“What are stories for?” my four-year-old son asks me before bedtime, eight weeks into our shelter-in-place experience. He spends his days dreaming up adventures for his stuffed animals and building elaborate cardboard box contraptions. It has been hard for him to leave his beloved preschool and the schedule he depended on, but this imaginary play insulates him against the disorder.
“We were a generation of grim children,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser in her unforgettable poem, “Out of Childhood.” She was born December 15, 1913, one year before World War I tore the globe apart. When she was the exact same age as my son, the 1918 influenza pandemic swept the globe, killing millions. I keep returning to “Out of Childhood” during our COVID-19 crisis, haunted by her memory of the parades that marked the end of World War I and the beginning of the deadly pandemic. She wrote:
“leaning over the bedroom sills, watching
the music and the shoulders and how the war was over,
laughing until the blow on the mouth broke night
wide out from cover.”
Rukeyser’s generation endured a dizzying series of catastrophes; as soon as one had ended, another would appear with stinging suddenness. Now, her work can help us to understand our own turbulent times, and the reshaping of our future from these colossal events.
Rukeyser wrote her “Poem Out of Childhood” in 1935, as a twenty-one-year-old poetry prodigy who had to drop out of Vassar College after only two years of classes. She had lived a fairly privileged life in New York City after World War I, but the economic collapse of 1929 upended her family’s fortunes and ended her college career early. Along with childhood memories, the poem describes how her generation wandered through an economic landscape of shuttered factories, idled conveyor belts, and boarded up utility companies, listening “for the affirmative clap of truth.” More than forty-five million Americans have filed for unemployment in 2020, all of them waiting for acknowledgement and leadership, just like those unemployed in Rukeyser’s generation. Young people in 1935 and 2020 desperately want to work and, through that occupation, find a sense of purpose. That “affirmative clap of truth” would help guide them into adulthood, but it has been silenced by the isolation of unemployment.
As she took her first steps into adulthood, Rukeyser saw many people around her overwhelmed by sadness and pain. Throughout all this anguish, Rukeyser held faith in art and compassion and the hope that they offered. She persevered throughout her long writing career, because she believed in what she once described as “a sense of human possibility that would not let us rest in defeat ever.”
She persevered throughout her long writing career, because she believed in what she once described as “a sense of human possibility that would not let us rest in defeat ever.”
After college, Rukeyser began to travel and write the stories of vulnerable populations. She used the combined tools of journalism and poetry to retell the narratives of hundreds of people harmed by economic injustice and fascism. She traveled to Alabama, writing about the trial of nine African American young men falsely accused of rape; to West Virginia, where she recorded testimony from a mining community sickened by one company’s negligence; to Spain, where she witnessed the Spanish Civil War transform an entire country in a matter of hours. During World War II she combated the rise of antisemitism and fascism, by working for the Office of War Information.
Throughout these tumultuous decades, Rukeyser held fast to her Jewish heritage. “Once one’s responsibility as a Jew is really assumed, one is guaranteed, not only against fascism, but against many kinds of temptation to close the spirit,” she wrote in 1944 for a literary symposium sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. “It is a strong force in oneself against many kinds of hardness which may arrive in the war,” she concluded, resolute at one of the darkest moments in history.
Rukeyser harnessed that strong force inside herself, forging individual tragedies into powerful new narratives — always looking beyond the dark moment to a more civilized future. Her work also wrestled with a lifetime of personal struggles. Rukeyser’s lover died while fighting in the Spanish Civil War; her family disinherited her as she raised her son as single mother; the FBI hounded her for her political beliefs; and she suffered a stroke and ongoing health problems toward the end of her life. “In art, of course, the mysticism of success and failure will not hold,” she wrote, describing her artistic process, “One works on oneself; one writes the poem, makes the movie, paints; and one is changed in the process.” Those words bring me a bit of comfort as we confront our own epochal uncertainty.
Faced with a different set of challenges, the anxiety of our present moment will linger in my son’s mind the rest of his life, a childhood jangled by bad news.
Faced with a different set of challenges, the anxiety of our present moment will linger in my son’s mind the rest of his life, a childhood jangled by bad news. “What are stories for?” he asked me, and Rukeyser offered one answer in “The Speed of Darkness.” She published this poem in 1968, far from the turmoil of her early life, illuminating the core idea that helped her endure those tough decades. “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” Rukeyser wrote. From an early age, she learned how to weave together fractured elements of her life and moments in history into a more meaningful whole.
In her essay for the American Jewish Committee, she put it another way: “To live as poet, woman, American, and Jew-this chalks in my identity. If the four come together in one person, each strengthens the others.” Throughout her magnificent body of work, Rukeyser showed us how to use stories — the fundamental building blocks of personal identity — to rewrite our lives. Through this process, she found a lifelong sense of possibility that defeated despair.
That is what stories are for.
Jason Boog is the west coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly and the author of The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today. His writing has been featured on NPR and in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, and Salon. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Boog lives in California with his wife and daughter. Visit him at JasonBoog.com.