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Recovering Muriel Rukeyser’s Only Novel, Savage Coast
Over at the Paris Review Daily, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, editor of Muriel Rukeyser’s only novel Savage Coast, talks about her recovering of the book, which has just been published by the Feminist Press but for many years was buried in draft form in Rukeyser’s Library of Congress archives. After a solid biographical turn, Kennedy-Epstein writes of Savage Coast:
And then, there is the one remaining draft of the novel Savage Coast, the pages yellowing, the revisions heavy, at times burdensome, a rejection letter hovering above the first pages. Written immediately upon her return from Spain in the autumn of 1936, the novel remained unpublished in her lifetime. It was brutally panned in her publisher’s rejection letter, from 1937, for being, among other things, “BAD” and “a waste of time,” with a protagonist who is “too abnormal for us to respect.” Rukeyser was strongly encouraged to abandon the novel for a “brief impressionistic sketch” of her experience in Spain and to continue working on her poetry. This is to say, the first critics of Savage Coast discouraged Rukeyser from writing the kind of large-scale, developmental, hybrid, modernist war narrative that she had begun—one that is sexually explicit, symbolically complex, politically radical, and aesthetically experimental—in favor of the gender-appropriate lyric poetry of her first book and the brevity of “small” personal narratives.
The rejection of the novel highlights the constraints and expectations of women’s writing in the thirties and forties, when women were often lauded for their smallness and modesty, for writing work that, as Louise Bogan recommended, “concerned itself with minute particulars.” The rejection also demonstrates how the contemporary reader found the hybridity of such a work illegible, particularly the gender transgression implicit in its intertwining of the quest narrative, the romantic plot, the radical documentary, and the epic impulse. Despite this criticism, Rukeyser would never return to the more traditional lyricism of her early work, and she did not abandon the novel; she continued to edit the manuscript, working on it throughout the war, editing and rewriting with an eye, I imagine, toward us, her future readers. I don’t know when she stopped working on the novel entirely, but it was eventually misfiled, left on the outermost edge of the archive, under the heading “Miscellany.”
The discovery and publication of Savage Coast is significant, not only because, as Rukeyser’s large body of work on Spain attests, the Spanish Civil War was an essential part of her poetic and political development, but also because it also provides us with new perspectives on the literature of the period. Written long before Orwell’s or Hemingway’s major texts on the Spanish Civil War—at one point she editorializes, “Hemingway doesn’t know beans about Spain”—Savage Coast is only one of a handful of novels by foreign women on the subject and gives us a more complex understanding of how women positioned themselves within historical and cultural processes, offering a unique view of the political, artistic, and intellectual networks that shaped early twentieth-century global solidarities.
A significant literary event indeed! Order it here.