Monday, May 6, 2019

Happy birthday, Randall Jarrell!

Portrait of Randall Jarrell taken during his first year at Woman's College, 1947-48.

To honor Randall Jarrell’s 105th birthday, we are highlighting his life and career. One of UNC Greensboro's most famous faculty members, Jarrell was a renowned poet, author, critic, and instructor.

Jarrell was born on May 6, 1914, in Nashville, Tennessee. Jarrell’s parents, Owen and Anna Campbell Jarrell, divorced early in Jarrell’s life. His childhood was split between California and Nashville, Tennessee. Jarrell showed an interest in writing and the arts early in his life – while at Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, he was active in drama and journalism.

L to R: Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and
Peter Hillsman Taylor, lifelong friends.
Jarrell enrolled in Vanderbilt University in 1932. Continuing his interest in writing at Vanderbilt, he wrote for and later edited the Vanderbilt Masquerader, a campus humor magazine. Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.S. in psychology in 1935 and an M.A. in 1938.

Both his undergraduate and graduate life were punctuated by major American literary figures, specifically poets. While an undergraduate student, Jarrell took courses from John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, major American poets. As a graduate student, Jarrell befriended two more future acclaimed authors, Peter Hillsman Taylor and Robert Lowell. Jarrell was also beginning to distinguish himself as an emerging literary figure – in 1936, he received the Southern Review Poetry Prize.
Uniformed Jarrell posing with a cat.

After leaving Vanderbilt, Jarrell served as an English instructor at Kenyon College from 1937-1939. In 1942, Jarrell joined the U.S. Army Air Force. Initially, he served as a flying cadet, but washed out of being a pilot and became a celestial navigation tower operator until his discharge in 1946. Jarrell’s poetry was often influenced by World War II and his experiences in the armed forces.

Two books of Jarrell’s poetry were published during his time in the military. Blood for a Stranger, Jarrell’s first book of poetry was published in 1942. Jarrell’s second book of poetry, Little Friend, Little Friend, was published in 1945. Once discharged from the army in 1946, Jarrell served as the temporary editor of The Nation in New York City, taking over for Margaret Marshall.

After his stint at The Nation concluded, Jarrell moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. Jarrell joined the English faculty of the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (now UNC Greensboro) in 1947. He remained a permanent member of the Woman’s College faculty until his death in 1965.

Mary and Randall Jarrell dancing, ca. 1960s.
In the early 1950s, Jarrell met and married his second wife, Mary von Schrader. Jarrell took several temporary teaching positions at universities across the country during the 1950s – including Princeton University, Indiana University, and the University of Illinois. Jarrell also served as the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress for two years.

Jarrell returned to Woman’s College and resumed teaching in 1958. In 1960, while teaching at Woman’s College, Jarrell published one of his most famous books of poetry: The Woman at the Washington Zoo. The book received the National Book Award for poetry in 1961 and the University of North Carolina’s Max O. Gardner Award in 1962.

Despite being known for poetry, Jarrell also published a novel and a number of children’s books during the 1950s and 1960s. A lifelong lover of cats, Jarrell dedicated one of his children's books, The Animal Family, to his cat Elfi. Fly by Night, another children’s book, was published posthumously in 1976.

An edited sheet from Jarrell's  poem,
"The End of the Rainbow," from his papers.
The Lost World, Jarrell’s last book of poetry, was published in 1965. At the time, Jarrell was living in Chapel Hill and teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. While walking along a road in October, Jarrell was struck by a car and killed. Mary Jarrell never remarried after Jarrell’s death and worked tirelessly to preserve both his personal and literary memory. 

Jarrell was instrumental to the history of UNC Greensboro, particularly the creative writing and English programs, and remains a beloved figure on campus. Randall Jarrell’s papers – including manuscripts of his poetry, photographs, translations of plays, and more – are housed at the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.


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