Whitman, Ruth

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Born 28 May 1922, New York, New York

Daughter of Meyer D. and Martha Sherman Basbein; married Cedric Whitman, 1941 (divorced); Firman Houghton, 1959 (divorced); Morton Sacks, 1966; children: Rachel, Leda, David

Poet, translator, editor, teacher, Ruth Whitman has won literary awards for 30 years, but she is best known for the imagined journals of two real women—Tamsen Donner and Hanna Senesh—in the last extraordinary months of their lives.

Born a New Yorker and a lawyer's daughter, Whitman in her adult life has been associated with academia and Cambridge, Massachusetts. She attended Radcliffe (B.A., 1944), graduating Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, and three years later received her M.A. from Harvard University. She gained experience in publishing in the early 1940s with Houghton Mifflin, working first as an editorial assistant, then as educational editor. She served as a freelance editor for Harvard University Press from 1945 to 1960, from 1958 to 1963 as poetry editor for the Cambridge magazine Audience, and from 1980 as poetry editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly. Whitman has taught in Cambridge, giving poetry workshops at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, 1965-68, and serving as a lecturer in poetry at Radcliffe and Harvard. During 1968-70, she was a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe. Beginning in 1989 she was a visiting professor of poetry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Listing her religion as "secular Jewish," Whitman often writes on Jewish themes. In Blood and Milk (1963), her first book of poems, Whitman celebrates her grandfather's life in "The Lost Steps," "The Old Man's Mistress," and "Touro Synagogue." Her grandfather is also important in such personal poems as "I Become My Grandfather" in The Marriage Wig (1968), which begins with a prose paragraph on the custom of Jewish brides in Eastern Europe shaving their heads to wear the sheytl, or marriage wig, lest their beauty distract their husbands from proper study. Whitman has frequently translated Yiddish poetry: she edited and translated An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry (1966) and translated Isaac Bashevis Singer in Short Friday (1966) and The Seance (1968). Her poem "Translating," about King David and Abishag, and included in The Passion of Lizzie Borden: New and Selected Poems (1973), is dedicated to Jacob Glatstein, whom she edited and translated. In 1990 she published The Fiddle Rose: Poems, 1970-1972 by Abraham Sutzkever. Laughing Gas: Poems New and Selected, 1963-1990 (1991) contains a series of poems about being a present-day Jew as well as personal poems such as "Eighty-three," about her aged mother, and a beautiful elegiac sequence, "The Drowned Mountain."

Whitman in some of her later poetry turned away from celebrating her own life and experience to "bearing witness" to the experience of others. "I believe such poetry," she wrote in 1985, "teaches us how to live, how to cope with loss and disaster, how to survive." Four such works are: the title poem of The Passion of Lizzie Borden; Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey (1977), about a poet and teacher native to Newburyport, Massachusetts, who married the wagonmaster of the ill-fated Donner party; The Testing of Hanna Senesh (1986), about a young Hungarian poet who emigrated to Palestine in 1939, later to train with British intelligence, to parachute into Yugoslavia and be killed by the Nazis; and "Anna Pavlova," a short seven-part poem in Laughing Gas about the life and aging of the famous ballerina. All of these are meticulously researched. Whitman has also written a book-length poem, To Dance Is to Live, about the passionate life of Isadora Duncan, and Hatshepsut, Speak to Me (1992), a dialogue between the only woman pharaoh in ancient Egypt and the poet. The Passion of Lizzie Borden, as chamber opera, was performed in Santa Fe in 1986, and in 1988 in New York. Both To Dance Is to Live and Tamsen Donner have been performed as theater/dance by Julie Ince Thompson. To use Whitman's words, these works assert "the value of the individual in an apocalyptic world."

In her role as teacher, Whitman has frequently been poet in residence at universities in the U.S. and Israel. Books related to her teaching include Poemmaking: Poets in Classrooms (editor, with Harriet Feinberg, 1975) and Becoming a Poet: Source, Process, and Practice (1982). Whitman recorded her work for the Library of Congress in 1974 and 1981.

Other Works:

Sachuest Point (television documentary, 1977). Permanent Address: New Poems, 1973-1980 (1980). Rhode Island Women on Women: A Poetry Chapbook (1986).

The papers of Ruth Whitman are housed in the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College.


Ferguson, M. A., ed., Images of Women in Literature (1991). Hartwell, D. and K. Cramer, eds., Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder (1993). Israel, B., In Praise of Practically Nothing (CD, 1999). Kates, J. and G. T. Reimer, eds., Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story (1994). Kaye-Kantrowitz, M. and I. Klepfisz, eds., The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology (1989). McLennan, K. J., ed., Nature's Ban: Women's Incest Literature (1996). Macdonald, C., Cynthia Macdonald and Ruth Whitman Reading Their Poems (audiotape, 1981). Schwartz, H., and A. Rudolf, eds., Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets (1980).

Reference works:

CA (1984, 1987). CP (1985, 1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). WW in America (1990-91).

Other references:

American Book Review (June 1991, Feb. 1992). Booklist (1 May 1969, 15 July 1978). Book World (20 May 1973). Choice (Sept. 1978, June 1979). Horn Book (Dec. 1976). International Journal of Aging & Human Development (1991). LJ (1 Feb. 1969, July 1973). Poetry (May 1964, Mar. 1970). Prairie Schooner (Spring 1995). SR (15 Mar. 1969).


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