Wife to Poet Robinson Jeffers Comes Alive in Memoir Edited by James Karman

Covers of Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California and
Una Jeffers: a Memoir, published by Storyline
Press. (photo Jeff Teeter)
Her rages and mad bursts of temper are always exciting. There is something forever thrilling about Una's unleashed emotions. And because Robin "is by nature cold," the contrast has never ceased to fascinate him.

—from Edith Greenan's Of Una Jeffers (Story Line Press, 1998, edited and introduced by James Karman)

Just reissued by Story Line Press and edited and introduced by James Karman, professor of English and coordinator of the Humanities Program at Chico State, Of Una Jeffers makes a fine companion to Karman's earlier work, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California, handsomely reissued by Story Line (1995) with many new photographs, some of them stunning shots of the Big Sur landscape by photographer Morley Baer. Greenan's memoir was originally published in a limited edition in 1939 and has never been available to the general public until now. Karman worked closely with Greenan's children to produce this edition, which also includes many photographs as well as excerpts from original drafts.

Edith Greenan was seventeen when her husband-to-be took her to meet his first wife, Una, who had since married the poet Robinson Jeffers. Though "panic-stricken," Greenan tells us, "I wanted to meet her more than anyone else in the world." The meeting was to have a lasting effect upon her life. Writes Greenan in the memoir she composed several years later, "As the evening passed I watched and listened to Una with a sudden deep emotion. I already adored her. She was the most alluring, unstudied woman I ever met." The two became close friends almost at once, and how lucky for fans of the poet that they did. Greenan's engaging memoir illuminates aspects of the Jeffers' life together we might not otherwise know.
James Karman, English (photo DA)

The book delights with its details. Una was a woman who "would roar like a lion" while taking her cold bath each morning, and she possessed a voracious appetite for life's beauty: "…she would look out the window—then, enraptured by the flash of a blue jay's wing or the beauty of the pine trees, she would bring that beauty into the room and give it to us." She knew the names of all the wildflowers and most of the birds that lived near their home, Tor House, and adored English bulldogs and Irish poets. According to Greenan, "There is probably no living person today who knows Yeats' works as Una does."

This affectionate portrait of Una is also, of course, a picture of "Robin" and of Greenan herself. Through that eerie reversal of vision that a good memoir encourages, we come to see the author as we sense her subjects did: as an open-hearted young woman, a dancer whose beauty and idealism fired both spirit and imagination. Although Greenan's marriage to Edward Kuster lasted only a short time, she stayed close to the Jeffers, visiting often, plainly enchanted by both of them—and enchanting in turn. One of Greenan's impromptu dances along the shore "had helped Robin to the vision of Fauna, dancing ankle-deep, in the lapping waves," Una once told her. Other poems, Karman suggests, bear traces of her presence as well. That Una, by all accounts a rather jealous woman, doesn't seem to have harbored any suspicions about Greenan is interesting. Years later, however, when Una attempted suicide, Greenan appears to have sensed it. Karman writes, "At just this moment, Edith began work on her memoir," a project which helped both women center their lives again, for Edith's long marriage to James Greenan was breaking up around the same time.

Greenan's richly anecdotal memoir makes a welcome addition to the growing body of Jeffers studies. Although he has been largely ignored, if not maligned, by the academic literary establishment in the years since his death, he continues to arouse the interest of other thinkers. In a recent interview, Karman pointed out, "Jeffers has been compared by [noted physicist] Freeman Dyson…to Einstein, not just because of his political and social vision but also his desire to discover a broader, truer sense of the universe and our place in it. Environmentalists like David Brower were drawn to him, and scientists like Loren Eisley; great historians of religion like Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith were avid students of Jeffers; and the photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston rooted their understanding of the sublime in nature, which they tried to capture in their art, in their reading of Jeffers." Of the home in Carmel that Jeffers built for Una with his own hands, stone by stone, incorporating such things as a meteor fragment and a stone from Ossian's grave, Karman added, "Stewart Brand, who wrote a book named How Buildings Learn, called Tor House the most intelligent building per square inch ever built in America." The adjacent Hawk Tower, "inspired by dreams of old Irish towers," which Jeffers also constructed of stone and myriad objects of sacred and literary interest, is also a fitting monument to the woman Jeffers "thought of as a falcon."

Although the poet and critic Dana Gioia predicts a major revival of Jeffers' reputation in the years to come, "not from professors, but from poets," Karman is keen to see Jeffers taken more seriously in academia. To that end he has also published Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers (G.K. Hall, 1990), a portion of which has recently been translated into German. Botho Strauss, a leading German author, included Karman's introduction in a book that accompanied a play about Jeffers staged last summer in Berlin. What's more, Karman has just received a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Humanities to complete his two-volume edition of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, to be published by Stanford University Press. It will contain all of Robinson's letters, about a thousand, and roughly half of Una's two thousand.


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