Rediscovering Robinson Jeffers

Professor emeritus James Karman’s new books may spark renewed interest in once-famous poet

CSU, Chico professor emeritus James Karman is enjoying the fruits of many years of labor with the recent publication of two books about poet Robinson Jeffers.

In addition to being a culminating achievement for Karman, the books may lead to a critical re-appraisal of Jeffers, who was once one of the nation’s most famous poets, yet is far less known today. 

Karman, who taught literature, religion, and humanities at CSU, Chico from 1977 to 2003, is a world-renowned scholar on Jeffers, having previously published seven books, other articles, and book reviews on the California poet during his distinguished career. 

In August, Karman published Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet (Stanford University Press, 2015), a concise biography oriented to a general audience that draws on material from Karman’s prior works. In July, Stanford University Press published the final volume of Karman’s most ambitious work: The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume Three, 1940-1962. The three volumes of letters together, some 3,000 pages in total, took more than 20 years to complete and led Karman throughout the country in search of primary material.

“Jim Karman is the world’s foremost scholar of the life of Robinson Jeffers,” said CSU, Chico professor Jed Wyrick, chair of the Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities and the Center for the Public Understanding of Religion. “In his scholarly detective work, Karman is a dog with a bone—gnawing on the thorniest references in the letters of Jeffers, and those of Una Jeffers, until he uncovers hidden nuances of personal interactions and pierces each letter's mythological and philosophical resonances. It is his loving fascination with this rich world that makes Karman's edition more than just a collection of documents, which would be impressive enough. These three volumes also provide a guided tour of the cultural and intellectual orbit of a truly astounding American literary giant.”

In 1932, in the midst of publishing widely praised and purchased books of poetry, Jeffers was chosen to be on the cover of Time magazine. Even in that era of greater appreciation for poetry, being on the cover of the country’s leading news magazine was an assignation to greatness. Yet, by the time of his death in 1962, Jeffers was no longer considered in the company of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and other leading modernists.

Multiple reasons contributed to Jeffers’ fall from grace, particularly his unwavering critique of humankind’s devastation of the earth and annihilation of each other. He refused to condemn atrocities by one warring side and not the other, and wrote that the world would be better off without humans, a philosophy viewed as too morose and eccentric by the 20th century arbiters of literary taste. 

Since his death, Jeffers has occasionally regained some broad recognition, such as when his portrait appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1973, but generally he has appealed to a cadre of scholars fascinated with myriad aspects of Jeffers’ work, including his mythic themes, naturalistic spirituality, and prescient sense of disasters, environmental and man-made. 

In a long review of Karman’s new works in the Sepember 5 The Wall Street Journal, David Mason, poet laureate of Colorado and professor at Colorado College, expressed hope that Karman’s books would restore interest in Jeffers. “Perhaps now,” Mason wrote, “with the publication of the third and final volume of his letters and a short biography by their editor, James Karman, the time has come to bring Jeffers back to a wide readership.”

The cover of Karman’s recent biography of poet Robinson Jeffers.

The cover of Karman’s recent biography of poet Robinson Jeffers.

In August, a starred review in Booklist highlighted Karman’s new biography and remarked on Jeffers’ importance: “This elegant review of a truly unique poet who has become a prophet of modern environmentalism belongs in all American literature collections.”

Karman wrote his PhD dissertation on Jeffers at Syracuse University, and planned to continue studying Jeffers when he arrived at CSU, Chico. “I knew I would be at a disadvantage compared to scholars at doctoral-level universities, who would have fewer classes to teach and research assistants available,” said Karman. “Fortunately, the University administration and my faculty colleagues have been eager to be of assistance, for which I am very grateful.” 

Over the years, Karman has received a research and writing grant from CSU, Chico and a Chancellor’s Research Award, as well as funding from the Judith Rothschild Foundation, the Book Club of California, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He especially feels like he could never have accomplished the work without the help of his wife, Paula, retired staff member from the Office of International and Sponsored Programs. “As my research and editorial assistant, she has been involved in the project every step of the way,” said Karman. “The books could not have been finished without her.”

An advantage Karman did gain in his research at CSU, Chico was the relative proximity to the California Central Coast and Carmel, where Jeffers lived most of his life and built Tor House, a national historic landmark. Perhaps more importantly, Robinson and Una Jeffers’ twin sons, Garth and Donnan, both lived in Northern California and were supportive of Karman’s research. “During the letters project, circles have been closed, wounds healed, truths told, and history made more accurate,” said Karman, “and even with some of the sensitive material, the Jeffers family was always willing to help.”

Starting in 1989, when he signed the contract with Stanford University Press to produce the collected letters of Jeffers, Karman traveled to places across the country to track down correspondence, such as the libraries of Yale; Columbia; University of Texas, Austin; University of San Francisco; and Occidental College, where Jeffers earned his BA at the age of 18. Eighty-two public libraries and special collections and 47 private collections and sources were checked for Jeffers' letters for Volume One alone.

Ultimately, Karman located more than 3,000 letters from Robinson or Una Jeffers to various friends, fellow poets, publishers and readers. Because Una was a more prolific letter writer than her husband, and often described the work he was in the process of doing, Karman quickly realized his project would include her correspondence as well. Among the luminaries of the 20th century they wrote to were Judith Anderson, Langston Hughes, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Arlington Robinson, Sara Teasdale, Mark Van Doren, and Leonard Woolf.

As Karman explains in the conclusion of his new biography, Jeffers is a crucially distinctive and important poet among his contemporaries for combining classical influences with innovation. “This very fact makes it possible to miss him, and helps to explain some of the silence surrounding his work,” Karman writes. “An implicit argument of this book, however, is that Jeffers is essential to understanding ourselves, the twentieth century, and the world. No study of American history or literature is complete without him.”

Public Affairs and Publications director Joe Wills may be reached at jwills@csuchico.edu.

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