Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was a professor, literary critic and poet best known for poems about suburban American life in the 1950s and World War II. His literary criticism, particularly on earlier American poets such as e.e. cummings and Walt Whitman, is also highly regarded in literary academic circles.

His life

Jarrell's life story, for the most part, doesn't stray far beyond the stereotypical boundaries one might expect of a white male living in the US during the first half of the 20th century. He led an uneventful childhood after being born May 6th, 1914 in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating and receiving his master's degree from Vanderbilt University, he taught as a professor of creative writing and literature the majority of his life.

One of only two interruptions in his life time career of teaching was World War II. He signed up for the US Air Force as a technical sergeant; his time spent in the military deeply affected his subsequent poetry.

Jarrell married Mackie Langham, a colleague, before the war, but divorced her afterwards. He remarried to Mary von Scrader who shared his interest in cars. Jarrell, complete with the wise old professor beard and a goofy top hat, is somewhat famous for cutting around his college campus with Mary in their white Mercedes convertible 190SL.

The only other major occupation Jarrell held that interrupted his career as a professor was the Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, quite a prestigious title.

Sadly, Jarrell's life ended with a series of unhappy events. He was diagnosed with manic depressive after a series of fights with his wife and spats with his students over the course of several months. He attempted suicide by cutting his wrists, but failed. In the hospital, he was on the verge of getting a second divorce, but he and his wife made amends. Jarrell was given medication and it looked like things were going to turn around.

On October 14, 1965, Jarrell died a mysterious death. He had been walking along a secluded road when he was either accidently got hit by a car... or purposefully jumped into the car's path. His death was ruled an accident and the driver wasn't charged. Questions still linger whether he deliberately tried to end his life for a second time.

His works

Jarrell's poetry is influenced by a variety of styles and ideas. In general, he has a rather tragic view of life: the loss of innocence in children, the horrors of World War II, struggling for meaning the 1950's suburbia and, of course, the ever-poetic musings on death.

In college, he majored in psychology and was interested in traditional Freudian ideas. For example, swathes of his poems are about dreams, nightmares and analysis of them.

One of the most interesting things about Jarrell's work is his simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Germany. He was a huge fan of Goethe, married a woman with a Germanic background named Mary von Schrader, and even translated German literary works to English. On the flip side, he really detested the Nazis quite a bit.

Jarrell's literary criticism was perhaps more important than his poetry; the judgements and observations he made on his preceeding American poets have essentially have been held up as the accepted interpretations for most of the fifty to sixty years. Although I've never read any of it, supposedly his criticism is very reader friendly, witty and still profound. A later critic once remarked that Jarrell's "talent went into his poetry and his genius went into his criticism."

In addition to poetry and criticism, Jarrell also wrote several children's book, essays, book reviews, translations, and even introductions to anthologies. He was certainly a writer at heart.

These are a few of his more important books:

TehBesto's recommendations

Jarrell's regular poems about life and death and the such usually ramble on a few pages, however, I tend to enjoy his shorter ones better. Even more specifically, I really think his poems on World War II are truly his best. Although these ones don't accurately reflect the array of Jarrell's styles and subject matters, they're my favorites:

You can find all these and many, many more in Jarrell's "Selected Poems, including The Woman at the Washington Zoo" (1960) which should be available at local public or university libraries. Oh yeah! I almost forgot! One other important thing:

Randall Jarrell liked his cat. It was in a lot of his poems. It's name was Kitty.


Source: Ferguson, Suzanne. The Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets 1880-1945 Vol. 48. ed. Peter Quartermain. p. 247-266.

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