On January 10th, 1887, John Robinson Jeffers, most well known as simply Robinson
Jeffers, was born outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents were somewhat of an
odd fit. His father, Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers, was an extremely intelligent yet “reserved,
reclusive person” who married a happy upbeat woman who was 23 years younger than
himself (Coffin). Despite their age and personality differences, Dr. Jeffers and Annie
Robinson Tuttle had a secure marriage. Dr. Jeffers’s widespread education resulted in a
vast knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and the Old Testament. Dr. Jeffers was
eager to pass on his knowledge to Robinson. So, when Robinson was only five years old,
Dr. Jeffers began to teach him Greek (Academy of American Poets). Also starting at a
young age, Robinson traveled throughout Europe. From age eleven to fifteen, Robinson
attended several different European boarding schools: in Zurich, Leipzig, Geneva, Vevey,
and Lausanne (Coffin). Though Dr. Jeffers was responsible for Robinson’s frequent
transfers, his reasoning is unknown. At each school, Jeffers was seen by his peers as
reclusive and pensive—much like his father. In 1903, when Jeffers was 16, he relocated
yet another time with his family to Pasadena, California where he enrolled at Occidental
College as a junior. Here, Jeffers succeeded immediately and immensely in courses
such as biblical literature, Greek, and astronomy. Jeffer’s natural ambition to learn and
his knowledge of numerous languages impressed everyone around him. As a result,
Jeffers made life-long friends and took up hiking—a hobby that he would enjoy for the
Right after graduating from Occidental College with a BA in literature at age 18,
Jeffers enrolled at the University of South California as a literature major (Brophy 2).
During his first year at USC, Jeffers met his future wife, Una Call Kuster, who was married
to a Los Angeles attorney. In 1906, Jeffers went with his family to live in Europe. At this
time, he attended the University of Zurich where he took courses in philosophy, history,
Old English, and Spanish poetry. When fall came, Jeffers returned to the University of
Southern California as a medical student (Academy of American Poets). Jeffers
remained a medical student for three years, a long time considering Jeffers was enrolled
in 9 different schools or programs in 13 years. In 1910, Jeffers decided to leave USC and
transferred to the University of Washington to study forestry.
Though Jeffers only earned a BA in his many years at different universities, he
benefited from his diverse education in many aspect of his life. Obviously, his literary and
linguistic knowledge improved his poetry. “The influence of his medical training persists
in the physiological imagery and descriptions that permeate his poetry; while his studies
of forestry served him daily . . . as he tended the hundreds of trees that he planted
around his house” (Butterfield 414).
Despite Jeffer’s frequent changes in location, school, and study, his love for Una
Call Kuster did not falter. After meeting Una in 1905, “eight years of confusion, emotional
storm and struggle, and parental disapproval followed for them until 1913, when Una was
divorced, quite unacrimoniously” (Butterfield 414). On August 2nd, 1913, Robinson and
Una were married. Like Jeffers, Una was diversely educated and intelligent. She earned a
masters degree in philosophy and was “an expert lecturer on Irish music, architecture,
and art, and was an avid reader and a book reviewer for a small California magazine”
While living in La Jolla for a few months after getting married, Una and Jeffers
planned on moving to Lyme Regis, England where Jeffers would pursue a career in
writing. But in 1914 they decided against going abroad due to the commencement of
World War I and Una’s pregnancy. The beginning of the war caused him great angst
because “he was torn between an idealism that drove him toward enlistment despite
domestic ties and the beginning of a philosophical pacifism” (Brophy 3). Also very
painful for Jeffers was the death of his first daughter, Maeve, one day after she was born
In September of 1914, Una and Jeffers moved to Carmel, California whose “rocky,
fog-bound coast may have seemed the closest available approximation of England to
Jeffers” (Zaller 3). Unfortunately their new-found happiness was not to last. On
December 20th of 1914, Jeffers’s father died. Dr. Jeffers’s death was “deeply disquieting”
to Jeffers who expressed his mourning through poems such as “To His Father” and “The
Year of Mourning” (Butterfield 415).
Right around the time Jeffers published his second book, Californians, Una gave
birth to twin boys, Donnan and Garth. When the boys were 3 years old, the Jeffers family
bought a piece of land that had a magnificent view of Carmel Bay and Point Lobos.
Robinson Jeffers immediately began building a stone cottage by hand using only stones
from his land. When the house was finished, Jeffers began constructing what would
become a “four-tiered, forty-foot tower, five years abuilding, from which he could
overlook the Pacific, the coastal landscape south toward the Big Sur, and the night sky
filled with brilliant stars” (Brophy 4). This tower was very important to his family and
influential and evident in his poetry.
Though his building projects took several years, Jeffers was constantly writing in
the meantime. “Jeffers’s daily schedule, since the early 1920s expansion of Tor House,
was unswerving: writing in the mornings, usually in the upper floor of his cottage, and
stone work or tree-planting in the afternoons” (Brophy 6). After the day’s work was done,
“there were awesome sunsets, walks under the constellations, reading by kerosene
lamps (electricity came only in 1949), and occasional trips to the tower parapet to
attune his micro-cosm to the universe of stars and galaxies” (Brophy 6). From 1924 to
1938, Jeffers published ten books. Consequently, “Jeffers’s literary reputation
skyrocketed in the 1920s and crested in the 30s—” he was voted into the National
Institute of Arts and Letters and was awarded with honorary in Humane Letters from
Occidental College (Brophy 4, Zaller xiv). In 1941, Jeffers went on a reading and speaking
tour paid for by the Library of Congress; he somehow also found time to complete and
release Be Angry at the Sun. Three years later, Jeffers was voted into the American
Academy of Arts and Letters. This honor was followed by his much-liked remake of
Medea which was featured on Broadway in 1947 by the National Theatre (Zaller xiv).
Life took a turn for the worse in 1948. On a trip to Ireland with Una, Jeffers nearly
died of pleurisy (Brophy 7). That same year, he published The Double Axe which
“produced a dramatic downturn in his critical reputation” (Brophy 5). For several years
before it arrived, Jeffers had been predicting and fearing a second World War. His poems
in The Double Axe were so harsh and “capable of patriotically motivated treason” that
Random House publishers put a disclaimer on the book in an effort to “disassociate
themselves” from Jeffers’ views (Butterfield 416). Many of Jeffers’s poems openly
criticized the authority and decisions of world leaders—Stalin, Roosevelt, and Hitler—
and the negative events that came as consequences of their choices (Coffin).
In addition to a downfall in reputation, Jeffers was disturbed by Una’s serious
illness in early 1949. Her health continued to disintegrate until she passed away on
September 1st of 1950. Above and beyond being a faithful spouse, Una was “a forceful,
possessive, protective woman” and consequently, “she had been an immeasurable
source of strength” to Jeffers (Butterfield 416).
After Una’s death, Jeffers kept to himself writing a few brief yet profound poems
which he organized into a book called Hungerfield and Other Poems which was published
in 1954. In the eleven years that Jeffers lived after Una’s death, he received the Eunice
Tietjens Memorial Prize, the Borestone Mountain Award, the Award of the Academy of
American Poets, and the Shelly Memorial Award. Jeffers took one last trip to Ireland to
visit the countryside that Una had loved so much (Zaller xv). After this final excursion,
Jeffers stayed at the Tor House and slowly wasted away. Despite his immense sadness,
Jeffers did not break “the pact he had made early in his career, not to take his own life but
to drink it all, even to the dregs” (Brophy 7). On January 20th in 1962, Jeffers died at the
Tor House. Jeffers was “a major poet, uncomfortable, disturbing, savage at times, yet
inspiriting and enhancing” (Butterfield 439).
Academy of American Poets. 1997. 3 April 2001.
Brophy, Robert. “Poet of Carmel-Sur.” Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet. Ed.
Robert Brophy. New York: Fordham University Press, 1995. 1-18.
Brophy, Robert. “Robinson Jeffers: Poet for the New Century.”
Jeffers Studies. 1 August 1998. 2 April 2001.
Butterfield, R.W. “Robinson Jeffers.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary
Biographies, Supplement VII, Part
Two. Ed. A. Walton Litz. New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1981. 413-40.
Coffin, Arthur. “Robinson Jeffers’ Life and Career.” Modern
American Poetry. 2 April 2001.
Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson
Jeffers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
On January 10th, 1887, John Robinson Jeffers, most well known as simply Robinson