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Though respected as a literary critic, Randall Jarrell was also widely known as a poet and novelist. His reputation in these genres grew after World War II, and he had published seven volumes of poetry, two books of criticism, and a novel by the time he started a new career writing children’s literature in 1962. At that time, three years before his death, Jarrell’s work, especially books like The Bat-Poet (1964), became popular with an entirely new audience.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Motifs The first of two sons born to Owen and Anna Campbell Jarrell, Randall was from a young age greatly affected by his family’s loss of an infant daughter, who died before he was born. The motif of the lost sibling appears throughout Jarrell’s work, including the poems ”Orestes at Tauris” (1948) and ”The Black Swan” (1946). His mother Anna, who was from a wealthy Nashville family, also influenced his work. Jarrell captures her frequent fainting spells in the poem ”Hope” (1961). From 1915 to 1925 the family lived in California, mostly in Long Beach, but then Anna separated from her husband and took her sons back to Nashville. In 1926, Randall returned to California for a long visit with his paternal grandparents. He did not want to leave, but they forced him to go back to Nashville. Jarrell, young and upset, never communicated with or saw them again. The guilt that resulted ate at Jarrell all his life, but he could not directly write about it until 1962, when he based the couple called Mama and Pop in the poem ”The Lost World” (1966) on his grandparents.
Education and Famous Friends
As a young man, Jarrell helped to support his divorced mother by delivering newspapers and doing odd jobs, but he also found time to participate in writing, music, and dramatics at school. After high school, his uncle wanted him to work at the family candy business, but Jarrell was not interested. Instead, his uncle sent him to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where Jarrell earned a BA degree in 1936 and an MA in
- During that time, Jarrell edited an undergraduate humor magazine, the Masquerader. From 1938 to 1939, Jarrell moved into college housing with future poet Robert Lowell and future short-story writer Peter Taylor. Taylor and Lowell became Jarrell’s lifelong friends.
While at Vanderbilt, Jarrell dated Amy Breyer, a medical student several years older than he. The relationship was tumultuous because Breyer did not think she could live up to Jarrell’s intellectual and emotional expectations. Eventually, she broke up with him and married a young surgeon from Boston. Jarrell recorded his pain in various poems, including ”The Christmas Roses,” ”The Bad Music,” and ”Che Faro Senza Euridice?”
Teaching and Marriage
In 1939, while Jarrell was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, he met his first wife, Mackie Langham, who had just received her MA from that university. They were married in June
1940, the same year his collection of twenty poems, called ”The Rage for the Lost Penny,” appeared in Five Young American Poets alongside work by John Berry-man, W. R. Moses, Mary Barnard, and George Marion O’Donnell. Jarrell’s first independent volume, Blood for a Stranger (1942), included the poems from ”The Rage for the Lost Penny” plus two dozen others.
In the Army
In 1942, Jarrell enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. Though assigned to aviation training at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, he ”washed out” as a pilot and was sent to Chanute Field in Illinois to train as a flight instructor as well as a celestial-navigation instructor. While in the Army, he wrote his wife many letters that would later become fodder for such poems as ”Lines,” ”The Soldier,” and ”Soldier, T.P.” His other training experiences inspired his writing as well. For example, a mailroom stint grew into the poem ”Mail Call,” while hospitalization for an illness prompted ”The Sick Nought.”
Little Friend, Little Friend
As Jarrell taught flight navigation from 1943 until his discharge from the Army in 1946, he finished the collection Little Friend, Little Friend (1945), as well as several poems that he would include in Losses (1948). Both books used war as a theme, but Jarrell also embodied ”the particular part of the dead,” who try to find meaning in their deaths. Little Friend, Little Friend includes one of Jarrell’s most famous poems, ”The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”
Editor, Teacher, Prose Writer
Because of the critical acclaim garnered from Little Friend, Little Friend, Jarrell received his first Guggenheim Fellowship just after his Army discharge in 1946. At this time, he was writing the ”Verse Chronicle,” a reviewing column for The Nation, but he ended up taking the job of interim literary editor for a year while the actual editor, Margaret Marshall, took a sabbatical. Jarrell also taught part-time at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where he collected material for his prose fiction work, Pictures from an Institution (1954). Many of his friends and acquaintances served as models for the characters in the novel. These real-life models included college president Henry Taylor, his wife, and the famous political theorist Hannah Arendt. Sarah Lawrence, its campus, students, and progressive educational philosophy also influenced the book.
Greensboro, Salzburg, and Colorado
In the fall of 1947, Jarrell went to Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, later renamed the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as an associate professor. This move was encouraged by his friend Peter Taylor, who was already teaching there. The next year, Jarrell published Losses (1948), a book with themes related to World War II and its aftermath. Around this time, Jarrell’s relationship with his wife became rocky, prompting him to teach at the Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization, in Austria. Here, he met a woman named Elisabeth Eisler who inspired several poems, including ”Hohensalzburg: Variations on a Theme of Romantic Character,” ”A Game at Salzburg,” and ”An English Garden in Austria.”
Colorado, Mary von Schrader, and the Library of Congress
In the summer of 1951 Jarrell taught at the University of Colorado School for Writers and also legally separated from his wife. Jarrell then met aspiring novelist Mary von Schrader, with whom he began a relationship. Jarrell frequently wrote to her after he left Colorado to teach creative writing and lecture in criticism at Princeton. In 1952, after his divorce from his first wife was granted, Jarrell married van Schrader. In 1956, Jarrell received a two-year appointment as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress. Two of his later poems, ”The Woman at the Washington Zoo” and ”Jerome,” came from this experience.
A New Career in Children’s Literature and His Untimely Death
After a successful career in poetry and criticism, Jarrell branched out into children’s literature. His book The Animal Family (1965) was illustrated by well-known illustrator Maurice Sendak and was named a Newbery Honor book. While Jarrell was working on that project, he suffered from depression and intestinal problems and was eventually admitted to a hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as a manic-depressive. That April, still in the hospital, he attempted suicide by cutting his left wrist and arm, but by July he had returned home to Greensboro. In October, while walking along a country road a mile from the hospital, he was hit by a car and killed. Evidence from the scene led investigators to pronounce his death accidental.
Works in Literary Context
Critics have noted that Jarrell wrote with a clear, straightforward style and in vivid detail. Jarrell is often compared to English poet W. H. Auden, who was known for his technical prowess in form, his contemporary and personal subjects, and his use of the vernacular.
Robert Lowell, a close friend of Jarrell’s, wrote that, in his war poetry, Jarrell drew from firsthand experiences in the Army and knew the subjects of his poems well, which allowed him to ”peculiarly sympathize” with the men. Lowell also noted that because of Jarrell’s personal closeness, the ”portraits of his pilots have been downgraded sometimes as unheroic, naive, and even sentimental.” Jarrell’s poem ”The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” exemplifies his work on this subject. The poem is deceptive in its five lines; Jarrell uses unexpectedly raw imagery to depict the gunner as a tender, unborn fetus, showing the vulnerability of men socially and culturally revered as impenetrable warriors. The gunner realizes that he is no soldier but rather a victim of something larger and more powerful than he is. He is an ”assembly line product,” as Richard Fein notes, important in his ”public usefulness.” He, like other soldiers in Jarrell’s war poems, loses his individual identity and is consumed by the ”State,” an institution that is the harbinger of his death.
Works in Critical Context
In an essay on Jarrell, Helen Hagenbuchle summarizes reviews of Jarrell’s oeuvre when she writes that ”much of Jarrell’s poetry springs from the conflict between intellect and imagination. His remarkable geniis for articulate form is felt to be struggling with the desire to yield to an upsurge of unconscious images and dreams.” However, Jarrell’s work did not earn praise from everyone, particularly his writings that touched thematically on war. Some critics suggested that Jarrell’s imagery and observation lost impact in his attempt to promote a self-indulgent political message. But, Jarrell was inspired by his personal experiences while in the army during World War II and felt a general hopelessness about the conformity demanded by the institutions of modern society.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (1945)
Richard Fein called ”The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” ”the center of Jarrell’s concerns and art.” John Crowe Ransom echoes the sentiment in The Southern Review: ”How fast it sticks in the reader’s memory, if he will read [the poem] twice. This poem is quite worth any half dozen of the many others which Randall wrote about the Air Force in World War II.” Critic Ted Humphrey suggests the poem ”details in unsparing clarity the nature of modern warfare as waged with behemoth airplanes, anthropomorphized as beasts with bellies and wombs.” Though some critics disliked Jarrell’s less-than-patriotic take on the war, ”The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is one of his best-known poems, often recognized for its ”grisly determinism,” in the words of Frances Ferguson, writing for the Georgia Review in 1974. The poem was also frequently placed in the category of postmodern elegy. Because of its dark irony, scholar Charlotte Beck suggested that ”the poem caught the imagination of many readers who might not otherwise know of Randall Jarrell,” but she was careful to note that ”it is far from his best poem.”
”Mail Call” (1945)
Vernon Scannell classified the war poem ”Mail Call” as another example of a work in which Jarrell demonstrates man becoming reduced to infant, ”animal or instrument by the calculated process of military training and by the uniformed civilian’s enforced acceptance of the murderer’s role, the cruel larceny of all sense of personal identity.” Jonathan Galassi in Poetry Nation remarks that Jarrell’s ”grisly irony reminds one of [W. H.] Auden . . . but there is a horrible closeness to the event which Auden would not have ventured. …His ubiquitous generalizations earn their significance from gorgeously terrible descriptions of carnage and fear.”
- Beck, Charlotte. Worlds and Lives: The Poetry of Randall Jarrell. New York: Associated Faculty Press, 1983.
- Ferguson, Suzanne. Critical Essays on Randall Jarrell. Boston: Hall, 1983.
- Humphrey, Ted. ”Randall Jarrell, (1914-1965).” Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale Group, 1997.
- Lowell, Robert, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren. Randall Jarrell, 1914—1965. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.
- Scannell, Vernon. Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War. Woburn, Mass.: Woburn Press Ltd., 1976.
- Hardwick, Elizabeth. Review of The Bat-Poet. New York Times (May 3, 1964).
- Updike, John. ”Randall Jarrell Writing Stories for Children.” New York Times (November 16, 1976).
- ”Randall Jarrell.” Poets.org. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPIDy9.
- ”Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965.” Modern American Poetry. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from http://www. english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/jarrell/jarrell.htm.
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