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 American justice, which discriminated against the poor and the nonwhite. While in Alabama, Rukeyser...
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