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As a young reporter in 1936, Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona to witness the first days of the Spanish Civil War. She turned this experience into an autobiographical novel so forward thinking for its time that it was never published. Recently discovered in her archive, this lyrical work charts her political and sexual awakening as she witnesses the popular front resistance to the fascist coup and falls in love with a German political exile who joins the first international brigade.
Rukeyser's narrative is a modernist investigation into the psychology of violence, activism, and desire; a documentary text detailing the start of the war; and a testimony to those who fought and died for freedom and justice during the first major battle against European fascism.
Muriel Rukeyser (19131980) was a prolific American writer and political activist, influencing generations of poets including Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, and Alice Walker, to name a few. She wrote on the Scottsboro trial in Alabama, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnam War, and the imprisonment of poet Kim Chi-Ha in South Korea. She was one of the few modernist writers to champion social justice issues, showing the place of memory and feelings in politics. Rukeyser's centenary will be celebrated in 2013.
Rowena Kennedy-Epstein is a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“What a treasure! Muriel Rukeyser takes us back to those crucial days when Spain became the first international battleground against fascism and hope for democracy, to tell a powerful story of personal, sexual, and political awakening. Savage Coast is bound to be an instant classic.”—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
“Muriel Rukeyser’s stature as a major poet was recognized in the 1980s largely through the work of feminist writers and critics. Now, the research of a younger critic Rowena Kennedy-Epstein brings us Rukeyser’s modernist novel of the Spanish Civil War’s beginning. Rooted in a germinal moment of the poet's life, its acute social and political observations weave the bildungsroman of a young American woman in Europe at a vital historical moment.”—Marilyn Hacker
“Savage Coast is an astonishing book, too long lost, now a treasure for historians of the Spanish Civil War, equally a pouch of rubies for poets. Rukeyser captures the intensity of the moment—personal, political, and still contemporary.”—Peter N. Carroll, author of The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
“Muriel Rukeyser spoke of Spain as the place where she began to say what she believed. At the time, Hemingway’s and Orwell’s male-centered blood and guts novels were greedily devoured, while a woman writing a sexually explicit, gender truthful and politically radical narrative against a background of war was inevitably ignored. Spain changed Rukeyser and her protagonist, Helen. This novel will change the reader. An extraordinary gift!”—Margaret Randall, author of To Change the World: My Years in Cuba
"Savage Coast now joins the lost brother and sisterhood of Spanish Civil War classics, from Arthur Koestler's Dialogue with Death, the desolate modernist novels of the Catalan writer Merce Rodereda, Andre Malraux's Man's Hope, Josephine Herbst's The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, and the reportage of Martha Gellhorn. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein has rescued and edited a great story. Helen and Otto are not Emma and Sasha, nor are they Karl and Rosa, but the American radical poet who tells her story speaks to all of us.”—Jane Marcus, Distinguished Professor of English and Women's Studies, CUNY Graduate Center and the City College of New York
"Rejected by her publisher in 1937, poet Rukeyser’s newly discovered autobiographical novel is both an absorbing read and an important contribution to 20th-century history. Rukeyser had already won the coveted Yale Younger Poets award when she traveled to Spain in 1936 as a journalist, to cover the ill-fated People’s Olympiad, a protest against the Olympics in Nazi-era Berlin. Her firsthand observations of the cataclysmic start of Spain’s Civil War, as seen through the eyes of her protagonist, a journalist named Helen, reflect the chaos, privation, and horror of the conflict’s early days with authentic detail. Helen is on a train that is forced to stop at the small Spanish town of Moncada, where soldiers come aboard. She becomes acquainted with most of the other passengers, a polyglot group of differing political sympathies. Her aroused political consciousness is augmented by a brief love affair with an antifascist German athlete, and they have a few days together once the group arrives in Barcelona. Throughout the narrative Helen reflects Rukeyser’s attempts to surmount her own emotional crises, articulating her need for a life of political action and expression. Ironically, the factors that led to the novel’s rejection—Rukeyser’s avant-garde impressionistic prose style, alternating with realistic scenes of brutal death and a few descriptions of sexual congress—are what make the book appealing today. While initially suspenseful, some longueurs intrude when Rukeyser attempts to cover nearly every hour of Helen’s five-day ordeal. Since the novel was left unfinished, albeit with Rukeyser’s notes regarding the chapters she intended to expand and edit, readers are not likely to cavil over its shortcomings, applauding instead her documentation of a crucial moment in history."—Publisher's Weekly
Posted June 20, 2013
It's rare to stumble upon an old work that carries a freshness to it; the story is dated decades, but the style carries a contemporary voice. Yet that very much describes Savage Coast. In Rukeyser's novel, she places her female protagonist in Spain near the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The political and emotional climates are therefore tense. But the story does not focus on the war. Instead, the plot follows Helen - the central character - through personal awakenings. Rukeyser's prose is beautifully crafted and genuine, easing the reader along with Helen. We meet Hans, the German athlete with whom Helen begins a romantic relationship. We meet Peter and Olive, train companions.
The characters meet aboard this train, immediately placing the story within the context of motion: moving forward, progressing, advancing. And yet ironically, for the majority of the novel, the train is stationary. Instead, their personal and social stories carry the momentum.
"As she shut her eyes, knowing the train lay dead in a dead station, she felt a powerful muscular motion around her: the train, the secret hills, the country, the whole world of war rushing down the tracks, headfirst in conflict like a sea, unshakable, the momentum adding until the need burst through all other barriers" (78).
The social climate is changing, and by grounding the story with the train, Rukeyser reminds the reader. Europe is ripping apart by the seams: the Nationalist movement in Spain mirrors the Fascism to the East. Rukeyser carefully weaves the universality of the conflict into Helen's encounters. She repeatedly struggles against language barriers, searching to express herself. And yet, since many of the other characters are struggling with the same issue, Helen perseveres. When the characters cross paths, they cross stories. Share stories. Rukeyser's gentle commentary on the power of unspoken language is gorgeous.
"They shook hands with a smiling curious intensity, trying to find language in that touch" (76).
The characters are searching, finding, probing. Ultimately, they're moving - not physically, but emotionally. And within this emotional climate, Helen is grasping for her own agency.
Rukeyser crafts a truly gorgeous novel, a blending of poetry and prose that reflects the unstable Spanish climate in the 1930s. As Rowena Kennedy-Epstein notes in the book's Introduction, "Rukeyser situates her female protagonist as the mediator, narrator, and embodiment of a changing twentieth-century political landscape." Rukeyser dances with the plot in this way: Helen's individual story line reflects outwardly. Built with poetic language, Rukeyser ensures that nothing is simple. Everything is changing. And from this "powerful muscular motion," Helen - carrying the reader in tow - travels along the "savage coast."