Gauley Bridge, WV’s Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster and the Proto-Environmental Justice Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser

by Corey D Clawson

Site Description:

In the years preceding the Great Depression, a project rerouting the New River was developed in order to generate electricity through a planned hydroelectric dam. Construction firm Rinehart & Dennis was tasked with boring a three-mile tunnel through a mountain and employed roughly 3,000 workers starting in 1927 including a large proportion of African American men.  When workers encountered a silica deposit on the tunnel’s path, the company forged on with the project and workers, who weren’t provided any protection, contracted the lung disease silicosis and died in large numbers. Muriel Rukeyser, who had previously covered the “Scottsboro Boys” trial and been involved in leftist New Deal politics and film editing, arrived with photographer Nancy Naumberg in 1936 with plans to document the impact of the disaster on the workers as a photo essay and documentary film. Ultimately, Naumberg abandoned the project and Rukeyser developed the work into a series of poems she titled The Book of the Dead.  This project will consider how the poet engages with issues of labor and environmental justice, employing her documentarian style to record the consequences of the disaster while highlighting racial and labor injustice.  It will also consider the significance of the author’s closeted sexuality in this distant yet intimate approach. Ultimately, this project will offer a greater understanding of how the poet anticipated the environmental justice movement and the significance of artistic engagement in this movement.

Author Biography:

Corey D Clawson is a PhD student in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.  His research examines queer writers and artists of the 20th century.  His digital humanities project, archivepelago.org, uses archival finding aids to visualize networks of queer artistic influence. 

Final Report:

Langston Hughes landed in a Los Angeles of his own creation. The city he recounted following his 1946 visit exists today only as a refraction from a historical mirror, or as a mirage shimmering against the carcinogenic contemporary landscape. It existed at one point, and also did not exist at all. He wrote to the readers of the Chicago Defender that “the street-cars are crowded…and almost everybody has a little yard with a flower or two and a little spot of grass growing in it.”[1] This landscape did, at one time, exist. The postwar metropolis was economically booming but not overcrowded, a place where open space and urban bustle could coexist. However, any visitor to contemporary Los Angeles would know that the streetcars have since vanished and that the space he admired has been gobbled up by developments of every variety. His account also dabbled in the fantastical. “Race prejudice is nothing like it is in the South or Middle West…There is no dirty coal smoke in the air,” he declared to a nation familiar with hearing such myths about life in California. Both of these statements were beyond exaggerations. Los Angeles was a land as mired in racism as any other, and even Spanish colonial voyages referred to the region as “The Valley of Smoke,” likely because the region’s mountains create an inversion layer that naturally traps particulate matter in the air.[2] 

Bursting forth in the middle of Langston Hughes’s account is his description of a neighborhood he calls “Blueberry Hill.” “Out on Blueberry Hill, that seems well on the road to being renamed Sugar Hill after Harlem’s upper section, there are the most beautiful Negro homes I have ever seen.”[3] Indeed, the enclave he described would go on to become known as Sugar Hill, the wealthiest section of a neighborhood in Central Los Angeles called West Adams. Hughes goes on to list the names of many prominent Black residents such as insurance mogul Norman O. Houston and actress Hattie McDaniel, both of whom lived in what was soon to become “Sugar Hill,” and marvels at the opulence of their homes. Considering the neighborhood’s national prominence as a place of residence for wealthy Black urbanites, Hughes’s fixation with West Adams Heights was no surprise.[4] In the great poet’s account, “Blueberry Hill” stands in as an alluring symbol for all that Black Americans could achieve in California’s land of unparalleled opportunity. Sugar Hill is metonym for all that is possible. 

In contemporary Los Angeles, West Adams remains the subject of local legend and urban lore, but it has come to occupy a different type of mythic space than it did for Langston Hughes. Now bisected by the Santa Monica Freeway, or Interstate 10, the public memory of the neighborhood’s past floats like a specter haunting Angeleno urban discourse. Despite the fact that it remains a thriving enclave in central L.A., many locals know the neighborhood as a site of rupture and displacement from when it was torn in half by the freeway’s arrival. Elegant craftsman homes remain but now appear out of place bordering the concrete ravine carved out by highway developers in the late 1950s. The houses’ genteel frames and large lots tell the story of a neighborhood forever changed and stand in direct tension with the vehicular fortress of the interstate. Many of the most impressive homes are gone forever. 

West Adams, a neighborhood of celebrated architectural and social renown, is equally well known as a site of tension and resistance. In the 1940s, Black Sugar Hill residents defended their right to remain in the neighborhood by working to legally overturn racially restrictive covenants that sought to push them out. This conflict solidified West Adams as a trailblazing site of Black American fortitude and fearlessness, but the fruits of the victory were short-lived. When highway planners plotted the course of the Olympic Freeway through the heart of West Adams, residents fought back but were unable to deter the freeway’s progress. As Jennifer Mandel writes in her brilliant dissertation, “Making a Black Beverly Hills,” Black Angelenos “gained the legal protection to live in desirable areas, but they could not end racism, prevent white flight, or persuade white policymakers to respect the value of their communities.”[5]   

This paper tells a social history that considers the tension between the determination and fortitude of West Adams’s Black community and the powerful forces of structural change that shape the urban environment. How, for example, does Sugar Hill residents’ successful fight against restrictive covenants inform our understanding of their resolute but unsuccessful fight against the arrival of the freeway? What were the origins of the decision to route the freeway through West Adams, and how did its eventual construction impact the neighborhood both socioeconomically and environmentally? Finally, how does West Adams’s history speak to broader discourses in urban and environmental history, especially those historiographies concerned with the fate of Black neighborhoods facing changes in the built environment? Sugar Hill residents’ successful and unprecedented legal battle against restrictive covenants demonstrates that West Adams was far from an easy target for highway planners. But, despite the neighborhood’s long history of organized resistance, the twin forces of highway boosterism and structural racism propelled the Olympic Freeway through West Adams, saddling the community with the dual burdens of worsening environmental conditions and increasing economic marginalization. 

Primary Sources:

Investigation Relating to Health Conditions of Workers Employed in the Construction and Maintenance of Public Utilities. Congressional Hearing, Jan. 16, 17, 20-22, 27-29, Feb. 4, 1936. 1936. https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-1936-lah-0001?accountid=13626

This congressional proceeding discusses some of the investigation into the Hawk’s Nest disaster at Gauley Bridge, particularly the dangers of silica and how the mining company could have mitigated the damage on its workers’ lungs.  This documentation offers some insight into the structures responsible for regulation of the industry as well as the government response to the disaster.  The proceedings and the results might also offer insight into how race was or wasn’t a factor in the government’s response or lack thereof.

 

Naumburg, Nancy. Apr. 18, 1932-Aug. 24, 1935. Letters to Muriel Rukeyser in “Muriel Rukeyser collection of papers” at New York Public Library.

Given the chance to review these letters, I would gain a greater understanding of the nature of Naumburg and Rukeyser’s relationship.  The letters, dated in the years preceding the publication of Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, would likely contain details about the project as the two had envisioned it before abandoning their collaboration. Such details would help us understand how the women framed the project prior to their arrival in the area in 1936.

 

Rukeyser, Muriel. 2018. “Map of Gauley Bridge & Environs,” Nancy Naumburg photos, and “Employees of Rinehart & Dennis Company and Camp Followers Who Died in West Virginia April 1930-December 1935” from The Book of the Dead with an Introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, 1, 5, 22, 25, 54-55. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

This 2018 edition of the The Book of the Dead was released with a map of the area drawn by Muriel Rukeyser in the years preceding the original publication of the set of poems.  The illustration features the natural landscape of trees and rivers as well as man-made structures including the bridges, factories, and the tunnel where the Hawk’s Nest disaster took place. The illustration and accompanying notes, I believe, help us understand the collage approach that the poet takes with poems set across the community during and after the disaster.  This edition also includes photography by Nancy Naumburg (Rukeyser’s early collaborator on the project) that Sarah Grieve and other scholars thought were lost to history (969).  The list of names included in this edition draws on the project Hawk’s Nest Names (hawksnestnames.org), which attempts to catalog the mortal impact of the disaster by naming the workers and sharing related documents, emulating Black Lives Matter and transgender activist practices of naming victims of marginalized communities in order to restore humanity and put a spotlight on injustice and the systems that produce it.  Together, these documents offer greater context for the collaborative project that Rukeyser had in mind.

 

Rukeyser, Muriel. 2006. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, edited by  Janet E. Kaufman, Anne F. Herzog, and Jan Heller Levi. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

In order to approach questions of racial and environmental injustice in Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, an important place to start is her poetry.  Reviewing the collected works will provide a greater understanding of how this set of poems is situated within her oeuvre as we consider how her poetry engages with questions of race, labor, nature and the body over the course of her career.  As a study in Rukeyser’s approach to environmental justice and racism, it is important to base the argument in a close reading of this set of poems.

 

“TO HOLD SILICOSIS INQUIRY: HOUSE LABOR GROUP ORDERS INVESTIGATION OF TUNNEL DEATHS.” 1936.New York Times (1923-), Jan 15, 21.

This New York Times story reveals a bit about how the story was covered in one of the largest papers at the time.  First, it reveals what was understood about silicosis at the time, calling it “a lung ailment contracted from breathing powdered silica.” The announcement of an inquiry being ordered by the US House is located on page 21, indicating that the investigation did not draw significant attention on the national level.  

 

White, Evelyn C. 2004. Alice Walker: A Life. United Kingdom: Norton.

This biography on poet Alice Walker includes a chapter dedicated to examining her relationship with Rukeyser, who was her professor and mentor at Sarah Lawrence and also helped the poet find a literary agent (albeit without her consent). The book, a product of several interviews with Walker, offers insight into Rukeyser’s influence on the younger poet as well as her poetic praxis and how her poetry and politics inform one another.  In the words of Walker “What I learned from Muriel is that poetry, done well, is always about the truth; that it is subversive; that you can’t shut up and that it stays…. She taught me that it was possible to be passionate about writing and to live in the world on my own terms” (109). 

 

 

Primary source #2: Analysis

For a biography about a completely different poet, Evelyn C. White’s Alice Walker: A Life offers significant insights on the legacy of Muriel Rukeyser who mentored Walker in her time as a professor at Sarah Lawrence.  As the book considers how Walker became the formidable poet who we recognize today as part of an important generation of queer feminist writers emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, it turns to Rukeyser as a major influence as a poet concerned with issues of justice, gender, sexuality, and race.  The book, based upon interviews with Walker and others (as well as letters and other contemporaneous accounts), offers insight into Rukeyser’s political and poetic legacy (as well as their complicated interpersonal relationship) through the words of her student but also reveals the limits of her perspective in her artistic/political projects.

Walker characterizes Rukeyser’s contribution to her career as a foundational understanding of poetry: “What I learned from Muriel is that poetry, done well, is always about the truth; that it is subversive; that you can’t shut up and that it stays…. She taught me that it was possible to be passionate about writing and to live in the world on my own terms” (109). Walker’s own writing tackling issues of race, feminism, and reproductive rights is rooted in these notions of speaking truth when it is subversive and using one’s voice to convey truths that might not be well-received. Rukeyser championed Walker’s early work, which would later become her first poetry collection Once with poetry illustrating US racism and her own suicidal ideation, soliciting the work of her student (slipped under Rukeyser’s on-campus cottage door day and night) to an agent without Walker’s knowledge. Rukeyser’s attention to racial injustice with her early writings on Scottsboro and the Hawk’s Nest disaster are a significant factor in Rukeyser’s affinity for Walker’s work, which she recognized as part of a related artistic and political project.  Walker noted that Rukeyser “showed me that for real people, poetry was as necessary as bread,” suggesting that the political motivations of their writings were an essential way for them to address hate and injustice in order to bring about change (109).  This passion was perhaps also a point of contention.  As Walker emerged and went on to write The Color Purple, resentment emerged over Rukeyser’s need to be thanked.  Walker wrote in a letter to her mentor “there is in me—for better or worse—an absolute hatred of having to feel beholden to anyone…. Have you ever considered how like a beggar I felt those days when all of you were ‘helping’ me? How it felt to have absolutely nothing? To depend on people who had no concept of poverty that they did not get from visits to it?” (273). This passage reveals a blindspot in Rukeyser’s relationship with her student, a skew in power dynamics that the poet wasn’t cognizant of.  Though her championing of Walker and her social justice work undertaken in her writing were likely based in good intentions, this passage reminds us to keep in mind Rukeyser’s relative place of privilege as an outsider writing about the Hawk’s Nest disaster.  Rukeyser pursued her artistic/political project and could leave; however, those affected by the disaster were not afforded the same sense of mobility and ultimately stuck in their circumstances.  

Secondary Sources:

Alaimo, Stacy. 2010. “Eros and X-rays: Bodies, Class, and ‘Environmental Justice’” in Bodily Natures : Science, Environment, and the Material Self, 27-59. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

In this chapter, Alaimo explores how Muriel Rukeyser and Meridel Le Sueur (another 20th century writer with environmental concerns) “construct radically different relations between working-class bodies and the environment,” focusing on Rukeyser’s description of x-rays to reveal the impact of silica exposure upon the miners’ bodies (22). Her discussion of the degradation of the human body via silica exposure is useful to understanding Rukeyser’s treatment and poetic strategies, particularly as they relate to illustrating the corporeal consequences of silica.  Alaimo’s discussion elaborates a framework of apathy and unresponsiveness to the disaster within the political and social spheres that could be reframed in terms of systemic environmental racism. These environments — natural, political, industrial — in which humans live, produce what she describes as “trans-corporeal” effects such as the silicosis.  This intervention of the “trans-corporeal” might also prove productive when combined with frameworks of systemic environmental racism.

 

Cherniack, Martin. 1986. The Hawk’s Nest Incident : America’s Worst Industrial Disaster. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cherniak, a physician and public health historian, presents this history of the disaster drawing upon oral history interviews, court documents, and contemporary scientific work detailing new understandings of silica exposure.  The historian argues that not only were the corporations involved in constructing the tunnel aware of the dangers posed by this exposure, they indeed went ahead and sacrificed their workers’ lives.  This work offers estimates of the impact of these decisions by considering the death toll of the disaster.  Because this work is not centered on the work of Muriel Rukeyser, it provides a counterpoint to the other works listed here with its focus on the medical and scientific history of the disaster.  It grounds the project in key understandings of the relationship of Union Carbide with its workers, their disregard for their safety, and the ways that the company as well as the legal system failed these workers.  This work will be foundational in illustrating the systemic racism at play in this incident and its aftermath.

 

Dayton, Tim. 2003. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

This book-length examination of Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead relies upon a Marxist framework to consider the poet’s relationship to 1930s leftist politics and how it shaped the set of poems.  The book provides useful context for understanding the poet’s participation in political movements while making the case for its significance in “the leftist tradition in modern poetry” and its illustration of the “interrelation of horror and hope” in its era (1, 4).  This work arguably laid some foundation for the work of Stacy Alaimo and Sarah Grieve who discuss Rukeyser’s poetry in terms of environmental justice.  The contexts that Dayton describes will be useful in situating the poem within the historical movements in which the poet participated, particularly her relationship with the Spanish Civil War and the Communist Party in the US. Dayton also provides a useful summary of the incident leading to Rukeyser’s poetic intervention as well as reception of The Book of the Dead.   Dayton’s work illustrating the contexts of Rukeyser’s political understanding is incredibly valuable, but seems to gloss over her coverage of the Scottsboro trials, which I think may be a formative moment very much related to her exploration of environmental racism in The Book of the Dead.

 

Grieve, Sarah. 2019. “Environmental Justice Witnessing in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 26 (4): 968–85.

Grieve examines Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead as a work of environmental justice literature, positioning the poet as a secondary witness, “a witness who through careful research and observation bears witness to injustices she does not experience herself,” (969).  The article, a revised chapter of Grieve’s dissertation, emphasizes the ways that Rukeyser’s poetic techniques (e.g., homophony, metonymy, repetition, etc.).  As secondary witness, Grieves argues Rukeyser is able to examine the personal trauma of the miners and their families while also paying attention to the trauma inflicted upon the land and the non-human animal victims of the disaster.  Grieve’s article and her readings of poems in Rukeyser’s collection is useful for understanding some of the strategies the poet uses to portray the trauma of the disaster. Grieve touches on the issues of race a few times in the article, so it may be possible for me to complement this work by focusing on environmental racism and on Rukeyser’s trajectory from covering the Scottsboro trial to her artistic project on the Hawks Nest disaster.  Rukeyser’s collaboration with Nancy Naumberg and plans to develop a leftist documentary film based upon the disaster are also potential points to focus on in this history while complementing Grieve’s reading of a camera featured in one of the poems.

 

Kennedy-Epstein, Rowena. 2022. Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century. United States: Cornell University Press.

This book won’t be released until March 15, 2022, but its focus on projects of Rukeyser’s that were not completed may offer insight into the filmic/photographic collaboration that the poet hoped to produce with Nancy Nauberg. Kennedy-Epstein’s focus on the misogynistic barriers in publishing may also be at play here, potentially illuminating the systemic bias that the poet experienced while using her work to consider social struggles regarding race, class, and labor.  Understanding the poet’s struggles as a lefitst, as a bisexual, and as a single mother could potentially explain her own interest in the Hawks Nest disaster as well as the bias and social systems that produced it.

 

Image Analysis:

In 2018, a new edition of The Book of the Dead was issued by West Virginia University Press following many years out of print and features recently recovered images related to the conception of Rukeyser’s poem. This edition included an introductory essay by Catherine Venable Moore and a list of miners who died of complications stemming from their exposure to silica in the mine. With her introductory essay, Moore shares a set of unearthed archival images including three of Nancy Naumburg’s photographs from her time collaborating on the project with Rukeyser in 1936. Also reproduced in this edition is a hand drawn map of the area drawn by the poet. Together, these images provide insight into the collaboration that Rukeyser and Naumburg had initially envisioned before The Book of the Dead took shape. Their images center the communities impacted by the Union Carbide’s tunnel disaster and gestures toward the losses within those communities and, to a lesser extent, its impact on the natural world. 

“Gauley Bridge & Environs,” paper map by Muriel Rukeyser, 1936, Library of Congress

Rukeyser’s map bears the title “Gauley Bridge & Environs” and is dated 1936 followed by the poet’s initials, perhaps indicating her identification as an artist or at least the significance of the work documenting the horrors of the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster.  Moore located the map among a collection of the poet’s papers held by the Library of Congress and her introductory essay uses the map to explore the area 80 years later. The decades-old map shows its age in this reproduction which captures the original’s disintegration along its crease and edges.  This fold potentially indicates that the map was likely tucked away as part of the poet’s process—her notes on the project—and not intended for display.  Although no clues as to the circumstances of its production seem to have survived, one could imagine the two women sitting down over lunch, sketching out the terrain, and discussing their collaboration. A drawing of their car on the left hand side, possibly a 1929 Packard sedan, stands out on the map in terms of detail and scale and performs the function of placing them as outsiders in this rural community conscious of their status as outsiders. As outsiders, it is understandable that Rukeyser’s drawing doesn’t map perfectly onto the landscape as captured by 21st century satellite imaging.  The map isn’t to scale and certain elements of the map don’t align: the names of the New and Kanawha rivers seem to be swapped and Rukeyser’s cardinal directions seem off by about ninety degrees.  Click on the image below to view a slider to compare Rukeyser’s map and a modern-day map of the area.  At the very least, the 1936 map is a window into the artistic and documentary project offering clues into what Rukeyser (and perhaps Naumburg as well) considered the landmarks of this terrain and the boundaries of their investigation, which stop at the page’s edge.

Slider image of Rukeyser’s map imposed on a Google Map of the same area.  Click to interact.  Made with JuxtaposeJS.

The tunnel, the main site of the industrial disaster, is tucked away in the top right corner of the map, leaving the communities and the natural landscape at the center of this sketch.  On the opposite side of these communities sits a tiny factory spewing out smoke labeled “Alloy,” suggesting that Rukeyser has observed that these towns are surrounded or dominated by industry and impacted by the consequences of their toxins and labor practices. In the middle of the map sits an intersection of three rivers New River, Kanawha River, and the Gauley River. Clearly the tunnel is a key part of this investigation as the source of the toxins slowly killing the miners. It is labeled with a distance of “3 ½ miles” as well as markers indicating the dams infrastructure set up on the water’s route (likely compressed to fit on the page); however, it makes up only a small stretch of the map in comparison to the expanses of the natural and human worlds occupying the rest of the area. The banks of the rivers are lined with cartoonish trees, but also various landmarks from the area: towns like Vanetta and Gamoca, the home of Mrs. Jones, a country road weaving back and forth across a creek flowing into the Gauley River.  These landmarks correspond to those featured in Rukeyser’s poetry and Naumburg’s photos.  Two of Naumburg’s photos are identified as scenes from Vanetta (a shot of the town adjacent to the railroad tracks, and the kitchen of George Robinson, one of the miners whose testimony is featured in the poem), and as Moore notes, Mrs. Jones is introduced in “Praise of the Committee” and identified as having “three lost sons, husband sick” (14). The locations on this map presage the mosaic of perspectives and testimonies that would become The Book of the Dead: scenes from the tunnel disaster, the destruction of families and communities, toxic industry ambivalent to workers’ health and safety.

Hawks Nest Dam, 1936, Nancy Naumburg (Moore 5)

Naumburg’s photos also illustrate these aspects of the disaster. In Naumburg’s photos, we are offered a more direct window into what she found visually interesting and representative of the story she hoped to tell with Rukeyser. Though it’s very possible more photos were taken in the area, we are left only with these three images to assess the project that might have materialized (two of three of which resurfaced in the last decade in the form of glass plate negatives found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection). These images are the Vanetta photos of George Robinson’s kitchen and the community as well as a photo of the dam. The spaces represented are district and significant pieces of the story, representing disruptions at three distinct levels: the natural world, the local community, and the home. Assuming these surviving images are representative of how Naumburg conceived the project, she seems to have been intent on capturing on film the stillness and emptiness resulting from the tunnel project rerouting water towards the hydroelectric dam. Her photograph of this dam is serene. Despite the motion of the water as it cascades down, there is a stillness to the image. The dam at the center, captured at a side angle, is an imposing structure spanning the width of the photo. Foliage covered hills peek out from behind the dam, gesturing to the project’s effects on the natural landscape. It contains the water but also obstructs and destroys nature.  

Shacks and Railroad Tracks in Vanetta, 1936, Nancy Naumburg (Moore 22).

Her photograph of Vanetta functions similarly, but suggests a more human impact of the project. Railroad tracks, a sign of industry on the landscape, cut through the bottom right quarter of the image. The wood panel houses to the left of the track appear weathered and modest. Absent from the image are any residents of the town, which seems to gesture toward the loss of the residents who had already started dying painful deaths and the looking deaths of many more, suffering from and expecting to die of silicosis. The third photo zooms in more on this sense of looming loss as it focuses on a single home. A stove sits on the corner with various pans and cooking tools hanging on the wall of George Robinson, one of the African American miners diagnosed with silicosis. Such a photo offers insight into his family’s socioeconomic status but also invites its audience to consider the haunting absence of life in the photo– the meals not cooked, the conversations unspoken, etc. With each image, the alienating stillness and emptiness caused by the tunnel project accretes and its impact on nature and community becomes more apparent.

 

George Robinson’s Kitchen in Vanetta, 1936, Nancy Naumburg (Moore 25).

These photos and Rukeyser’s map are perhaps the most illuminating clues available to recover the collaboration between these two women because, as Moore notes, Rukeyser’s research notes did not survive (12).  Through these images, we gain an understanding of how both women understood the tragic story they were trying to convey and the strategies they developed for illuminating the impacts of Union Carbide’s actions on its workers, local communities, and the natural landscape.  Rukeyser’s map frames the area where the tragedy took place—the site of the industrial disaster, the local towns, and even individuals affected by the company’s actions—and can be understood as a visual draft of the collage of perspectives she would synthesize in writing The Book of the Dead. Though Naumburg’s photos didn’t become part of a the documentary project that these women began collaborating on, the images do offer insight into the women’s efforts to capture the disaster’s effects on people, community, and environment, but also signal a potential trace of Naumburg’s influence on Rukeyser’s poem.  Naumburg’s attention to these locations and levels of devastation with the kitchen (family level), Vanetta (community level), and the dam (ecological/capitalistic levels). As Moore notes, Naumburg wrote to Rukeyser in a letter dated April 6, 1937 that the trip left her with the impression that “the whole thing is a terrible indictment of capitalism” (12). As Rukeyser explores the vast implications of capitalism on these environs in her poem, she accounts for these levels in its mosaic approach with its testimony from miners such as George Robinson and their family members, its descriptions of dam’s impact on the natural landscape, its accounts of the atrocities whispered within the community and also its descriptions of the biological impact of silica on the lungs of Union Carbide’s workers. In this context Rukeyser’s map of the area also becomes a map for understanding the strategies the poet uses to examine environmental injustice as do Naumburg’s photos.  They sought to capture— in the range of their artistic work drawing upon concrete, lived examples of the consequences of the project from multiple levels and vantage points—a means of offering the most complete picture of the incident and the consequences of industrial capitalism.

 

Data Analysis:

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Oral Interviews:

Video Story:

This video offers an introduction to the Hawks Nest Mining Disaster and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, which catalogs the horrors of the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster on the predominantly Black miners through a mosaic of interviews, landscapes, medical reports, and congressional testimony.  Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead offers a stark portrait of racial and labor injustices that mining corporation Union Carbide as well as the company’s utter disregard for its employee’s health and lives. The video overview includes readings from two sections of the poem and features a few images from photographer Nancy Naumburg, Rukeyser’s collaborator in the initial phase of the project.