Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Known as something of a veteran literary “freedom fighter,” Rukeyser helped to promote social justice in many areas and showed women how they could improve their lives by improving the lives of others.
Muriel Rukeyser was born in New York City on December 15, 1913. Her father, Lawrence B. Rukeyser, was a successful businessman, her mother, Myra Lyons Rukeyser, was a former bookkeeper. She grew up surrounded by skyscrapers, factories, tenements, and machinery. Muriel’s spare, functional poetry was to reflect this cold, manmade environment. She entered Vassar College in the fall of 1930, when she was only seventeen. Her main interests were literature and music. Later, she attended Columbia University, but did not receive a degree.
At Vassar, she served on the Vassar Review and the Vassar Miscellany News, the two major student publications. She also had poems published in Poetry and in the New York Herald Tribune. Like many intellectuals of her generation, she developed strong left-wing political views in college. Most of her early poetry, however, was of a strictly personal nature, and she continued to write about personal themes throughout her life. One of her outstanding characteristics as a writer was her tendency to project her personality into her subject matter.
Rukeyser admired poets such as John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman who wrote with the moralistic fervor of prophets. As a child, she told her father that she wanted to be “someone like Joan of Arc.” It was her belief that poets were inspired leaders whose mission was to encourage humankind to realize its highest potential. She did not believe that a poet should live in an ivory tower producing art for art’s sake but should be actively involved in worthy causes. As early as the age of nineteen, she caught typhoid fever while being held in a police station in Alabama, where she went to attend a protest meeting during the famous Scottsboro trial, in which eight young black men were convicted of raping two white women and sentenced to death.
Little is known about Rukeyser’s personal life except for the information she revealed through her poetry. She was married for a short time and had one child by a second man whom she did not choose to marry. Her poems suggest that she was unhappy as a child and remained so most of her life. She was always remarkably candid about expressing her personal feelings, and the following lines from a poem entitled “Effort at Speech Between Two People” are quite revealing:
When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,
I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping toward death:
if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,
if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.
I am unhappy. I am lonely. Speak to me.
Muriel Rukeyser’s life and writings were dominated by her anger at social injustice and her desire to change the world through political activism. Her career as a published poet began in 1935, when her work Theory of Flight was published by Yale University Press after winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. For the next forty years she produced a steady steam of poetry and translated poetry from French, German, Swedish, and Italian.
Rukeyser was a Marxist-inspired activist all of her life. As such, she aroused considirable hostility from conservative critics. Even after her death, attitudes toward her writing continued to be colored by readers’ political persuasions.
The following lines from “Facing Sentencing” reveal much about Rukeyser’s poetry and personality:
But fear is not to be feared
Numbness is To stand before my judge
Not knowing what I mean.
The indifference to orthodox punctuation, the gap in the second line indicating a pause similar to a rest in musical scoring, and the starkly prosaic diction exemplify her modernist technique; while the thought expressed represents the attitude she exhibited all of her life. She believed that a poet should be an activist, that poetry should be a way of life rather than a vocation or an avocation.
One of the most famous incidents in Rukeyser’s life occurred when she went to South Korea to protest the imprisonment of the poet Kim...
(The entire section is 1837 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Muriel Rukeyser was born on December 15, 1913, in New York City to Lawrence B. and Myra (Lyons) Rukeyser. Her father was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and cofounded a building business. Her mother was from Yonkers, New York. Muriel Rukeyser was brought up as the sheltered daughter of her affluent parents, spending time at yacht clubs, camps, and symphonies. Despite her privileged childhood, she grew up with a sense of the larger world: Her toddler years coincided with World War I, and she was a teenager when the stock market crashed in 1929. The activism of Rukeyser’s adult years was a complete rejection of her former protected existence.
Even as a child, Rukeyser wrote poems, although the only people she knew who read any poetry were servants. Rukeyser continued writing poetry during her high-school years, attempting to reconcile normal adolescent troubles with her feelings about the outrages in the newspaper headlines. The executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (two Italian immigrant anarchists convicted of murder and theft) in August, 1927, even after worldwide protest on their behalf, made a powerful impression on the adolescent Rukeyser.
After high school, Rukeyser attended Vassar College, Columbia University, and Roosevelt Aviation School. As she wrote in The Life of Poetry (1949), her “first day at college ended childhood.” She began to write the poems that would be published in her first book while cofounding (with Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, and Eleanor Clark) a literary magazine called Student Review to protest the policies of the established Vassar Review.
Rukeyser frequently contributed to Student Review; as part of this work, she drove to Alabama in 1932 to report on the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were accused of raping two white girls during the spring of 1931. Rukeyser viewed the resulting death sentence as evidence of a dual system of...
(The entire section is 847 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Rukeyser merged her personal vision with her political vision and wrote poems of remarkable intensity. Her work was so linked to current events that one critic claimed that the whole of twentieth century history could be learned by reading Rukeyser’s work. Though noted for her poems of social protest, Rukeyser also wrote deeply personal poems, incorporating such diverse elements as scientific language and mysticism, all in a unique lyrical, demanding style. One of her most unique traits was her optimism: While describing the injustices and the horrors of her times, Rukeyser usually was able to express faith in the potential of civilization, wonder at the beauty of the world, and love for humanity.
Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic career began early with the publication of Theory of Flight in the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1935. Her poetry reflected her intense personal passion, her call to freedom, and her search for justice. Readers may detect the influence of Walt Whitman in her sense of American identity as something all-embracing.
Rukeyser’s sense of personal responsibility and social protest may have been forged by her political experience. Two years before her first book of poetry was published, while covering the Scottsboro trials for Vassar College’s leftist Student Review, Rukeyser...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Muriel Rukeyser was born on December 15, 1913, in New York City, the daughter of Lawrence B. Rukeyser, a cofounder of Colonial Sand and Stone, and Myra Lyons, a former bookkeeper. Her childhood was a quiet one, her protected, affluent life a source of her insistence on experience and communication in her poetry. In The Life of Poetry (1949), she tells of recognizing the sheltered nature of her life: “A teacher asks: ’How many of you know any other road in the city except the road between home and school?’ I do not put up my hand. These are moments at which one begins to see.”
Rukeyser’s adult life was as eventful as her childhood was sheltered. In 1933, at age nineteen, she was arrested and caught...
(The entire section is 520 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The firstborn daughter of wealthy second-generation Jewish and politically conservative parents, Muriel Rukeyser (ROOK-iz-ur) attended Vassar College for two years (1930-1932); among her classmates were Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop. She left college for a more active and rebellious role as a journalist with marked communist sympathies. Her father literally disinherited her. At twenty she had decisively broken with her family; her career as a writer would be the pursuit of a tradition she could call her own.
Rukeyser covered the second Scottsboro trial in Decatur, Alabama, where she was briefly jailed. Although...
(The entire section is 717 words.)