With Selected Letters of Una Jeffers
Volume Two, 1931-1939
edited by James Karman
Stanford University Press ($95)

by Robert Zaller

When his reputation was at its height in the 1930s, Robinson Jeffers frequently received as much or more space in poetry anthologies as Frost, Stevens, Pound, or Eliot. In 1932, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. By the time of his death thirty years later, he had almost disappeared from view, and for a while his work was nearly out of print. Since then, a slow but sure revival has been underway, much assisted by the splendid Stanford University Press editions of his work in verse and prose. For his admirers, Jeffers is, with Whitman, one of the two great prophets of American letters—the one of democracy’s optimism and the other of its pessimism. Of these two visions, the latter speaks particularly today. Jeffers foresaw America’s decline into empire, social dependency, and environmental degradation with uncanny prescience, and seems more contemporary now than many of his Modernist peers.

The second volume of James Karman’s edition of Jeffers’s letters follows his career from its apogee at the beginning of the 1930s to its crisis at the end of the decade, when Jeffers experienced a personal and poetic climacteric. As in Volume One, the voice is chiefly that of his wife Una, who handled most of the family correspondence. Jeffers himself was a superb but reluctant prose stylist, and his letters are often prefaced by apologies for their tardiness and general inadequacy. This is a strategy of tact, because he is frequently replying to prying scholars, solicitors for good causes, and the many eager poets who send him unsolicited books. To all he is invariably polite, although occasionally firm. What he refuses is literary politicking of any sort. When a query pricks his interest, he is illuminating about his own purposes, and his descriptions of people, places, and weathers are quick and shrewd. Of a sojourn in the remote northwest corner of Ireland he notes, “The scenery is magnificent, fine mountains and heather and little stone-walled fields, all spun through with lakes and arms of the sea; the people are well-nourished and look you in the eye; there is little history, few antiquities, no industry at all, except weaving in some of the cottages.”

Even when (relatively) expansive, however, Jeffers impresses most by his reticence. It is Una who is loquacious, and her long letters that supply most of the biographical detail of Jeffers’s chief decade of renown. Far from living reclusively—the popular image of Jeffers is still that of the eremite, alone on his beloved cliffs—the household saw a steady stream of visitors: here is Edna St. Vincent Millay coming by, and Langston Hughes picnicking, and Charlie Chaplin doing impressions over tea. Here, too, is the young Robert Lowell, soon to be the darling of the New Critics who would scorn Jeffers in the 1940s, soliciting an invitation and receiving a polite reply. Summers in Taos with Mabel Dodge Luhan, where Jeffers was never very comfortable, brought another set of celebrities, including Frieda Lawrence.

Mabel and Una were working at cross purposes with Jeffers; Una, herself intensely sociable, sought to screen him from company and protect the solitude he needed by nature and for his work, while Mabel saw him as a successor to D. H. Lawrence (Frieda’s presence was no accident) with a prophetic message for mankind. The consequence was that a third woman, Hildegarde Donaldson, captured his affections during a stay at Taos, precipitating a crisis in which Una attempted suicide. This coincided with a slowly developing writer’s block that left Jeffers desperate for fresh stimulus. Forced to choose, his loyalty to Una prevailed, but at cost. Only three more relatively slender volumes of verse would appear in his lifetime, plus an adaptation of Euripides’s Medea.

Of course, one can make no facile inferences; Jeffers’s project, pursued with great intensity and extraordinary productivity over two decades, had been nothing less than a reckoning with the sources and implications of Western civilization, and it might be said that with his verse drama, “At the Birth of an Age” (1935), he had completed his conspectus. His later work would show no loss of authority and forms an important part of his canon, but the grand, sweeping narratives that had made his reputation were a thing of the past. This alone, for someone whose emotional balance depended so largely on the discipline of work and the shock of vision, would have been deeply traumatic; but, in addition, Jeffers felt keenly the approach of a new World War, and with it the ruin of his hopes for America as a citadel in an age of decline. It is unlikely that a love affair, however timely, would have accommodated all that.

Read with these issues in mind, Volume Two of the Letters is an unfolding marital drama, reaching a climax just short of tragedy. The marriage would endure until Una’s death in 1950, and Jeffers would be deeply faithful to her memory. These letters, again finely edited and comprehensively annotated by James Karman, reveal as never before the complex and often conflicted dynamic between one of the twentieth century’s great poets and the woman who in many ways enabled his achievement.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012