John Lowney: On "The Road"

Highway U.S. 1 was integral to the formation of the United States. According to the FWP guidebook, it remained "as it was in Colonial and early Federal days the chief line of communication between the centers of the Atlantic Seaboard States" (FWP xi). Most importantly for "The Book of the Dead," this north-south highway was also crucial during the Civil War; south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, "the route . . . traverses an area that has seen more bloodshed than has any other on the North American Continent" (FWP xii). The first section of "The Book of the Dead," entitled "The Road," invokes the relationship between narrative, place, and audience followed by the American Guide Series. Its direct address to "you," traveling by automobile through "your own country," appeals to the reader with the New Deal rhetoric of national purpose that informed the diverse local projects initiated by the Federal Writers Project. Yet underlying this presumed commonality between writer, place, and reader is a subtle interrogation of what "you" would consider "when you think of your country." As "The Road" moves from its initial invocation of "your country" toward a more specific focus on the local sites surrounding Gauley Bridge, Rukeyser accentuates those texts that authorize national unity:

These are roads to take when you think of your country

and interested bring down the maps again,

phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,

 

reading the papers with morning inquiry. (OS 10)

From these official means for defining modern nationhood—maps, statistics, newspapers—the narrative goes on to emphasize the social differences that contradict such unity, especially the class differences that divide Gauley Bridge and also distance the narrator from this locality. Whereas the traveler seems at first to be a typical tourist, enjoying the luxury of a "well-traveled six-lane highway planned for safety," Rukeyser disrupts any bourgeois notions of objectivity associated with tour guides by foregrounding the privileged class position and metropolitan vision of the speaker (and her photojournalist companion). Likewise, she insists that her readers consider their own investment in the narrative: "Here is your road, tying / / you to its meanings" (OS 11). Neither the speaker nor the reader is exempted from the power relations underlying this plurality of meanings.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title John Lowney: On "The Road" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Janet E. Kaufman, Anne F. Herzog Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication "Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead'"
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