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Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a prolific writer and political activist. Her work sought to integrate the public and the private while shattering the silence surrounding common themes of women’s experience.
Rukeyser grew up in an upwardly mobile Jewish family in New York City. She attended elite private schools and Vassar and Columbia until her father’s financial troubles forced her to leave college. Rukeyser’s family eventually disinherited her. She was married for two months, after which her marriage was annulled. She later raised a son as a single mother, never publicly revealing the father’s identity. Although bisexual, Rukeyser never explicitly spoke or wrote about her sexual relationships with women.
Rukeyser was fascinated by science and technology. She also had a strong sense of history and of her role in it. She was drawn to Communism and other political movements of the Left, although she refused to follow any party line. Rukeyser’s political independence drew attacks from critics on the Right and the Left.
In 1933, Rukeyser was arrested in Alabama while reporting on the famous Scottsboro trial. As a journalist, she also traveled to Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and investigated the Gauley Bridge, West Virginia silicon mining disaster. She traveled to North Vietnam in 1972 on a peace mission with fellow writer Denise Levertov. In 1972, she held a silent protest vigil outside South Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha’s prison cell.
Rukeyser received the Yale Younger Poets Prize at the age of 21 for her first book of poetry, Theory of Flight (1935). In 1967, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Rukeyser published eighteen volumes of poetry, three biographies, a series of lectures, a novel, numerous translations, children’s books, and plays. She taught at Vassar, Sarah Lawrence College, and the California Labor School. She also worked in theater and film and worked as a consultant for the Exploratorium, a San Francisco arts and science museum. In the 1960s ad 70s, Rukeyser served as the president of PEN’s American Center.
Kenneth Rexroth called Rukeyser “the best poet of her exact generation.” She had a profound influence on many subsequent women writers, including Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich.
~ Erica S. Reichert (email@example.com)