restricted access “Introduction: Muriel Rukeyser’s Presumptions”
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Muriel Rukeyser’s Presumptions”1

Muriel Rukeyser was presumptuous. Her presumptions were multifold and risky. They involved contentious claims for poetry’s many “uses”—emotional, intellectual, and cultural; for its kinship with science, particularly “abstract science”; and for its value as “meeting place,” capable of linking not only different people, but also highly specialized disciplines and epistemologies in a common imaginative pursuit (Life of Poetry 103, 159, 20).2 For those of us coming to her work today, Rukeyser’s presumptions are a blessing. For one, she insisted on the necessity of audacity for the kind of intellectual and emotional work that she thought poetry could, and needed, to do in a century of formidable technological progress, new wars, and new forms of industrial exploitation that such progress enabled. If the poem were to be the fecund meeting place that she imagined, daring would have to be part of the poet’s job description. For how is a poet to create meeting places, unless she pushes against the conventional boundaries that still to this day demarcate the proper realm of the poetic?

Rukeyser thought of presumption as an inherently American trait, manifest, for better and worse, in the nation’s political and geographic exploits, its technological ingenuity, its tradition of “axiom-breaking” (Willard Gibbs 9).3 She reserved special admiration for acts of daring that drew on the human capacity for abstraction—the development of hypotheses, the construction of systems that have no immediate practical value but [End Page 247] serve to advance knowledge about the “human condition,” as she writes in a letter to Albert Einstein during the 1930s.4 In calling for more presumption in her introductory chapter of Willard Gibbs, aptly titled “On Presumption,” Rukeyser clearly had multiple meanings of the word in mind.5 According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a descendant of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, “presume” encompasses at least six different activities: 1. “to undertake without leave or clear justification: dare”; 2. “to expect or assume especially with confidence”; 3. “to suppose to be true without proof (presumed innocent until proved guilty)”; 4. “to take for granted; imply”; 5. “to act or proceed presumptuously or on a presumption”; and 6. “to go beyond what is right or proper.” The origin of the verb suggests the confluence of two distinct undertakings that define as well the nature of Rukeyser’s presumptions: “from Anglo-French presumer, from Late Latin praesumere to dare, from Latin, to anticipate, assume.” Indeed, if we linger for a minute on the word’s origin, “presume”—in the sense of both daring and anticipating—emerges as an essential cognitive activity, central to the sciences, the humanities, and the creation of poetry. Any inventive, creative endeavor, Rukeyser might say, cannot proceed without presuming—without venturing into uncharted or improper (from a disciplinary, ideological, ethical point of view) territory; without daring failure; without anticipating, or hoping; without, in other words, a utopian striving for new insights, new systems that cannot, as yet, be proved, but that can be thought, imagined, on the evidence of what Rukeyser termed “verifiable” and “unverifiable” facts, as a number of contributors discuss in their chapters below. Rukeyser was keenly interested in the nature of facts—of what we can know and how; her disquisitions on the different kinds of facts were rigorous, subtle, and intimately linked to the activity of presuming, and its synonyms: “assume, conjecture, daresay, imagine, guess, speculate, suppose, surmise, suspect.” These synonyms, moreover, inhere implicitly in the cluster of meanings that constitute “presumption”: “presumptuous attitude or conduct: audacity”; “an attitude or belief dictated by probability: assumption”; “the ground, reason, or evidence lending probability to a belief”; and “a legal inference as to the existence or truth of a fact not certainly known that is drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact.”

This special issue of JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory marks the centenary of Rukeyser’s birth in 1913 (December 15), bringing together essays [End Page 248] and poems that offer telling new evidence for Rukeyser’s nuanced presumptions. Drawing, in part, on tantalizing material from the substantial Rukeyser collections at the Library of Congress...