I first read Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" in a college creative writing class, we were learning about how flexible the poetic medium can be and Rukeyser's poetic nonfiction, building a narrative of beauty and desolation using official court transcripts from the Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster, stayed with me. Shortly put, the Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster (1930-1935) was the greatest industrial catastrophe in American history, causing an estimated 700-1000 migrant worker deaths by silicosis in an effort to divert a portion of the New River under a mountain through a 3-mile tunnel. In this new edition, which includes an excellent introduction by Catherine Venable Moore (I recommend reading it as the intro, and after you've finished the book), the power of history and poetry attempt to unveil and make known a truth that has been overgrown with time and prejudice. "Knowledge is power", as they say, and Book of the Dead pulses with it as a haunted beacon of truth, a pinprick of light shining through the shrouded history of our country.
Written in response to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931 in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, The Book of the Dead is an important part of West Virginia’s cultural heritage and a powerful account of one of the worst industrial catastrophes in American history. The poems collected here investigate the roots of a tragedy that killed hundreds of workers, most of them African American. They are a rare engagement with the overlap between race and environment in Appalachia. Published for the first time alongside photographs by Nancy Naumburg, who accompanied Rukeyser to Gauley Bridge in 1936, this edition of The Book of the Dead includes an introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, whose writing on the topic has been anthologized in Best American Essays.
About the Author
Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) was a prolific American writer and political activist. In 1935 her first collection of poetry, Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and she went on to publish twelve more volumes of poetry. She received a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Levinson Prize for Poetry, and the Shelley Memorial Award, among other accolades. Rukeyser’s writing consistently emphasized and utilized cinematic and graphic techniques, and she explored various connections between the visual and literary aspects of art. She originally intended The Book of the Dead to be published with multiple photos by Naumburg.
Catherine Venable Moore is a writer and producer in Fayette County, West Virginia. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Montana, Moore is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, the Highlander Center, the West Virginia Humanities Council, and others. Her nonfiction has recently appeared in Best American Essays, Oxford American, VICE, Columbia Journalism Review, and Yes! She is also an honorary member of the United Mine Workers of America. Currently, she is at work on a collection of essays.
"Innovative, gorgeous, and deeply moving." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“If Rukeyser had left us only The Book of the Dead and The Life of Poetry, she would have made a remarkable contribution to American literature. But the range and daring of her work, its generosity of vision, its formal innovations, and its level of energy are unequalled among twentieth-century American poets.” —Adrienne Rich, introduction to Muriel Rukeyser, Selected Poems
“Muriel Rukeyser’s words are a painful, haunting memorial to an American crime. Catherine Venable Moore’s graceful essay sets the work in its time and place, and ties it to today’s struggles.” —Jedediah Purdy, author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene