Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California

Yawn. This kind of hagiography masquerading as a biography does a disservice to its subject. I’m left feeling even more distant from the poet Jeffers than I was before picking up this book in preparation for an upcoming visit to Tor House. Was Jeffers  simply not a very interesting person, or did the biographer do little but spew what passes as the work of a second-grader? The sentence structure is so simplified, it feels like reading a Dick and Jane primer.

Apparently this crew loved to kill themselves with cyanide (it merits its own entry in the index!), as this flat sentence states: “Nora had swallowed cyanide, the sediment from which was found in her glass.” Another example of the terrible writing, w/r/t George Sterling, whose former wife “Carrie, who never stopped loving him, ended her life with poetic flair in August 1918. She carefully arranged her hair, put on a dressing gown and placed a recording of Chopin’s Funeral March on the gramophone. Then she took a lethal dose of cyanide, lay down on her bed and, listing to the somber strains of music, joined her own procession to the grave.” [“Never stopped loving him”? Don’t bother citing any evidence for this, just her suicide, right?] Sterling’s pal Jack London also possibly suicided, but nothing about London’s undying love for Sterling here. Sterling himself later opted out of life with his own packet of cyanide.

Most egregious, as is always the case with these terrible bios of men, is the treatment of women. When Jeffers’ wife Uma is initially introduced, she’s “strikingly beautiful and very intelligent,” reading Faust. While getting her master’s degree at USC, she was a married woman who fell in love with Jeffers, eventually ditching her marriage and studies to drive up the coast and launch his poetic career in Carmel. Her own pastimes became sewing and doing “household chores” (the biographer can’t be bothered to be more descriptive).  “Her children were at the center of her life.” Following the usual playbook, Jeffers has several affairs, one of which was arranged by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who “decided that Jeffers should have an affair. Only the passionate embrace of a younger woman could revivify his spirits and restore the flow of creative energy within… Jeffers either pursued the woman or surrendered to her charms.” Christ on a cracker.

What I’m taking away from this is that Robinson Jeffers lived a charmed life, discovering a wild and serene place where he built a home for his family and where he was able to howl at the moon while writing his poetry, listening to the waves crash nearby. My only consolation is that as time passed, Carmel got increased tourist traffic and grumpy Jeffers put up signs trying to drive people away but they liked picnicking on the rocks below his house, almost driving him away.