip to Vancouver Island in The Orgy, she implies that she had unique access as a researcher because she was a mother, whose interests and perspectives might have been different to those of the lone white men that would appear on the shores of Vancouver Island each summer to “collect” stories. In emphasizing this difference, she privileges the perspective of women and mothers as scholars, and women and children as subjects of study, while also exposing the problematic relationships between hosts and guests in a system that has historically asserted a one-directional view of culture written by the West.

Muriel Rukeyser on the boat to Vancouver Island, 1949
Fig. 1. Muriel Rukeyser on the boat to Vancouver Island, 1949. Published with permission from William L. Rukeyser. 

While Rukeyser’s original ambition was to write a near hagiographic account of Boas—of the “many thresholds in his life,” according to the book proposal she submitted to publishers—the archive she built around his life, and the literary and theoretical work she wrote in response to her experiences with the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, point to her more complex thinking about settler colonialism and Western imperialism, the legacies of Indigenous knowledge systems and art in modernity, and the limits of genre for writing about the varied influences that make American culture (Rukeyser, “Book Synopsis”). Rukeyser’s engagement with Indigenous art helped her think through some of her most important ideas about how authority and knowledge are constructed, about gender and birth, about the role of participatory narrative systems and dialogic aesthetic processes, and about the ways that modes of collaboration can produce new artistic forms and histories.[29] It is only by exploring her unfinished research on Boas that Rukeyser’s sources become visible, as does another strand of the long influence of Indigenous practices on the American modernist avant-garde. Kirby Brown has argued that this Indigenous influence is essential to understanding the production of American modernism more broadly, showing how it is “impossible to understand American modernity and literary modernism absent a legitimate engagement with the literatures of the First Peoples of these lands.”[30]

It is clear across much of her work that Rukeyser thought similarly. In the author’s note to the 1944 publication of her poem “The Dream-singing Elegy,” which references the Ghost Dance and forms part of the Elegies sequence that begins during the Spanish Civil War, she connects contemporaneous poetic forms and political crisis to specific Indigenous sources, writing, “I have used some of the Indian material in this poem, and especially a paper by Philleo Nash, ‘Revivalism on Klamath Reservation,’ included in Social Organization of North American Tribes. This material appears to me to have certain connections with expression in the over-run countries of our own time.”[31] In a section entitled “The Buried History: Some Ritual Chants,” in The Life of Poetry, she writes how Indigenous “creation myths are based on this continent. In their relation to our culture, which had denied them and starved them at the root, they tell us they still live, and that we may rise to full life at anytime. . . . the buried voices of the Indian chants have hardly reached our written literature” (86). She quotes a 1945 paper by John Collier, the former commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who describes the United States government as perpetuating “the longest ‘colonial’ record of the modern world,” and notes how, despite this, the American Indians “excel in art propensities, and in truthfulness” (86).[32]

In a period when white male supremacy was violently re-ascendant in Europe and America, with forced removals, internment, and genocide, Rukeyser was beginning to collect materials that ask us to turn toward the narratives and histories that have already been adapted to confront similarly violent holocausts, told by those “who know the narrative from the inside” (Wilner, “Transformation Masks,” 27). In doing so, Rukeyser develops her own critique of Cold War US imperialism that was defined by military intervention in China (1945), the Philippines (1945), Italy (1947), Greece (1947), Korea (1950–53), Albania (1949), Guatemala (1953), Iran (1953), Cambodia (1955), the Middle East (1948–), Indonesia (1957–58), and Vietnam (1955-1975).[33] In looking to anti-imperial histories to form her analysis of US culture, she asserts, “Simply, the line of culture was begun in America at a point of open conflict. All the wars of European thought began us, and Eastern balance has not yet come in” (Rukeyser, Life of Poetry, 68). She thus formulates a theory of the US and of US modernity that is fundamentally shaped by the imperial project, where conflict and settler colonialism are the tradition upon which contemporary Cold War culture draws. But by singling out this specific line of culture, she is also indicating that there are other traditions that have been suppressed—other “lines” of culture—that could provide counter-narrative.[34] As she continues in The Life of Poetry, “Indian culture values its poetry but is ‘driven into captivity and repression by a power-culture that sets no store on this art’” (88).

A Birth

In 1947, a few years before her trip to Vancouver Island, while living in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, Rukeyser wrote to one of her oldest friends, Eleanor Clark, The small object is kicking now, and that is marvelous. There are times of being scared, but they are growing fewer. I feel, as September approaches, that I am going to die or be born—and/or be born, I suppose it is.”[35] Rukeyser chose to stay in the Bay Area to have her only child, away from her censorious parents in New York City, who did not want their pregnant and unmarried daughter to return. Not naming the father, she was economically supported by the suffragettes, scholars, and poets Sarah Bard Field and Henriette Lehman, who bought her an engagement ring to wear in the hospital in order to avoid stigmatization as an unwed mother. As she wrote in the letter to Winter, she used David Wolff, the pen name of Ben Maddow, one of her closest film collaborators, for the fathers name on her son’s birth certificate.[36] Maddow would later recall how much he admired Rukeyser, saying, I was very moved by the fact that she was a lesbian who wanted a child and went deliberately about getting and raising one. She was really a wonderful woman who, all her life, felt she was very ugly.”[37] Maddow would base a short story on her, an explicit and intimate fictionalized account of the affair that would result in her pregnancy.[38] The birth, Rukeyser would write to Clark a few months later, was complicated: a Caesarean after thirty hours of labor and then much more surgery—but this is very much between us” (Rukeyser to Eleanor Clark). The experience of traumatic birth and of the ways that patriarchal practices control and silence women’s experiences reoriented Rukeyser’s intellectual and poetic interests. In a review for Poetry in 1949, titled “A Simple Theme,” she writes:

There is no poetry of birth in the literature that reaches us. In our own time, we can count the poems on our fingers; there is a great blank behind us, in our classic and religious literature. There we might expect to find the clues to human process and common experience. In our religious literature, birth is not faced until the moment after: we are given the scene with the kings and the animals and Joseph, Mary holding the newborn; the Pharaohs daughter discovers the newborn. I cannot think of a scene of birth (and we edit out the little children nowadays) in Greek drama, or all the way up to Gargantua; of any representation in graphic art other than the tribal statues, African, Mexican, Polynesian. I can not think of anything in films, or in the literature that tries to give us the stream of consciousness; or in music. I can not think of anything in western poetry, other than formal Nativity odes, until this century. I may be mistaken here, and I shall be glad to know of the existence of any poems of birth or pregnancy. But it seems to me that there is a great lack, one that has scarcely been noticed. . . . there is an entire area of experience which has not reached poetry. And it should hardly be necessary to say that this is a universal, and at the same time a scene one hardly ever sees in this civilization. How many of you have ever seen a birth, or have been conscious while you gave birth?[39]

Translating this area of experience “which has not reached poetry” becomes a crucial project after the birth of her son. In response, she begins to formulate theories about a placenta-like “waste that is never waste,” as she writes in her poem, “A Birth”—about those materials whose sole purpose is to “nourish” the process of transformation.[40] In the poem, written after her summer with the Kwakwaka’wakw and part of a suite of six poems about birth, published first in Poetry magazine in 1952 under the title Tree of Meanings, a reference to the totem pole, she writes:

So came I into the world of all the living,

The maimed triumphant middle of my way

Where there is giving needing no forgetting.

Saw now the present that is here to say:

Nothing I wrote is what I must see written,

Nothing I did is what I now need done. —

The smile of darkness on my song and my son.

Lately emerged I have seen unfounded houses,

Have seen spirits now open, as by sun,

And have, among limitless consensual faces

Watched all things change, an unbuilt house inherit

Materials of desire, that stone and wood and air.

Lit by a birth, I defend dark beginnings.

Waste that is never waste, most human giving.[41]

Rukeyser’s interest in finding new forms—a way to articulate the C-section, that “maimed triumphant middle of my way”—corresponds to her interest in the Kwakwaka’wakw myths and art she encountered on Vancouver Island. In a crucial scene in The Orgy, she recounts a story from her time on Vancouver Island about a Kwakwaka’wakw audience-participatory performance that lasts several days. In it, a woman splits herself down the middle and is reborn, a narrative of rebirth that made Rukeyser aware of the deficiencies of the Western narrative structure for articulating bodily experiences. Her poem “A Birth” demonstrates this search for new modes and new processes through its double image of parturition, both physical and artistic. In the 1970s, she recalls that “I was told by friends, for example, when it was a matter of deciding to go ahead and have a child, that I would have to choose between the child and poetry, and I said no. I was not going to make that choice; I would choose both. . . . It’s very much a question of reinforcing choices as one makes them, of leaving one’s life open to them, of going further in and confirming them, and also of clearing away, stripping away the masks.”[42]

The birth of her son in 1947 also came at a moment of increased conservatism and hostility toward writers and women who lived like her, marking a period of decreased public visibility for her work. Her book of poems, Elegies, would be the last new collection to appear for nearly a decade after its publication in 1949, and The Life of Poetry, published the same year, would quickly fall out of print. Her play, The Middle of the Air, which was slated to be performed on Broadway after a 1945 production in Iowa City, was canceled for various political and personal reasons during rehearsals. As Rukeyser takes pains to point out in her 1959 essay “Many Keys,” for women writers “there is almost constant conflict between modes of life and modes of creativity.” In a self-referential gesture to her own period of early motherhood, she writes, “Another time—apart from the psychic and economic crises of all our lives—comes in the long rearrangement of life that predictably will come to women who write, after the birth of their children. This change of level may take about ten years, and, like the others, can stop the function of the artists or be taken as ‘influence’” (Rukeyser, “Many Keys,” 10).  These “conflicts between life and art,” Rukeyser continues, are the crisis that can lead to extraordinary innovation, and so while Rukeyser seems to acknowledge the toll raising her child has taken on her ability to produce work, she also asserts that the experience of motherhood is an influence that can move the “buried life” to “find its poetry” (“Many Keys,” 13).


One of the ways Rukeyser found the forms to express the experiences of birth—to write what “what [she] must see written” (“A Birth,” 335)—is illuminated by the period in Boas’s life that she focuses on in the traces of biography that exist, centered upon his trip to the Pacific Northwest Coast, where Boas found, as Wilner writes, his “affective inspiration” (“Transformation Masks,” 8). Boas’s time with Kwakwaka’wakw peoples transformed his thinking about anthropology from a field defined by “categorization” and collection into one of “communication” (19). Wilner argues that this happened for Boas as he witnessed the Kwakwaka’wakw’s transformation mask dances, “where masks and myths are parts of a whole. The mask, once worn, allows a dancer to inhabit a history and share it with others . . . As mnemonic devices, masks serve as cues to ideas, affording access to silenced narratives.” The Kwakwaka’wakw modeled a way to “transmit a history that defied categorization” and “as a result, Boas’s interest began to shift from masks as objects of collections to an interest in the mnemonic knowledge they encoded”—it was this shift, away from viewing the masks as aesthetic objects and toward the processes of meaning-making, that would shape modern cultural anthropology (Wilner, “Transformation Masks,” 12).[43] The evolution of Boas’s thinking about the mask dances went into his 1895 report, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians.[44] It is in this report, and Boas’s accompanying ethnographic film, that Rukeyser would first encounter the stories, myths, and transformation mask dances of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Rukeyser would begin to draw upon them for her own work, moving beyond Boas to engage directly with a material history that she saw as an essential model for conveying otherwise unarticulated experiences.[45] While on the one hand, her work participates in a legacy of culturally appropriative engagement with the narratives and artistic practices of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast—utilizing the mask, which has long been a symbol of modernist “primitivist” appropriation—her work also shows the ways in which Indigenous artistic practices inform and transform modernist ones, as the recent cluster Indigenous Modernities has shown.[46] Rukeyser’s writing, by “looking east from Indian Country” in the ways that Brown, and Wilner, describe, reveals how the influence of the Kwakwaka’wakw changed her work in groundbreaking ways, much as it did Boas’s.[47]

The suite of poems that begins with “A Birth,” quoted above, and includes “Return” and “Unborn Song” creates an interconnected narrative about birth, her trip to Vancouver Island, and the Kwakwaka’wakw mask dances of transformation. These poems explore the processes of death and rebirth, both personal and artistic —“I am going to die or be born—and/or be born, I suppose it is,” as she wrote to Clark. In the final poem of the suite, “The Place at Alert Bay,” she writes about the site of what is now the Namigs First Nation burial ground on Vancouver Island with its many totem poles, as well as the thunderbird, who can open his head to reveal a human:

Our branched belief, the power-winged tree.

Tree of meanings where the first mothers pour

Their totems, their images, up among the sun.

We build our gifts: language of process offers

Life above life moving, a ladder of lives

Reaching to time that is resumed in God.

Did the thunderbird give you yourself? The man mourning?

The cedar forest between the cryings of ravens?

Everfound mother, streaming of dolphins, whale-white noon.

Father of salmon-clouded seas, your face.

Water. Weatherbeaten image of us all.

All forms to be resumed in God.

For here, all energy is form: the dead, the unborn,

All supported on the shoulders of us all,

And all forever reaching from the source of all things.

Pillars of process, the growing of the soul,

Form that is energy from these seats risen,

Identified. Resumed in God. (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, 357)

By ending her suite of poems about birth with the images of the transformation masks and of the totem pole, Rukeyser connects her ability to write openly about the experience of birth with her experience with the Kwakwaka’wakw and their artistic and cultural practices that emphasize a “language of process.” Her focus on the “first mothers” pouring the images out, and the assertion that “all energy is form” could be read as an affective metaphor for the experience of giving birth: that is, the abstraction of the fetus inside the uterus into a physical manifestation—the human revealing itself inside the mouth of another: “Did the thunderbird give you yourself?”

In the decade following the birth of her son, while she continued research on Boas, the image of the mask and its communicative possibilities would become a recurring theme for Rukeyser’s discussion of gender. This feminist poetics, which she began to articulate in the late 1940s, was eventually taken up by second-wave feminists to describe women’s ability to speak truthfully about their lives through the unmasking of “silenced narratives.” Rukeyser’s declaration in her most famous poem, “The Poem as Mask,” “No more masks! No more mythologies!” has often been used to describe this act of truth-telling, but that interpretation is an oversimplification of the ideas Rukeyser was developing, which more closely align with the Kwakwaka’wakw use of the mask as a complex mnemonic device, one in which the poem “is not an object: the poem is a process,” “made of change itself” (Rukeyser, Life of Poetry, 174).[48] Responding to her own postpartum poem “Orpheus”—a mythic revision of the life-and-death narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice, which describes her C-section and hysterectomy, the body torn apart by male doctors, and then the body pieced back together—she writes “The Poem as Mask” in 1968. In the poem, Rukeyser does not view the mask as an object to be cast off in order to reveal a true self. Instead, as Lorrie Goldensohn has written, the speaker “performs a series of much more complicated maneuvers of recognition and retrieval, maneuvers that hardly dismiss the adoption of masks or personae.”[49] Rukeyser herself, Goldensohn notes, confirms as much, writing in a New York Quarterly Review “craft interview” that when the phrase “No more masks! No more mythologies!” is spoken, “the myth begins again . . . as soon as the refusal is made. It’s a movement that brings together things that are very far apart.”[50] That is, to refuse the mythic imperatives in our lives is to call the myth into being—we cannot extricate ourselves from our “dark beginnings.”

For Rukeyser, who was in Jungian psychoanalysis for years, the mythological is a source for understanding our actions and relationships. She was especially alert to the ways that dreams inform our waking life. The transformation masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw demonstrate how this kind of knowledge is turned into an artistic practice. The Thunderbird (KwanKwanxwalige’) myth and mask, so crucial to their origin narratives, can transform from human to animal and back again, traversing the human and spirit realms. In this sense the Thunderbird embodies a space between life and death, bridging “things that are very far apart.” Wilner notes, “In the European outlook familiar to Boas, a mask concealed: it hid the wearer’s true identity, superimposing a flat front. For the Nuxalk and Kwakwaka’wakw . . . a mask enabled its wearer to alter states, to don a second face. It provided a new way of being and seeing” (“Transformation Masks,” 9). In this way, “The Poem as Mask” transmits meaning when “worn,” or spoken in this case, and upon wearing it the speaker is reconstituted through the process of meaning making:

When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness,

   it was a mask,

on their mountain, god-hunting, singing, in-orgy,

it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,

fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone,

   down with song,

it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from


There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory

of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued child

beside me among the doctors, and a word

of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me with their own music. (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, 413)

The unification of fragments performed in the “The Poem as Mask” can be seen in Rukeyser’s research and witness to the use of the transformation dances on Vancouver Island. The Thunderbird transformation mask, for example, becomes animated when the dancer pulls a string to reveal the head of a human—an allusion to the self-splitting experience of birth, as well to the transformation that she experienced doing ethnographic fieldwork for The Orgy. The dancer who wears the mask is herself transformed in the process, just as the audience is transformed by accepting the character of the mask and not the person performing (Wilner, “Transformation Masks,” 5). Rukeyser’s poem is a verbal approximation of this performance, in which cultural myths are embodied and shared, as Rukeyser seems to imply in her craft interview—this is a collective “storytelling practice” that, like the mask dances, linked speaker and listeners—messengers and mediums” (Wilner, “Transformation Masks,” 13). This relational process anticipates the feminist performance poetics of the late twentieth century, as Rukeyser insists that the poem is not a static art object but a dynamic and relational process between “Artists, Artwork, and Audience,” where “both the artist and audience create, and both do work on themselves in creating (The Life of Poetry, 50). This is similar to how Shira Wolosky describes experimental feminist poetics as an “enacted idea” that “brings thought into being” through the “interplay” of  “reference (context), addresser, addressee, contact, code.”[51] Rukeyser’s poetic theories, then, show the long influence of Indigenous art and thought on feminist and American experimental practices.

It is not just the affective and dialogic strategies of the Kwakwaka’wakw that were so important for Rukeyser, but the way they incorporated into their stories “sex and waste, greed and hate”—“There were no observers, no outsiders, no Others” (Wilner, “Transformation Masks,” 13). In The Orgy, Rukeyser recalls how crucial this encounter with collaborative processes on Vancouver Island was, but also the openness about waste and sex and bodies, the “waste that is never waste”:

I thought of the story the Indian woman told me on Vancouver Island—Did you ever see a woman split down the middle? No, I said. I have; she was standing in what we call the community house, and everyone came in and she stood there and said the strong voice, Won’t somebody come and kill me? A shudder of shock and release went through me. This is the thing one is never supposed to say. Then, said the Indian woman, the shaman came into the house, he walked forward with the obsidian knife gleaming black in his hand and he said I will—and drew his sharp knife hard down her front till the blood spilled on the ground. He held the entrails up. We all saw them. Then we left the house.

Next day we came back. We stood in our places around the big room. There was the woman who was killed. She was wearing the evergreen leaves at her temples; she danced the dance of rebirth.

What was it? I said.

Some of us knew—the old people, and some of the others of us knew, that there was a young dead seal under her robe—when he did that, she was wearing the young dead seal. But it was for the sake of the second day. For the dance of rebirth.

When I first heard that, I told them, I remember the shudder of shock and release that went through me. “I still feel it, I was brought up not to talk about three things: sex and money and death. And the excrement, the wet and dirty—you know how they work on our cities to keep them dry? to try to display life as not sticky, not wet? I don’t know why they should do this—” (Rukeyser, The Orgy, 67)[52]

Rukeyser’s own formal choices here enact a nonhierarchal structure, diminishing the differentiation between listeners and speakers. It is unclear who in fact is telling and listening, and who is having the response. The retelling of the story creates an affective response across multiple temporalities of participants, where we as readers are in the circle as well, and there are no clear distinctions, “no observers, no outsiders, no Others.” While these radical formal strategies can be essential aspects of the modernist avant-garde, they are also, as Wilner asserts, the “civilizing” influences of Indigenous cultures on modernity (Wilner, 1, 2, 14). Rukeyser creates a disorienting text that asks you to wear the mask and participate, just as the narrator does, as she meditates in great detail on the sensory and geographical spaces of settler colonialism in Ireland. With long passages dedicated to the lives of the Tinkers, whose experiences of “hatred . . . jealously, longing, despisals” “correspond” with the experiences of African Americans, “brave, long-suffering beyond belief, controlled somehow in an insane situation” and “the tribes of Indians cut off from the ways and still aware of tribe” (Rukeyser, The Orgy, 72).[53]

Likewise, for Rukeyser, the repression of the “wet and sticky”—of the bodily life and psychic drives that define us, that birth us—is also a failure to find the artistic processes that can encompass these stories. She sees these denials as part of a patriarchal, racist political system that denies us any chance of a unified self, of equality, of imagination. She writes, in “A Simple Theme,” “There is a terrible fear of birth abroad. It is close to the fear of poetry; and I do not know how closely it is connected with the agonies of our wars and with the daily crushing of the fiery life. I know that there are strong bonds here; and the matter before me, the poetry of birth, seems to be one clue” (238). After the birth of her child—in a culture that gave no form for the narratives that come from the female body—this impetus is clarified. She continues, “Now birth as a trauma has an important repressive role in our art—our literature in particular. Few of the women writing poetry have made more than a beginning in writing about birth. There is exceptional difficulty in giving form to so crucial a group of meanings and experiences” (237). But what she encounters during her research on Boas and the foundations of cultural anthropology, and what she discovers on Vancouver Island as she follows his trail, helps her find these forms. In her poem, “Clues,” which follows “The Poem as Mask” in its original publication format in Poetry, she writes:

Indian Baptiste saying, We painted our dreams.

We painted our dreams on our faces and bodies.

We took them into us by painting them on ourselves.

          When we say the water mystery of the lake

after the bad dream, we painted the lines and masks,

when the bear wounded me, I painted for healing.

When we were told in our dreams, in the colors of the day

red for each, black for the opposite, rare green, white.

Yellow. When I dreamed of weeping and dreamed of sorrow

I painted my face with tears, with joy.

Our ghost paintings and our dreams of war.

The whole brow, the streak, the hands and sex, the breast.

The spot of white, one hand black, one hand red.

The morning star appearing over the hill.

We took our dreams into our selves.

We took our dreams into our bodies. (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, 416–17)

In the manuscript version of the poem, she acknowledges the documentary evidence of this story: “There is a people of Indians on a river / on the north Pacific that do this: / Baptiste Ironstone told me”; and in her 1972 “Craft Interview,” she agrees with the interviewer that her poem “Clues” is “defining of [her] use of dreams”—a “use taken from the Thomson River Indians [the Nlaka’pamux of the Salish coast] who painted dreams on their bodies, that is, they do not let them go” (Rukeyser, “Craft Interview,” 29).

Rukeyser’s decades-long research on Boas engendered a multidecade and multimodal engagement with new ways of thinking and making that shaped her critique of the Cold War cultural project. At the heart of Rukeyser’s writing in this period is a feminist articulation of the value of women’s experiences, shown through a language of process that connects the body to systems of knowledge. Her ability to make these connections was enabled by her experience with and research on the artistic practices of the First Nation peoples of North America, especially the tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast, in whose artistic forms and beliefs can be seen an especially important “line of culture” through which to read the twentieth-century literary and political avantgardes. As Wilner notes, “Indigenous people have made use of their inheritance of stories to open up a vista of narrative perception, a door that history may yet follow through. If any outlook can be called primitive, in the sense of the parochial, it is the Western preference for concealment” (“Transformation Masks,” 27). Rukeyser found that “door,” and followed through.

In the long sequence poem “Body of Waking,” Rukeyser synthesizes many of the connections between the body, process, and knowledge. She writes:

In praise of process,

Our songs were, of the seed; we took the joy

Of the eye dancing unborn, its precise fore-lighting

Moving in unborn dark toward the achieved gaze,

Seeking continually developing light.

Seeking as we began to grow, and resting without distrust,

We moved toward a requirement still unknown. (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, 393)

Near the end of the poem, she asserts, “Now the heroes of process / Not leaders but lives” (394). What started out as a biography of one man, one might argue, becomes a story of the lives, and especially the lives of women, that are already articulating new narrative modes of birthing and making and searching, including her own.


[1] Muriel Rukeyser to Ernst Boas, 1947, Mss.Ms.Coll. no. 10, Ernst P. Boas Papers, Series 1: Correspondences, Muriel Rukeyser, American Philosophical Society Library.

[2] Zora Neale Hurston, like most of his students, called him “Papa Franz.”

[3] Eric Keenaghan, “Biocracy: Reading Poetic Politics through the Traces of Muriel Rukeyser’s Life-Writing,” Journal of Narrative Theory 43, no. 3 (2013): 266.

[4] Catherine Gander, Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 154.

[5] This is from reviews by Louise Bogan, “Verse,” New Yorker, November 3, 1951, 150–51; Delmore Schwartz called her “A Helen, who was a lesbian,” quoted in James Brock, “The Perils of a ‘Poster Girl’: Rukeyser, Partisan Review, and Wake Island,” in How Shall We Tell Each of the Poet: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, eds. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 258. For more information on Rukeyser and her readers, see my essay “The Spirit of Revolt: Women Writers, Archives and the Cold War,” Modernism/modernity Print+ 2, cycle 2 (2017) and my forthcoming book Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022).

[6] Samuel Sillen, quoted in Alan Filreis, Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945–1960 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 98.

[7] Franz Boas, Primitive Art (New York: Dover, 1955), 9. Rukeyser highlights this phrase in her own notes.

[8] In The Life of Poetry, she writes, “In poetry, the relations are not formed like crystals on a lattice of words, although the old criticism (which at the moment is being called, of course, the New Criticism) would have us believe it so.” Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1996), 166.

[9] Kenneth Rexroth, “Poetic Responses,” The New York Times, October 19, 1958, 46.

[10] Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (New York: Kodansha, 1995), 254. 

[11] Marilyn Strathern, “Introduction: Artificial Life,” in Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 10.

[12] This was the newspaper of the National Student League, a grassroots communist-affiliated organization for high school and college students started at City College of New York.

[13] Michael Lackey, The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis’ Christian Reich (New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2012), 251–53, quoted in James Edward Ford, Thinking Through Crisis: Depression-Era Black Literature, Theory, and Politics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 200.

[14] Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 210.

[15] Isaiah Lorado Wilner, “Transformation Masks: Recollecting the Indigenous Origins of Global Consciousness,” in Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas, eds. Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 4.

[16] Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019), 8.

[17] Ruth Benedict, “Obituary: Franz Boas,” Science, January 15, 1943, 60; Gander, Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary, 154.

[18] Deloria was Boas’s student and collaborator, a translator and ethologist of the Dakota Sioux. Her book Waterlily is a beautiful modernist hybrid ethnographic novel about the life of a young Sioux woman. Her sister, Mary Sully, was an avant-garde artist whose work is only now being recognized.

[19] Informed by his own experience of anti-Semitism, Boas, who, like Rukeyser, was a secular German Jew, would develop his theories about the fictive nature of racial difference.

[20] This can be found in a letter from Rukeyser to Ernst Boas, in Franz Boas Papers. Series 1, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia; and to Ella Winter, Ella Winter Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

[21] Rukeyser to Collins, April 11, 1951, Box 1:52, Muriel Rukeyser papers, 1844–1986, Library of Congress.

[22] Michael Wreszin, “Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Scholar-Activist in Cold War America: 1946–1956,” Salmagundi no. 63/64 (1984): 265.

[23] Considering Rukeyser and Orwells profoundly different political response to the fall of the Spanish Republic, their polarized positions in the literary establishment by the 1950s offers a stark illustration of how the antileft and antimodernist Cold War project can be traced to the fall of the republic in 1939. Wreszin, “Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,” 265–66.

[24] Rukeyser to Ella Winter, Series 1: Catalogued Correspondences, Muriel Rukeyser, Ella Winter Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[25]  Rukeyser to Winter, April 7, 1953, Series 1.

[26] Rukeyser, “Book Synopsis,” Mss.B.B61ru, Boas-Rukeyser Collection, Franz Boas Papers, The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

[27] This can be seen in recent books like King, Gods of the Upper Air and Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, Franz Boas: The Emergence of an Anthropologist (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), as well as collections like Franz Boas’s Papers: Volume 1, ed. Regna Darnell (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[28] Rukeyser was sent to Ireland by the filmmaker Paul Rotha to scout a documentary film about the festival, but the film never came to be and she wrote the book instead. Rukeyser, The Orgy (Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1997), 4.

[29] Traditionally, scholars look to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century male theorists like Charles Sanders Pierce, Alfred North Whitehead, and John Dewey (Boas’s colleague) among others, to ground Rukeyser’s philosophical thinking by situating her process-poetics and participant-observer experimentalism in a visibly white and male lineage. While it is true that Rukeyser read and was interested in those theorists, this article suggests that Rukeysers multi-decade engagement with Indigenous culture, informed by her research for the Boas biography, is also foundational to her radical midcentury theoretical and literary projects.

[30] Kirby Brown, “American Indian Modernities and New Modernist Studies’ ‘Indian Problem,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 59, no. 3 (2017): 310.

[31] Muriel Rukeyser, “The Dream-singing Elegy,” The Kenyon Review 6, no. 1 (1944): 59, footnote 1; Philleo Nash, "The Place of Religious Revivalism in the Formation of the Intercultural Community on Klamath Reservation," in Social Anthropology of North American Tribes, ed. Fred Eggan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937): 385–41.

[32] For the original source, see John Collier, “United States Indian Administration as a Laboratory of Ethnic Relations,” Social Research 12, no. 3 (1945): 265, 302.

[33] Philip Metres, “‘With Ambush and Stratagem’: American Poetry in the Age of Pure War,” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 341.

[34] This kind of thinking about “Eastern balance” corresponds with the racial-spiritual imaginary of the San Francisco and West Coast poetry scenes in the postwar period, cultivated by writers like Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsburg, Joanne Kygher, Anne Waldman, and others. But this is not an anomaly. The use of “Eastern” and American Indigenous ideas can be also be read in William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, Mary Austin, and others.

[35] Rukeyser to Eleanor Clark, n.d., box 32, folders 464–66. Eleanor Clark Papers, Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Yale University.

[36] This information can be found in the Oral History of Katherine Field Caldwell, interview conducted by Suzanne B. Riess, University of California Berkeley, Regional Oral History Office, University of California. Both of these women have interesting histories in California—both were married to Berkeley professors, and both were intellectuals and radicals themselves. The transcript from the interview is worth sharing: “Henriette and my mother became very great friends. The thing about Henriette was she was enormously generous, but she was always anonymous. I'm told—again, this is probably an exaggeration—that if the symphony or the opera had a deficit they’d appeal to her and she’d pick up the tab. Now, to what extent—. Anyway, she never wanted to be given credit for her generosity. She and my mother were allied in the support of—turn that off. Just a minute, I must think of her name. [pauses] Muriel Rukeyser. My mother and Henriette decided to finance this woman through her pregnancy. And you can imagine years ago this was something! They insisted that she must have a ring when she was in the hospital, or the nurses would not like it. So they financed this. For years and years and years, Muriel would not say who was the father of this child. It was a boy, turned out to be very successful, I think in Journalism [William L. Rukeyser]. Anyway, she decided to tell who the father was, and you’ll just never believe it! It was one of Robinson Jeffers’s sons. She said they had ‘a toss in the hay’ after a cocktail party. That's what I heard.”

[37] Ben Maddow, “Ben Maddow: The Invisible Man,” in Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, ed. Pat McGilligan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 169.

[38] The story is called “You, Johann Sebastian Bach” and then later changed to “The Pianist.” It was originally published in the Hudson Review in 1967. The figure of Rukeyser, as the title implies, is not a poet but a classical pianist in the story. It is loosely based on Rukeyser, and it is not clear if Maddow and Rukeyser stayed in touch beyond the late 1940s. Maddow discusses Rukeyser in an interview for a scholarly book on left-wing Hollywood.

[39] Muriel Rukeyser, “A Simple Theme,” Poetry 74, no. 4 (1949): 236–37. We now have a much bigger canon on the poetry of birth, particularly with the work of Mina Loy, whose work had fallen out of print by then.

[40] Rukeyser, “Many Keys,” n.d. [1957], unpublished, box 1:16, 12, Muriel Rukeyser papers, 1844–1986, Library of Congress.

[41] Rukeyser, “A Birth,” in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, eds. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog with Jan Heller Levi (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 335.

[42] Muriel Rukeyser, ‘The Education of a Poet’, in A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. Jan Heller Levi (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), 280–81.

[43] The fact that Boas undertook much of his work in collaboration, and effectively coauthorship, with George Hunt, the English and Tlingit translator who collected stories, artifacts, and material histories with him and for him, has complicated Boas’s legacy. As Wilner and others have shown, not only was Hunt’s role as coauthor and collaborator at first completely obscured in the history of cultural anthropology, but even now, while Hunt has become far more visible, unsettling the notion of a single authority in ethnographic accounts, the role of prominent Indigenous women in Boas’s documentary process is still often eschewed. Likewise, while Boas’s collaborative mode of ethnographic work with the peoples he was recording could be read as innovative, dialogic, and open-ended, ideas Rukeyser certainly engaged with, he also collected the cultural and linguistic history of colonized peoples for the consumption of a white audience.

[44] Franz Boas, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, Report of the United States National Museum, for the year ending June 30, 1895, 309–738.

[45] In a letter to Ernst Boas, Rukeyser discusses having Boas’s films of the mask dances and bringing them from New York to Boas’s daughter in the Bay Area.

[46] Indigenous Modernities, ed. Kirby Brown, Modernism/Modernity Print+ 5, cycle 4 (2021).

[47] Kirby Brown, “Introduction: Developing Thoughts on Indigenous Modernities and Modernisms,” Modernism/Modernity Print+ 5, cycle 4 (2021).

[48] It is the title of Florence Howe’s anthology of women’s writing, for example.

[49] Lorrie Goldensohn, “Our Mother Muriel,” in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, eds. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 122.

[50] Rukeyser, “Craft Interview,” New York Quarterly Review, No. 11 (1972), 30.

[51] Shira Wolosky, “Relational Aesthetics and Feminist Poetics,” New Literary History 41, no. 3 (2010): 571.

[52] In her 1948 book of poems, The Green Wave, she translated a series of Eskimo songs with the anthropologist Paul Radin, ones that describe bodily and sexual taboos, along with daily life.

[53] This formal structure is repeated again in her 1961 play, The Colors of the Day, written for the Vassar Centennial. The title is taken from a story she was told while on Vancouver Island. The play is a surrealist revision of the story of Ishtar, the young woman stripped and then reborn, but told through the chorus of characters representing the history of the women’s college. There are also a series of myths from the Pacific Coast that have similar narratives.

Excerpted from Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century, by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein. Copyright (c) 2022 by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein. Included by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press. All rights reserved.