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This review is taken from PN Review 85, Volume 18 Number 5, May - June 1992.

FRED ASTAIRE & THE VULTURES William H. Pritchard, Randall Jarrell, A Literary Life (Michael Di Capua Books, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) $25.00
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (W.W. Norton) £16.95
Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by Lee Bartlett (W.W. Norton) £18.95

Pritchard's subtitle reflects what he sees as Jarrell's priority, and establishes a parallel one of his own. Jarrell was 'most himself when reading, writing, and teaching', he tells us, 'activities that often prove unexciting when viewed from the outside'. Pritchard's task therefore is to get us as far as possible inside them, which he does with considerable success.

But the assumptions that lie behind his approach, and the particular sort of literary analysis and evaluation that it compels, should not go unchallenged. In his introduction Pritchard quotes a remark by Lowell to the effect that '[Jarrell's] body was a little ghostly in its immunity to soil, entanglements, and rebellion'. Such judgements are of course relative - relative to the behaviour of the judge, that is - and Pritchard is too ready to allow Lowell's verdict on his friend to colour his own view, or rather to drain colour from it. After all (for example), Jarrell married two women and fell in love with a third, though it has to be conceded in support of Pritchard's general thesis that in at least two of the three cases the romances began at academic or literary conferences. But it's not being voyeuristic to demand some more detail here, since private life is part of the context of the poetry, and context is what one goes to a biography for. Jarrell's verse often deals with family matters, after all; indeed his personae and protagonists are frequently female.

A case ...

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