Poet Against Empire

Culture in the American interest.

When I mention that I am reading Robinson Jeffers, even cultivated and well-read people look bemused; the name seems obscure.  By way of explanation, I borrow the closing words of the classic gangster film The Roaring Twenties: “He used to be a big shot.”  Just how big Jeffers had once been is hard to convey today, and so is the depth of his collapse in reputation.

But the case for rediscovering Jeffers is overwhelming.  On so many points, he speaks to strictly contemporary concerns and obsessions: about American identity, torn by endemic conflict between republican values and the imperial/military dynamic; about urbanism and corruption; about localism and regionalism, and a patriotism rooted in landscape; about the natural world or “the environment,” and deep time.  And he held to his core values faithfully against the growing hostility of the larger culture.  Had he been more prepared to shift those views, to tack to the prevailing winds, he would not have vanished as thoroughly as he has from popular consciousness.

Born in 1887, Jeffers first earned national celebrity with collections such as Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925).  He scored more triumphs through the 1940’s, and remained vigorously productive until his death in 1962.  For much of the mid 20th century, Jeffers enjoyed a stunning reputation.  When Edward Abbey...

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