“I see your mouth calling / before the words arrive”: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Soul and Body of John Brown” and 1930s America

  • Bruce A. Ronda


Successive generations of readers and activists have recovered the story and significance of John Brown in ways that seemed meaningful to their cultural circumstances. A militant against established forces of state and church, Brown appeared to leftist artists and organizers in the 1930s as a precursor of their own class-based struggle, an American revolutionary. Their appropriation of Brown was part of an even larger effort, from nearly the beginning of the century, to discern the modern relevance of American history and culture. Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “The Soul and Body of John Brown” (1940) reflects both these projects of recovery. It reflects her leftist sympathies evident in her poetry of the 1930s, particularly in her passionate critique of corporate greed, “The Book of the Dead.” But Rukeyser escapes ideological predictability in “John Brown,” writing a poem that celebrates the possibility of spiritual renewal in an anxious America on the eve of war.


Corporate Greed Popular Front Chattel Slavery Communist Party Member Sectional Hatred 
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© Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington 2005

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  • Bruce A. Ronda

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