Authors: Randall Jarrell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and critic


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.{$I[AN]9810000535}{$I[A]Jarrell, Randall}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jarrell, Randall}{$I[tim]1914;Jarrell, Randall}

Randall Jarrell

(© Philippe Halsman)

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.

BibliographyBryant, J. A. Understanding Randall Jarrell. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986. An easy book to read. Contains biographical information and an overview of Jarrell’s writings, including a breakdown of his earlier poems, his criticism and essays, his children’s poems, and his later poetry. Includes bibliography and an index.Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. This illuminating examination of Jarrell’s contributions to American letters situates the poet-critic’s work within a dynamically interactive frame, embracing social and cultural as well as aesthetic and psychological concerns.Ferguson, Suzanne. The Poetry of Randall Jarrell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971. This excellent book stresses Jarrell as first a teacher and second a poet. Ferguson gives a solid, in-depth analysis of his major works, taking selections from all of his different areas of interest. Includes select bibliography and an exhaustive index.Flynn, Richard. Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. Addresses the importance of Jarrell redetermining the “child’s set face” in the tumultuous lifestyle of modern-day society. The critical analysis that he offers is very insightful in this neglected genre of children’s poetry, as he sets up Jarrell as one of its masters. Contains a good bibliography and an index.Hoffman, Frederick. The Achievement of Randall Jarrell. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1970. Concentrates on an analysis of Jarrell’s poetry, centering on one of his characteristic themes, that of a dreamer being awakened into a reality which is somehow parallel or connected to the dream. Although not comprehensive in the scope of all Jarrell’s poetry, it provides excellent coverage within that parameter.Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Mary Jarrell delivers a focused portrait of her late husband that is in keeping with her sense of propriety. She handles Randall’s nervous collapse with sympathetic tact. The result is a portrait of a poet, his personality, and his career.Meyers, Jeffrey. Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle. New York: Arbor House, 1987. Investigates the relationships between Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Jarrell. Gives an in-depth study of the influences these men had on Jarrell and sheds light on the foundations from which his poetry emerged. Includes select bibliography and index.Pritchard, William H. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.Travisano, Thomas J. Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. A survey of the work of four American poets, focusing on their contributions to postmodernism. Intended for a scholarly audience versed in the literary theory of modernism and postmodernism. Includes an excellent supporting bibliography.
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