Thursday, April 25, 2019

Poet Against Empire

From Philip Jenkins at Chronicles:
The affair shows how far the U.S. political spectrum had shifted since December 1941. Before Pearl Harbor, isolationist and America First views were thoroughly respectable, and even mainstream: The America First Committee was an authentic grassroots mass movement, the youthful supporters of which included both John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford. By 1948, in contrast, Jeffers’ poems made him sound like a fascist diehard, which he assuredly was not. And all this at a time when FDR had achieved a kind of secular sanctity, so that Jeffers seemed to be spouting blasphemy. In his distant fastness at Carmel, he looked less like a prophetic Western visionary than a ranting foe of democracy and modernity, a Californian counterpart to Ezra Pound. 
The Double Axe affair certainly did not end his career, and his dramatic works enjoyed spectacular global success, especially his Medea. But if other poets and authors continued to adore him, his stock in the public market fell catastrophically. For decades, he was not taught in academe, and only recently has he regained some popularity as a pioneering Modernist. That, in short, is how one of the truly great American writers dropped off the cultural map. 
I began by quoting an iconic American film, so let me end in the same vein. In Sunset Boulevard (1950), a faded silent-movie actress angrily rejects the suggestion that she used to belong to the big time. “I am big,” she says: “It’s the pictures that got small.” We might say something similar about Robinson Jeffers, who asserted big values and ideas in a diminished culture, a shrunken public square. It was not that the grand causes that he championed had lost their relevance or shriveled in significance in his final years—far from it. Ideally, those issues should have been central to cultural debate in the decades following his death, in the turmoil of the 1960’s, and in the forward march of the military-imperial state. It was not that Jeffers had slipped from the big time, but rather that the culture had become too small-minded to hear his words, too limited to comprehend their Classical and Biblical underpinnings. (Read more.)

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