- The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume Two, 1931–1939 by James Karman
When Time magazine featured Robinson Jeffers on its April 4, 1932, cover to mark the publication of Thurso’s Landing, it signaled that Jeffers’s poetry was cultural news. When Random House reissued Jeffers’s 1925 collection Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems as a Modern Library title in 1935, it signaled that Jeffers mattered both for the poetry elite and the serious general reader. When Random House, in 1938, published the massive, deluxe The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, it celebrated Jeffers as a modern writer of the first rank, a peer to William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. The second volume of James Karman’s projected three-volume edition of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, which covers 1931 to 1939, presents a rich record of the back story to the seemingly serene surface of Jeffers’s career in the years of his greatest prominence.
Like the first volume of the edition, this second volume balances a clear, readable presentation of the letters with a judicious record of revisions and annotations that thoroughly document the letters’ cultural and social context. Karman’s meticulous scholarship is always in service of the stories the letters have to tell, never displayed for its own sake. The result, as with the first volume, is a book that fully meets the needs of scholars while serving general readers—both those interested in Jeffers’s poetry and those concerned with literary communities in the West during the first half of the twentieth century.
Karman’s decision to include the “selected” correspondence of Una Jeffers, the poet’s wife, is particularly helpful in this second volume. Her letters to editors and publishers underscore her management of Jeffers’s career that includes practical matters (collecting stray royalties, coordinating with publishers, and the like) and her work to maintain what today, in this Internet age, might be termed the Jeffers “brand.” Poems might be inexplicable acts of genius or complex social acts (depending on one’s theoretical bent), but having a career as a poet is at least in part, as Una Jeffers clearly understood, a matter of taking care of business and networking. At the opposite extreme, her letters to her circle of friends and acquaintances illuminate the daily life of the Jeffers household and the social networks that were the private backdrop to Jeffers’s own letters to friends and literary acquaintances—letters that are almost always [End Page 431] generous, at times offer valuable glimpses of how he viewed his work, but are never simply casual or chatty.
Perhaps what is most revelatory in these letters is the gap they document between Jeffers’s persona of “Jeffers,” the “I” who speaks so many of his poems, and the actual Jeffers who wrote the poems—a construction that, clearly, Robinson and Una Jeffers understood in literary terms. Writing her friend Phoebe Barkan, on March 30, 1934, Una Jeffers mentions reading a recently published biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, then adds, “There is no woman in life or literature with whom I feel in a thousand ways so close an affinity” (308). In an undated 1939 letter, written shortly after a period of marital difficulties and while he was struggling with writer’s block, Jeffers wrote to Una that he was “not willing yet to grow old at fifty like Wordsworth … something will happen—and life through this hell come home to me—something will change” (1049). That Una seems to have understood herself as Dorothy Wordsworth to Jeffers’s William and that Jeffers, as well, seems to have seen William as a kind of precursor (to learn from and resist) suggests how central their relationship was to his writing and his reception. If, as some have suggested, the story of Robinson and Una Jeffers is one of the great literary love stories, then it is also...