August 21, 2013
Today, as Bradley Manning is sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents, I think about all the trials that shadowed American literature: Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Case, and, probably not so well-known, the Hawk’s Nest Incident in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, an industrial disaster resulting in an epidemic of silicosis among miners.
Muriel Rukeyser was 8 when the Italian-born anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, were convicted for murder during an armed robbery. Their names were etched into her earliest memory, like some “poem out of childhood” — “not Sappho, Sacco,” she wrote in her first poetry collection, Theory of Flight.
Also in that volume, she talks about the Scottsboro case, the 1931-32 trial and conviction of 9 black youths accused of rape. She had gone to Alabama as a 19-year-old to cover the case for Vassar’s Student Review, and in fact was arrested, along with several other journalists, during the second of the three retrials. The guilty verdict was returned all three times, but eventually the charges were dropped for 4 of the 9 defendants.
Rukeyser went to Gauley Bridge in 1936, interviewing miners, their wives and children, company employees, doctors, social workers, even including transcripts of congressional hearings in the choral structure that makes up “The Book of the Dead” — the voice of the community, it is true, but also the voice of that one person, sick, as ‘he leaves the doctor’s office, slammed door, doom, / any town looks like this one-street town.” The ancient Egyptian funerary texts have a modern, debased meaning here.
Poetry and journalism? Not often mentioned in the same breath. But why not?