Randall Jarrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee in May of 1914. As a young man, he attended Hume-Fogg High School. It was here that he first began thinking seriously about writing. These thoughts coalesced into satirical essays published in the school magazine. While in high school he also spent time acting and playing tennis.
Jarrel entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville in the early 1930s. He spent time editing the student paper, The Masquerader, and also served as the captain of the tennis team. Later, he graduated magna cum laude in 1935 with his B.A. Two years later he received his master’s degree from the same university. His thesis work, which he began soon after, was on A.E. Houseman. While enrolled at Vanderbilt he met a number of the instructors who would eventually help in the furthering of his career. These included Allen Tate, who first published Jarrell’s poetry, Robert Penn Warren, and John Carew Ransom.
It was around this period of time that Jarrell left Vanderbilt to attended Kenyon College in Ohio. This was due to the transfer of his much-loved instructor John Carew Ransom. While there, Jarrell was able to teach English for two years and work as a tennis coach. He also came into contact with future poet Robert Lowell who became his good friend for many years.
From 1939 to 1942 Jarrell taught at the University of Texas at Austin. It was here that he first began to publish his criticism. He also met his first wife, Mackie Langham. In 1942 he left the university to join the Air Force. Jarrell moved quickly through the ranks, working as a flying cadet and celestial navigation tower operator. One of the poems for which he is best known, ‘The Death of Ball Turret Gunner’ was inspired by his time in the army.
It was in 1942 that his first work, Blood for A Stranger was published. His second collection, Little Friend, Little Friend was released in 1945 and solidified his career as a writer. It was a deeply empathetic volume focused on the struggles of soldiers in combat. In 1947 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, then later, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
After being discharged from the service Randall Jarrell began work at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. He was only there for a year before moving out of the city. Eventually, Jarrell landed at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina where he taught modern poetry and writing. In 1952 Jarrell and his first wife divorced and he met and married Mary von Schrader. They lived for a time in Illinois and Washington D.C. These years saw the publication of Poetry and the Age in 1953 and Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy in 1954.
Depression and Death
In 1956, he was named as the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. This was a position that would soon be renamed, “Poet Laureate.” During the mid-1960s Jarrell’s mental and emotional health began to decline. He spent time on various anti-depressive medications and within hospitals. These later years were still marked by a great deal of production though. He won the National Book Award for poetry and his collection, Selected Poems including The Woman at the Washington Zoo was published in 1964. It was followed by The Bat-Poet and The Gingerbread Rat.
In October of 1965, Randall Jarrell was struck by a car in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He died on impact. Although opinion is split, many deemed the incident a suicide rather than an accident. Robert Lowell and other writers were of the mind that Jarrell’s depression had finally forced him to suicide. Others, such as Jarrell’s wife and the state of North Carolina deemed it an accident. Jarrell was buried in Greensboro, North Carolina. A marker was later placed on the highway commemorating his life.
After his death, a memorial service was held a Yale University. This event was attended by some of the country’s best-known poets, including Robert Lower and Robert Penn Warren. As the years have passed, additional books of Jarrell’s criticism have been published. His work has also been included in anthologies. In 1985 a collection titled, Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection was published. More recently, in 1995 HarperCollins published, No Other Book: Selected Essays.