John Lowney: On "West Virginia"

The verbal mapping of West Virginia that follows the opening section of "The Book of the Dead" accentuates how the national economy manifests itself locally: on the one hand are impoverished mining towns; on the other are posh tourist resorts. The road's "meanings" become a social plurality of historical conflicts embedded within the harsh physical environment. While Rukeyser's concise but precisely rendered history of West Virginia resembles the comprehensive introductory overviews of state history found in the Guide Book Series, it makes no attempt to hide its point of view in selecting what is most important. It maps the English settling of the western "frontier" and displacement of the local Mohetons, briefly notes the battles of the Revolutionary War, and describes the crucial position of Gauley Bridge on the North-South "frontier" of the Civil War. But most notable is the capitalized reference to

the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION

sabres, apostles OF JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE

War's brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPERS FERRY. (OS 11)

Given the specific reckoning of corporate culpability that motivates the poem, such emphasis on local history might seem irrelevant. However, as the reference to John Brown suggests, Rukeyser insists that a Marxist revolutionary politics in the United States is also a racial politics. In foregrounding her role as witness, historian, and investigative reporter speaking for workers, especially black workers, who inherit a history in which their voices have not been recorded, Rukeyser affirms her potential to change the present through the orchestration of prior historical narratives. At the same time, she acknowledges the complexity of her inscribed position within this narrative "scene of power" (OS 11).

Details

Criticism Overview
Title John Lowney: On "West Virginia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Anne F. Herzog, Janet E. Kaufman 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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