Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671
Randall Jarrell was born to Owen and Anna Jarrell in Nashville on May 6, 1914, to the shifting landscapes of modernism and looming war. Jarrell, whose name is accented on the second syllable, had a difficult childhood marked by the separation of his parents and by being moved around from place to place; the desire for true “home” is a topic for much of his poetry. Attending college at Vanderbilt University, he was drawn into literature by his association with John Crowe Ransom, who, with his friends Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, was active during the 1920’s and 1930’s in reinvigorating Southern poetry. Ransom was a major influence on Jarrell’s poetry, as was Robert Lowell, with whom he would share a lifelong friendship.
Jarrell took both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Vanderbilt University in 1935 and 1938 and then went to teach at Kenyon College, following his mentor Ransom. Jarrell taught at Kenyon from 1937 to 1939. He left Kenyon for the University of Texas at Austin (then University of Texas Main University), where he roomed at first with Robert Lowell. In 1939, he married Mackie Langham. He taught at the University of Texas until 1942, published his first book, Blood for a Stranger, in that year, and then went to war. Though he never fought in battle, having been rejected as a potential pilot, he trained Air Force pilots and worked with them in the “celestial navigation tower.” This position gave him plenty of knowledge and war experience to lend authority to his poetry and reinforced his sense that the commonality of human experience was a sense of loss.
After the war he taught again, now at Sarah Lawrence College, and became literary editor of The Nation. In 1947, he took a post at the Women’s College, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where his wife was also on the staff. However, his marriage failed. He divorced Mackie in 1952 and also that year married Mary Eloise von Schrader. In the next few years, he traveled widely and took visiting posts as his work became more and more well known and received numerous honors and awards. In 1958, he accepted a position as professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he was to remain more or less for the rest of his teaching career.
As editor of The Nation, he was known for his caustic columns—he inspired fear as well as respect among the literati. His tendency to rip authors to shreds was well known; his statements on poetics were direct and peremptory. His poems held an element of elegy and nostalgia; his essays were hard-hitting and incisive.
His poem “The Marchen” suggested to editor Michael di Capua in 1962 that Jarrell would be a good translator of fairy tales. He was indeed a success as a translator and also began to write for children; his career as a children’s writer was brief but notable: His first two children’s books, The Gingerbread Rabbit and The Bat-Poet, appeared to good reviews in 1964, the year before his death. His lifelong preoccupation with how children see and experience the world helped him to produce poems and stories that used the child’s-eye vision imaginatively in order to create a mythic world of talking animals and birds.
However, the poet’s last few years, despite his public success, were marred by illness and depression. A feeling of generalized illness resulted in a diagnosis of hepatitis in 1962, and he was never fully well again. He was hospitalized for both physical illness and for a nervous breakdown, and bouts of optimism about his work were interspersed with depths of discouragement. He died after being hit by a car on a lonely road on October 14, 1965. Because of the odd circumstances of the death—including the driver’s claim that Jarrell walked in front of the car—some thought it was suicide. However, the incident was judged by the authorities to have been an accident. His major book of poems The Lost World was published later that year.