Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Randall Jarrell spent much of his childhood in California but returned to Nashville for his high school education. He attended Vanderbilt University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1935. After two years of graduate study at Vanderbilt, he became an instructor of English at Kenyon College. He received his master’s degree from Vanderbilt upon completion of his thesis in 1939. From 1939 until 1942 he taught at the University of Texas, then spent the next four years in the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war he taught briefly at Sarah Lawrence College, then joined the faculty of the Women’s College of North Carolina in 1947, where he taught for the rest of his life. In 1952 he married Mary von Schrader.
In addition to his teaching, he served on the editorial boards of several magazines, including The Nation and The American Scholar. From 1956 until 1958 he was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The Woman at the Washington Zoo received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1961. In October of 1965, while walking beside a highway near Chapel Hill, he was struck by a car and killed.
The poetry in Jarrell’s first four books is based heavily on his war experience; he examines the lives of individual fighting men in compassionate detail, revealing war’s horrors even through lines spoken by characters to whom war is merely a way of living in the world. In later poems Jarrell turned his attention to the “dailiness of life” in the civilian United States, often in modified dramatic monologues spoken by some of the most memorable characters in twentieth century American verse. The language of many of these poems is that of a person trying to be understood; its repetitiousness is occasionally excessive, but most often it lends a distinctive authenticity to the poet’s search for meaning in ordinary life.
Jarrell’s only novel, Pictures from an Institution, is a trenchant but affectionate satire on academic life, set at a fictional “progressive” college for women. Though its characters sound at first like stereotypes–the young “boy wonder” president, the visiting woman novelist of vituperative tongue, the vapidly enthusiastic teacher of creative writing–Jarrell brings them convincingly to life.