Muriel Rukeyser and the Spanish Civil War

The following is a cross-post from the Insights: Scholarly Work at the John W. Kluge Center, from Program Specialist Jason Steinhauer.


Poet and biographer Muriel Rukeyser documented and commented on the seismic events of the 20th century. In her five decades of writing, she captured her experiences as witness to racial inequality in America, the Civil War in Spain, and protests against the Vietnam War. Sarah Chadfield, Ph.D. candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, conducted research in the Muriel Rukeyser papers held by the Library of Congress as British Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.

Muriel Rukeyser, bust portrait, facing right

In 1936, the young poet Muriel Rukeyser went to Spain to report on the People’s Olympiad being held in Barcelona. Intended as an alternative to the Nazi Olympic Games in Berlin, the Olympiad never took place as days before the opening ceremony, the Nationalists staged a coup on the Republican government and the Civil War began.

Although only 22 when she went to Spain, Rukeyser was already an experienced political writer: she had traveled across America in 1933 to report on the Scottsboro trials for the Communist-affiliated, student newspaper the Student Review, and in early 1936 had been to Gauley Bridge in West Virginia to investigate an industrial disaster that led to the deaths of hundreds of workers. While these were both widely publicized cases of injustice, Spain was a new experience. Here, Rukeyser was unexpectedly caught in the middle of the conflict, watching the events unfold: she was, in the proper sense of the term, a witness. In my research in the Rukeyser papers at the Library of Congress, I was surprised to find that Rukeyser’s initial impressions of Spain reveal a less confident version of the young writer than critics have come to expect.

Rukeyser’s diary from Spain conveys the dizzying experience of witnessing the beginning of the conflict. Whether through stylistic choice or practical need, the form of the diary suggests a series of scenes quickly unfolding. It begins:

‘Cerbère – Port Bou – customs, passports – teams – 3rd class – peasant woman – small towns – politics – Hungarian – Spanish family – soldiers visiting 1st – stops – discussion – France, Spain, politics – stops – Moncada – peaches, sausage, bread, almonds, wine – news – general strike – re-arrangement of train – Martha Keith – reds – the town – anarchists – Beeth V – radio – the English…’

The writing itself is fragmentary, as though there is no time to process one image before another comes to replace it: blood, gunfire and the death of a French athlete are given the same space as the everyday sights that can be seen from the train. It seems that nothing is privileged in this account.

Her archive also contains other attempts to record the experience: a hand-drawn map of Moncada Station, and further list-like reminders of events. One postcard simply reads:

roosters

bombs

Church               5 off.

fire

breakfast

warning

buying

school

Aaron’s Rod

peasants house

glass

sniping

school

Team’s dep

camion

Otto

Alongside Rukeyser’s own material, the archive includes a diary from one of the other passengers, Ernest Tischter, which Rukeyser borrowed to create still more lists of ‘supplementary facts’ to add to her own. The archive reveals Rukeyser’s almost obsessive desire to record the events accurately.

Across these writings, there is little evidence of a viewing subject: the observations in the diary and the various lists do not seem to come from a unitary perspective. It is difficult to locate Rukeyser herself in the scenes she describes. It seems that Rukeyser, in the manner of a camera, records the external rather than registering a subjective personal response. That Rukeyser turned to a camera-like style of writing to record what she had seen in Spain should not be surprising; even before the trip, she was engaged in the aesthetics of the documentary movement.[1]

Based on the archive material, the image of the camera is apt not only for its objectivity, but also for its lack of power to affect events. In Spain, Rukeyser waited with the other foreign nationals to find out her fate: she was unsure how she would get to Barcelona, and how she could be useful to the Popular Front in Spain. The camera image then also evokes the position that Rukeyser was in; the writer must continue to record the quick succession of images, without being able to intervene in the events themselves, or even process them as they unfold. It is easy to see how the self might become lost in this way of seeing Barcelona.

For Rukeyser, witnessing the beginning of the Spanish Civil War initially led to an anxiety about the place of the writer and the way in which language could be used to capture events.

The anxieties that can be seen in Rukeyser’s archive material about Spain are present in her novel about the same events, “Savage Coast.” This lost novel remained largely unknown until it was rediscovered in the Rukeyser Papers at the Library of Congress and published in 2013.[1]

Even after the events in Spain, Rukeyser found writing about that period a challenge. She wrote to her friend and mentor, Horace Gregory:

‘It’s practically a year now, and I’m still having a great deal of difficulty about getting a hold on that week, as far as words on paper go. Speaking is a different thing, what I’ve done is grip hard as if the audience were the dentist, shut my eyes and remember – and it’s generally carried them along with the material.’

Whilst Rukeyser can, with considerable emotional effort, recall the events in an outpouring, shaping that information into a coherent account of her experiences proved more problematic.

In “Savage Coast,” Rukeyser’s anxiety about ‘getting a hold on that week’ finds expression in her questioning of the ‘real’. The novel recalls Helen’s time on a train held in Moncada, the last station before Barcelona. The narration presents a surreal scene: it is like a ‘fair day’ or a ‘fairground’, despite the armed soldiers mixed in amongst the passengers. Even these soldiers, rather than appearing threatening, take ‘on the keepings of a secret romantic soldiery.’ To Helen they are ‘struck with […] strangeness.’ Meanwhile, the music from the radio contributes to the dreamlike quality: ‘[t]he words issued, crooning, native, absurd: Alone, alone with a sky of romance above. Alone, alone with a heart that was made for love…’

In this surreal environment, Helen must constantly remind herself that her experiences are ‘real’. When talking to a member of the Hungarian water polo team, Helen feels ‘very strongly the oddness of repetition.’ It is ‘the oddness of recognition in a dream’ and she must tell herself that it was ‘real’, ‘entirely real.’ Throughout the novel, Helen repeatedly confuses her waking moments with those from a dream: the world, it seems, has been reversed.

It is as though the only way Rukeyser can get ‘a hold on that week’ and write with certainty is to embed her uncertainty within the novel itself. Like the archive material that obsessively records the external events, this is a text deeply concerned with the question of fidelity to reality, and what exactly this might mean in a subjective literary account.

Sarah Chadfield is a Ph.D. candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London and former British Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center. For more literary posts, visit the Poetry & Literature Center blog.

Notes

[1] The links between Rukeyser and the various documentary movements of the 1930s have been discussed by Catherine Gander, “Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

[2] Muriel Rukeyser, “Savage Coast” (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013).

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