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"The Book of the Dead"


“The Book of the Dead” is the title of both a poem and a cycle of related poems by Muriel Rukeyser, about the Hawks Nest Tunnel industrial disaster in Depression-era Fayette County. Rukeyser (1913-1980), born in Brooklyn, New York, was a political activist and prominent poet of the mid-20th century. She produced “The Book of the Dead” after hearing of the disastrous project and visiting Gauley Bridge and the nearby area of the tunnel.

Hundreds of men were killed by the 1930-32 Hawks Nest project, from breathing silica dust released in the tunnel work. Taking her title from that of an ancient Egyptian funerary text, Rukeyser gives voice to those who died or suffered in the wake of the Fayette County disaster. “The Book of the Dead” is 20 related poems, telling of the tragic incident, the witnesses, and its aftermath. Rukeyser uses traditional verse structures, but also incorporates transcripts from the Congressional hearings on the incident as well as graphs and formulas dealing with the uses of silica and hydroelectric power. “The Book of the Dead” begins with a description of the history of the state in the poem “West Virginia,” then moves into the first interview transcript in “Statement: Phillipa Allen.” A grim description of silicosis is given in “Mearl Blankenship,” “The Disease,” and “The Doctors,” using transcripts of the testimony of Dr. Emory R. Hayhurst. “The Cornfield” describes the use of a local farmer’s field to dispose of the bodies of the workmen. The final poem, itself titled “The Book of the Dead,” calls back images from the earlier poems, providing an eerie circular feel, suggesting that disasters of this nature can happen again unless working conditions are improved.

The Hawk Nest’s poem cycle has experienced a recent resurgence, providing readers with a creative outsider’s view into a West Virginia tragedy. Originally published as part of Muriel Rukeyser’s book U.S. 1 in New York in 1938, The Book of the Dead was issued for the first time as its own book by West Virginia University Press in 2018.

Written by William E. Clough


  1. Muriel Rukeyser. The Book of the Dead. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018.

  2. Dayton, Tim. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2015.

  3. Rukeyser, Muriel. “The Book of the Dead”. U.S. 1. New York: Covici Friede Publishers, 1938.