“Presumption” and “Unlearning”: Reading Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” as a Woman’s American Epic

Jenny GoodmanColorado State University
Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2006), 267-289

Arguing that the modernist epic poem is often regarded as a masculine form of expression, this article describes the ways in which Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” attempts to authorize women as writers, speakers, and subjects of epic poetry by appropriating the voices of three historical women (a poor mother, a social worker, and Rukeyser’s own poetic voice), who provide commentary on their personal experiences during the silicosis disaster at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Rukeyser’s attention to experience and the women’s individual acts of witnessing allow her to demonstrate how each of them, including Rukeyser herself, resists or exceeds the roles available to them in 1930s America, at the same time trying to locate and create a usable female history that underscores women’s social and cultural authority.


Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]