Rediscovering Robinson Jeffers: the Poet's Formative Years in L.A.

An avid hiker, Robinson Jeffers spent countless days in Southern California's San Gabriel Mountains during his 11 years in Los Angeles. His experience with the Southern California wilderness would later inform his unique perspective on humanity and the natural environment. Here, Jeffers hikes through what are probably the San Gabriel Mountains with fellow Occidental College student Robert Glass Cleland, ca., 1903-05. Courtesy of the Special Collections, Occidental College Library.

As a city that hosted such masters of the novel as Faulkner and Fitzgerald, provided sanctuary to European titans like Mann and Brecht, and produced its own homegrown stars like Raymond Chandler and Bret Easton Ellis, Los Angeles is no stranger to literary greatness. But the poet who -- according to at least one authority -- is among the greatest to emerge from the city too infrequently enters into discussions of L.A.'s literary legacy.

Next week, an afternoon festival at USC's Doheny Memorial Library celebrates the work and life of California poet Robinson Jeffers and sheds lights on Jeffers' eleven formative years in Los Angeles. Although the poet and environmentalist's strongest geographic associations may rest with the wave-pounded Central California coast, Southern California is a region that looms large in Jeffers' life story.

Revered at the prime of his career but neglected for many years after his death, Jeffers is one of California and the West's major literary figures. His poetry -- much of it inspired by the wild, rugged coastline that stretched south of his home in Carmel -- is distinctive for its engagement with the natural world and its minimization of humanity's place within it. A hero to the Sierra Club, Jeffers inspired generations of environmentalists. He also found widespread celebrity; in 1932, Jeffers became one of the few poets ever to appear on the cover of Time Magazine. But later in his career and after his death in 1962, Jeffers' celebrity -- weighed down by his indictment of human behavior and his controversial politics -- sank.

For more than 25 years, poet, USC professor, and former NEA chairman Dana Gioia has worked to rebuild Jeffers' legacy. A self-described champion of Jeffers, Gioia believes that conventional wisdom has grossly underestimated Jeffers' place within American letters.

"I consider Jeffers the most important American poet in the western third of the country --the great poet of the West," said Gioia, who is helping organize the Jeffers festival along with the Occidental College Library, Robinson Jeffers Association, Tor House Foundation, and the USC Libraries. "He's a titanic if singular figure."

Jeffers spent just slightly more than a decade in Southern California before moving to Carmel, but his years in Los Angeles -- the subject of the festival's keynote address by Jeffers biographer James Karman -- were influential ones. The city was, according to Gioia, Jeffers' "only true home before adulthood."

"He's the one world-class poet who emerged from Los Angeles," said Gioia. "Although he only achieved the fullness of his artistic vision in Carmel, he was formed by Los Angeles in ways that critics are only beginning to acknowledge."

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Robinson Jeffers, seated on the far left in the third row from the front, graduated from Occidental College in 1905. Courtesy of the Special Collections, Occidental College Library.

From 1903 to 1905, Jeffers attended Occidental College. Though it has since moved to Eagle Rock, the college's campus, pictured here in 1904, was then located in Highland Park. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The son of a disciplinarian father, Jeffers was born in 1887 in western Pennsylvania but never settled down until his family relocated to Southern California in 1903.

"His father had moved him around Europe, changing addresses and often languages virtually every year," Gioia said. "Jeffers came to Los Angeles at the verge of adolescence."

At the age of sixteen, Jeffers enrolled at Occidental College's Highland Park campus as a junior. After graduating in 1905, Jeffers continued his studies at the University of Southern California as a graduate student, first taking courses in foreign languages and then entering USC's medical school.

USC is where he met his wife and lifelong muse, Una.

Though their 1906 meeting in their advanced German class sparked a friendship, it was several years before their relationship would take a romantic turn. Once made public, their romance ruffled feathers in Los Angeles high society; Una was then a married woman, the wife of a well-connected attorney named Edward Kuster, and the affair led to the Kusters' divorce.

The love triangle twice made an appearance on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. After Jeffers and Una Kuster announced their plans to wed, the Times' Feb. 28, 1913 headline proclaimed: "Love's Gentle Alchemy to Weld Broken Lives."

Jeffers left Southern California for the Big Sur coast with his new wife the following year, but the poet left a changed man. His experiences in L.A. had transformed his worldview.

"His medical and scientific studies clearly helped form his notion of the material world being the ultimate reality," Gioia explained. "Jeffers was not quite an atheist, not quite a pantheist. He believed that the world, the universe, was God. That materialist philosophy came out of his experience at medical school."

Southern California's natural environment also made its mark. An avid hiker, Jeffers spent countless days exploring the San Gabriel Mountains north of Pasadena.

Jeffers' time in Southern California -- as well as his subsequent literary career -- is richly documented in the archives of the region's libraries. The Occidental College Library holds "one of the premier collections" related to Jeffers, according to special collections librarian Dale Ann Stieber.

Totaling 174 boxes, the library's Robinson Jeffers Collection includes original manuscripts, correspondence, published works, and photographs. The original materials are backed by a comprehensive compilation of critical works about Jeffers.

"This is one of our most unique and most committed collections," said Stieber, who will discuss the library's Jeffers materials at the Oct. 25 festival.

Its origins lie with a tight-knit literary circle that assembled itself around Occidental College (Oxy) in the 1930s. Led by Oxy graduates Ward Ritchie and Lawrence Clark Powell, the group formed a network that came to include Jeffers as both a correspondent and subject of scholarly inquiry. Powell, who later became UCLA's University Librarian, wrote his dissertation about Jeffers.

The USC University Archives at the USC Libraries also preserve some materials related to Jeffers, including poetry he published in a university newspaper.

Rare items from both collections will be on display at the festival.

The Aurora was a quarterly student publication at Occidental College. Jeffers published an early poem in this Feb. 1904 issue. Courtesy of the Special Collections, Occidental College.

Jeffers continued to publish his work in university publications as a student at the University of Southern California. Courtesy of the USC University Archives, USC Libraries.

Handwritten letter from Jeffers to critic and translator William Van Wyck. Courtesy of the William Van Wyck Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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