The precipitous cliffs, rolling headlands, and rocky inlets of the California coast come alive in the poetry of John Robinson Jeffers, an icon of the environmental movement. In this concise and accessible biography, Jeffers scholar James Karman reveals deep insights into this passionate and complex figure and establishes Jeffers as a leading American poet of prophetic vision.
In a move that would define his life's work, Jeffers' family relocated to California from Pennsylvania in 1903 when he was sixteen. While a graduate student at the University of Southern California he met Una Call Kuster, a student who was the wife of a prominent Los Angeles attorney, and they began a scandalous affair that made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. They eventually married and escaped to Carmel, California to write poetry; there they would spend the rest of their lives.
At the height of his popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, Jeffers became one of the few poets ever featured on the cover of Time magazine, and posthumously put on a U.S. postage stamp. Writing by kerosene lamp in a granite tower that he had built himself, his vivid and descriptive poetry of the coast evoked the difficulty and beauty of the wild and inspired photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. He was known for long narrative blank verse that shook up the national literary scene, but in the 1940s his interest in the Greek classics led to several adaptations which were staged on Broadway to great success.
Inspiring later artists from Charles Bukowski to Czeslaw Milosz and even the Beach Boys, Robinson Jeffers' contribution to American letters is skillfully brought back out of the shadows of history in this compelling biography of a complex man of poetic genius who wrote so powerfully of the astonishing beauty of nature.
"James Karman's deeply informative biography of Robinson Jeffers situates the poet in his time and place, tracing the effect of both contemporary history and wild nature on his work. In eloquent prose Karman evokes the grandeur of Jeffers's poetry and argues for its author's unique position amid the constellation of major poets of his day."
– Edwin Cranston, Harvard University
"James Karman's new biography of Robinson Jeffers is an excellent introduction to one of America's greatest poets and a fine complement to Stanford University Press' exemplary editions of Jeffers' collected poetry and correspondence, the latter edited by Karman himself. The course of Jeffers' biography is clearly and deftly laid out, with particular attention to the most crucial relationship of his life, that with his wife Una. Each of his published books is individually considered, with trenchant analyses and generous quotations from key texts. The book situates Jeffers both among his major Modernist contemporaries and among the other poets – not necessarily less important – who constituted his milieu. It carefully tracks Jeffers' engagement with the history of his times, and the stance he marked out as its tragic observer. Finally, it shows Jeffers as a figure who evolved a singularly holistic view of humanity's place in the cosmic order at a time of fragmentation and division, and whose relevance to today's world has only grown with time. Karman's book will be of equal value to the introductory reader and the advanced specialist. It is written in a clear and supple prose that rises to more than occasional eloquence, and is generously illustrated with images both of the poet and of the wild California coast he made so uniquely his own."
– Robert Zaller, author of Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime
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James Karman, Emeritus Professor of English and Religious Studies at California State University, Chico, is the author of Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California (1987).