The only way one can see triumph among these imaginations is to link together, for our own moment, those men and women who in full consciousness knew they had failed. They make a sort of triumph, shining darkly down to us.— Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs (1942).
Opprobrium was not the only reaction that Muriel Rukeyser received for Willard Gibbs, her 1942 biography of the largely unknown if enormously influential nineteenth-century physical chemist, though the criticism was significant. As The Kenyon Review reported in the spring of 1943, she had earned “a number of slaps on the wrist—and even, from a particularly malicious reviewer, one in the face” (Rice 310).2 The “malicious reviewer” was, most likely, Joseph Wood Krutch, writing in The Nation in January 1943, and his “Deep Waters” is certainly a tour of critical force. Krutch passes harsh judgment on the achievement of Rukeyser’s text, writing: “I am bound to confess, not only that I found her book very exceptionally hard going, but also that after I had finished I did not feel that I knew much more than I did before.” He insults her style—“equal portions” of “irrelevance and rhapsody”—and he dismisses her method as presenting “notions” that he suspects of being “quite a priori and also antecedent to her investigation of Gibbs.” Finally, cutting deep to the core, Krutch condemns [End Page 357] Rukeyser’s very undertaking, asserting: “I am still not certain either that [Gibbs] deserves a popular biography or that, if he does, Miss Rukeyser was the person to write it” (97).
Indeed, Willard Gibbs is a strange undertaking. It is a popular biography of a famously uninteresting individual. Rukeyser stretches the story of a life lived from February 1839 to April 1903 beyond its contours, beginning with the Amistad slave-ship mutiny in spring 1839 and ending with the first stirrings of World War Two and the discoveries of quantum physics. It is a book about an abstruse chemist and mathematician whose writings were difficult for other scientists to understand, written by a poet with no particular scientific training or background. It is a narrative assembled from meager sources and despite serious archival omissions. It is a project completely unsanctioned, even opposed, by the subject’s heirs (its first words are, “This is not an authorized biography” [v]). And, in the final chapter, Rukeyser admits, “Coming to these years to understand a life, one may come away with a failure richer than that narrow success might ever have been” (429). A rich failure.
Why does Rukeyser write a biography if her hope is not for readers to come away “understand[ing] a life”? What alternative substance or grounding can such an intense focus on a particular individual provide? What might a different reader than Krutch claim to “know” upon completing the journey across seas, years, and disciplines that Rukeyser sets in motion in these pages? By what process is that knowledge communicated or activated? What balances and organizes the structure that she has built? What is this book?3
On the simplest level, the book is concerned with Gibbs’s influences on American culture and American culture’s influences on Gibbs. It contains a chapter titled “Science and the Imagination” and another titled “The Civil War.” There is much on Gibbs’s life-long home, New Haven, as it develops and changes through his lifetime. One early critic took issue with the biographically promising “New Haven Childhood” chapter for containing “exactly two paragraphs and one sentence about Gibbs himself,” preferring instead “colorful details of early New Haven and . . . a stimulating attempt to revive that forgotten poet James Gates Percival” (Dick 100). Some of the middle chapters follow Gibbs’s life more closely: “The Years Abroad,” “Return to America,” “The First Papers,” and “A Chair in Mathematical Physics.” These describe his theories, investigate [End Page 358] his notebooks, and relate some anecdotes and observations. But when Gibbs dies in chapter fifteen of twenty, Rukeyser turns in the same paragraph from him to the Wright Brothers, as they “watch[ed] sea gulls, their flights, their wings, the...