Two mysteries surround the life and career of Randall Jarrell: how he was able to accomplish so much in half a century, and whether or not his death at age fifty-one was accident or suicide.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, to Owen and Anna Campbell Jarrell, the family moved to California when Randall was only a year old. Owen Jarrell worked as an assistant to a children’s photographer, and later opened his own studio, but financial difficulties eventually led to marital dissolution. Randall, his younger brother Charles, and his mother moved back to Nashville at his maternal uncle’s request. Anna Jarrell began teaching English at a secretarial school, and Randall held his first job as a newspaper boy. He also sold Christmas wrapping paper door-to-door. The future man of letters was an excellent student, and fell in love with language through his readings at the Carnegie Library.
Jarrell earned his Bachelor’s degree (1935) and Master’s (1938) from Vanderbilt University, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom, and was mentored by Allen Tate. Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in Ohio, and Jarrell followed, working there as an instructor. During his two years at Kenyon, Jarrell met and roomed with poet Robert Lowell and established an enduring friendship with novelist Peter Taylor. Jarrell later accepted a teaching position at the University of Texas, Austin, another appointment of many that earned him positions at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of North Carolina and University of Cincinnati, and visiting professorships at Princeton, and the University of Illinois.
Beginning in the 1940’s and into the following decade, Jarrell served as literary editor for The Nation, and as poetry critic for Partisan Review and Yale Review. He held the position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1956 to 1958, and was a member of the editorial board of American Scholar for eight years, beginning in 1957.
The pivotal experience for Jarrell came in 1942 when he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Force. He began training as a flying cadet but failed to qualify, and then became a celestial training navigator in Tucson, Arizona. His exposure to military life was catalyst for much of his early work, including what is arguably his most anthologized poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” a sparse but powerful five-line piece about the dangerous occupation of a B-17 gunner who hung upside down in a plexiglass sphere to engage enemies attacking the plane.
Jarrell’s first book of poetry, Blood for a Stranger, published after he began his four-year military stint, established his position of importance in the American literary scene. His next two books, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948) confirmed Jarrell as a major poetic voice. Not only was he respected as a poet, but Jarrell made a name for himself as a blunt and often feared critic through his biting reviews in major literary magazines, and in a book of essays, Poetry and the Age (1953). He worked successfully as a translator, short fiction writer, and novelist. Jarrell, in his final years, even wrote two children’s books, The Bat Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965), the latter illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
Among his many accolades: a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, the Levinson Prize, Oscar Blumenthal Prize, National Institute of Arts and Letters Grant, and a National Book Award for The Woman at the Washington Zoo in 1960.
Shortly after publication of his final poetry collection, The Lost World (1965), Jarrell suffered from mental illness, one moment experiencing complete joy and the next, depression. He attempted suicide in 1965 by slashing his wrist. Apparently recovering, he returned to teaching that fall. While admitted to a hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for therapy on his injured wrist, Jarrell left at dusk for a walk along a busy, nearby highway. He was struck there by an automobile and died instantly. The coroner’s ruling was accidental death, but many of his closest friends believed Jarrell committed suicide. Jarrell’s friend, the poet Robert Lowell, expressed this belief in a letter to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop: “There’s a small chance [that Jarrell’s death] was an accident … [but] I think it was suicide, and so does everyone else, who knew him well.”
In what can only be considered a short but fruitful life, Jarrell left behind an impressive legacy: eight collections of poetry, influential criticism, a novel, numerous translations of Beckstein, Grimm, and Chekhov, and two books for children.
In Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, William Pritchard states that Jarrell will be remembered as one of the best American lyric poets “for his brilliantly engaging and dazzling criticism, and for his passionate defence … of writing and reading poems and fiction.” Covering the memorial service held in Jarrell’s honor on February 28, 1966, the New York Times quoted Robert Lowell, who credited Jarrell with writing “the best poetry in English about the Second World War,” and described his friend as “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.”
Blood for A Stranger (1942)
Little Friend, Little Friend (1945)
The Seven League Crutches (1951)
Poetry and the Age (1953)
Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy (1954)
Selected Poems (1955)
The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations (1960)
A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays & Fables (1962)
Selected Poems including The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1964)
The Bat-Poet Pictures by Maurice Sendak. (1964)
The Lost World (1965)
The Animal Family Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (1965)
Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 Edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren. (1968)
The Third Book of Criticism (1969)
The Complete Poems (1969)
Fly by Night Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (1979)
Randall Jarrell’s profile (with published poems in sidebar) at Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/9
Randall Jarrell’s profile (with published poems) at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3463
Randall Jarrell at Southern Illinois University’s Modern American Poetry page: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/jarrell/jarrell.htm
Biography from Modern American Poetry page: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/jarrell/about.htm
Biography and several poems at AmericanPoems.com: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/Randall-Jarrell
Timeline of the life of Randall Jarrell: http://www.uncg.edu/lib/arch/jarrell/time.html