Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life Analysis
by William H. Pritchard

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Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life Analysis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 36)

“Back in Los Angeles, we missedl Los Angeles,” says the torn and baffled speaker of “Thinking of the Lost World,” the title poem of Randall Jarrell’s posthumous collection. In Jarrell’s translucent, elegiac poems, the real places are those in the mind and heart; those in the world are only disappointing approximations, even frauds. William Pritchard’s biography skillfully links events of the poet’s life with his work in an absorbing narrative that shows the development of this intensely lyrical and passionate voice.

Pritchard is known for his other literary biographies, particularly Frost: A Literary Lije Reconsidered (1984), which reevaluates Frost in the wake of Lawrance Thompson’s highly uncomplimentary biography. The Pritchard book is a convincing rehabilitation, partly because of the subtlety and complexity of the analysis. There is no such controversy over Jarrell, the facts of his life being hidden behind no myth. The only debatable issue here is the value of Jarrell’s work to the postmodern era, with accusations of sentimentality balanced by praise for the fine edge of his anguished lyricism. Here too Pritchard argues for the affirmative. His biography provides links between poetry and life which aid in understanding the poems and contribute to appreciation of them.

The “losses” that were to characterize Jarrell’s poems began early. Born in 1914 to an attractive Tennessee photographer and his delicate and somewhat hypochondriacal wife, Anna, Jarrell had his childhood idyll shattered by the divorce of his parents and his mother’s ensuing financial problems. He lived then for a time with his paternal grandparents in California, but this period of relative peace and pleasure was terminated by his grandparents’ inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to support him further. Pritchard notes that it was the rediscovery near the end of his life of his childhood letters written to his mother from California that informed “the remarkable poems—’The Lost World’ and ’Thinking of the Lost World’—which crown his work as a poet.”

Jarrell’s sense of alienation and of not belonging persisted throughout his years at Vanderbilt University, during which he perceived of himself as a Romantic poet and a misunderstood outsider. In actuality, however, the reigning literary giants—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—supported and encouraged him from the start. At a time when most writers his age were lucky to get polite rejection slips, Pritchard comments, Jarrell was being published in The Southern Review and The New Republic. He played the role of the enfant terrible, criticizing his mentors and often disregarding their suggestions; nevertheless, they continued to advance his career, as apparently did the many others who found him mysteriously attractive as a poet and as a person.

From 1937 to 1939, Jarrell taught at Kenyon College and then at the University of Texas. Pritchard’s account shows how neither Jarrell’s marriage to Mackie Langham, a colleague in the English Department at Texas, nor his growing reputation was enough to mitigate his sense of alienation and deprivation. His poetry, however, grew in force as he set aside romantic cliche’s and deliberate obscurity for an attempt to create character and voice. Pritchard identifies “90 North,” published in The New Republic in 1941, as the first poem in Jarrell’s mature style that captures his most enduring characteristics:

The attempt to be “rather like speech” instead of “false or rhetorical” (in the words of a December 1940 letter to Tate); the impulse, concurrently, to speak in a gravely authoritative way about human experience; and the sense that somehow the child is importantly connected to that way of speaking come together in the…poem, ’90 North.”

This poem, exploring “the difference between childish illusion and adult disenchantment,” introduces the essential Jarrell.

His first collection, Bloodfrom a Stranger (1942), was for the most part a nostalgid romantic collection of poems of pathos. It was not until Jarrell experienced the war first hand that he found his true voice. His enlistment in the Army Air Corps and his experiences as a celestial navigator tower operator working with B-29 crews formed the basis for many of his best- known poems. His two books of war poems, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), include many widely anthologized pieces including the ubiquitous “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The chapter “In Service” is one of the most enjoyable of the biography; its detail makes Jarrell’s service experience come alive as well as showing how in his poetry, as in his letters home, it is often “the army rather than the war” that is his true subject.

What characterizes the army poems, however, is the sense of baffled desire, of devastating loss. Tragedy mingles with pathos and irony in lines such as those that open the poem “Losses”:

We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—

Jarrell has clearly established his theme, the collision between youthful idealism and adult disillusion, and it remains the same throughout the poems of his life until the anguish of personal and universal loss crescendoes in his last collection, The Lost World.

Pritchard’s account of life and literature does not stint Jarrell’s impassioned, opinionated criticism, which generated fires in his classrooms besides providing memorable capsule commentaries on many major figures. The account describes the love-hate relationship Jarrell had with the New Critics, his guides and mentors, who found the work’s meaning within the text and rejected concerns external to the text such as history, biography, and theory. In Jarrell’s criticism there are no rigid boundaries; biography and history and psychology and even his own students’ random comments turn up in his analyses. His judgments are quirky; he often takes up for unpopular figures and dispraises the favorites, but his most throwaway comments often have the ring of truth, as when he said in a mostly favorable critique of Robert Frost that here was “the public figure’s relishing consciousness of himself” and of Walt Whitman’s “I am a habitan of Vienna” that “one has an immediate vision of him as a sort of French-Canadian halfbreed to whom the Viennese are offering, with trepidation, little mounds of whipped cream.”

The biography also examines the novel and the children’s books, both of which show Jarrell’s meticulous attention to detail and his identification with children and outsiders. The novel, a caustic satire on academe based on his experiences teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, is more of interest for his random and devastating observations than for its expertise qua novel. Picturesfrom an Institution (1954) is, as its title implies, closer to a series of observations than to a well-made story, and the key to its appreciation is partly in recognition of the figures it fictionalizes. The president of Sarah Lawrence, Harold Taylor, becomes Dwight Robbins, president of Benton College. As Pritchard comments parenthetically, “Taylor would also figure in [MaryJ McCarthy’s novel The Groves of Academe, causing him—as he put it years later—to think twice before appointing visiting ’novelist-teachers with a predisposition to carve people up.’” The novel contains characters with whom professors are cozily familiar and presents slices of academic life in such a way as to cause an explosion of flashes of recognition. It is not in the strictest sense, however, a novel.

The more successful children’s stories, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, show that the childless poet Jarrell had nevertheless an intense understanding of the child’s vision. The Bat-Poet (1964) and the two other stories completed near the end of the poet’s life take a sympathetic view of idiosyncrasy and isolation and weave poetic tales of what it means to watch the mainstream flow by from some distance not quite far enough for detachment.

Pritchard’s biography concentrates more on the interior world for the second half, though it does describe the end of Jarrell’s first marriage, the friendship (affair?) with Elizabeth Eisler, and the second marriage with Mary Jarrell—a woman clearly more appropriate a wife for Jarrell than was Mackie, as Mary was willing to give up her own potential achievements to be the supportive mother/wife Jarrell demanded. Lively anecdotes represent Jarrell as professor at Princeton University and Greensboro College, throwing out to his students the same sort of literary witticism that enlivened his criticism. Much of the focus here, however, is on the development of his poetic gift as he approached his last phase, marked in his life by depression and instability and in his work by the unbalanced intensity of The Lost World.

If there is a controversy regarding the facts of Jarrell’s life, it concerns his death:

He was struck by a car while recovering from a suicide attempt. Pritchard skirts the controversy, not taking a decisive stand as to whether this end was indeed a suicide or simply an ironic accident. “My own impulse is to believe that Jarrell’s death was unintentional,” he says; “that—however slowly—he was recovering from his madness of that previous spring; that his forward looking plans, professional and artistic, revealed a will to live.” Offered as indirect support of this position are the points of optimism or transcendence in his last and perhaps most powerful poems, published posthumously in The Lost World. “Perhaps the deepest impulse in ’Thinking of the Lost World’ and in the other poems Jarrell wrote near the end of his life was the will to believe that there was more to life than the disillusionment granted the child-grownup in ‘90 North,’” Pritchard reflects. These poems to him indicate a coming to terms: “I hold in my Own hands, in happiness,/ Nothing: the nothing for which there is no reward.” This is “rueful acceptance mixed with real elation at what imagining the past has made available”; it is a bittersweet epiphany. The poems, however, can be read as a welcoming of death. Finally, this kind of speculation can never be anything but air-castle construction.

Overall, this book achieves a fine balance between biography and criticism, tracing the exterior events as they imprint the interior world and leave their mark on the poetry, fiction, and criticism. The “literary life” promised by the subtitle is double; not only is the book a literary life, but Jarrell lived a literary life, experienced most intensely through letters, poems, words. (The book’s one drawback is that it does not lend itself so easily to the scholar as to the enthusiastic reader: Its index is confusing and incomplete, its notes noncommittal.) Through the interweaving of biography and analysis the reader gets a clear picture of the difficult, self-absorbed, and alienated man for whom a transcendent nostalgia is the hallmark of all his work. Perhaps even more persuasive, this apparently evenhanded treatment is nevertheless a convincing argument that Randall Jarrell’s poetry is well worth the reader’s serious attention.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Thibune. June 24, 1990, XIV, p. 4.

Choice. XXVIII, September, 1990, p.114

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, December 15, 1989, p. 1811.

Library Journal. CXV, February 1, 1990, p. 86.

National Review. XLII, September 17, 1990, p. 48.

The New Leader. LXXIII, May 14, 1990, p. 13.

The New Republic. CCIII, July 23, 1990, p.32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 6, 1990, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, March 2, 1990, p.70.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, April 15, 1990, p.4.