Randall Jarrell's Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

This collection, although selective, presents the many faces of Randall Jarrell, showing him as meticulous poet, penetrating literary critic, enthusiastic teacher, member of the United States Air Force, husband, friend, and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The letters, edited by Jarrell’s second wife, Mary von Schrader Jarrell, number just under four hundred, selected from about twenty-five hundred extant Jarrell letters that were available to her. Unfortunately, not all the existing letters were available for this edition. Among some important letters missing from it are those to Peter Taylor, Jarrell’s friend of long standing, who would not allow any of Jarrell’s letters to him to be included in this volume.

In spite of this omission and a few smaller ones, the book is valuable because it shows Jarrell’s growth from his student days at Vanderbilt University, when he became deeply involved in the New Critical Movement that was developing there, to his final days when, having attempted suicide by slashing his wrists, he went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to be treated at the Hand House. Jarrell died instantly of a fractured skull after having been struck by a car in Chapel Hill on October 14, 1965.

The collection will be valuable to Jarrell scholars and enthusiasts. It gives new insights into the poet’s literary relationships, which were far-ranging, and into his critical acuity, which was legendary and considered by some to be brutal. Jarrell deplored weak poetry, and some of his early reviews severely castigated such poets as Ezra Pound, Frederic Prokosch, and Conrad Aiken, who called him a “self-appointed judge and executioner.” The Aiken-Jarrell exchange is fascinating.

Jarrell’s detailed letters to Robert Lowell reveal his admiration for Lowell’s work. In a letter dated November, 1945, he tells Lowell, “I think you write more in the great tradition, the grand style, the real middle of English poetry, than anybody since Yeats,” certainly high praise from a poet and critic who never compromised his critical integrity because of friendship. In the same letter, Jarrell deals specifically and at length with some of Lowell’s unpublished poems, providing the poet with sharply focused and enormously detailed suggestions about them.

The collection includes more than thirty of Jarrell’s letters to Mackie, his first wife, as well as many he wrote to Mary von Schrader. Jarrell always appeared in his romantic relationships to be a sort of teacher: He shared his literary enthusiasms with the women he loved, and he sent them detailed reading suggestions. The breadth of his own reading, as it is revealed in most of the letters in this book, was gargantuan. His reading routine broke down only during the academic year of 1951-1952 when he taught at Princeton University and found his living expenses so great that he had to do considerable free-lance writing to survive financially.

The letters which Jarrell wrote during World War II, when he served from 1942 until 1946 in the air force, are revealing in that they show how well attuned to modern poetry he remained during his military service. He entered the air force shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and was trained first as a ferry pilot in Austin, Texas, where he had been teaching at the University of Texas. He washed out of this training program and was dropped in rank from sergeant to private, yet his letters reveal no bitterness about this failure. He continued training at Sheppard’s Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, and was transferred from there to Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. Finally he was moved to Davis-Monthan Field in Tucson, Arizona, where he taught celestial navigation to crewmen of B-29 bombers until the end of the war.

Jarrell kept up a lively correspondence with his wife, Mackie, from the time he went to Sheppard’s Field until she joined him in Tucson, where they stayed until 1946. This correspondence amounted to more than one hundred letters. While only about one-third of it is reproduced in this book, the editor has provided excellent commentary on this group of...

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Randall Jarrell's Letters Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Book World. XV, April 28, 1985, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 15, 1985, p. 172.

The New Republic. CXCII, June 3, 1985, p. 32.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, May 9, 1985, p. 29.

The New York Times. CXXXIV, May 6, 1985, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 19, 1985, p. 11.

Parnassus. XII, Fall, 1984, p. 281.

Saturday Review. XI, May, 1985, p. 66.

Time. CXXV, April 29, 1985, p. 80.