Book Essay - Winter 2017

The Gogol Notebook

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Remembering Randall Jarrell’s passionate lectures on Russian literature and discovering the pangs of alienation that plagued the poet during his final years

Randall Jarrell at home with his cat Elfi, to whom The Animal Family is dedicated, circa 1964 (UNC Greensboro Special Collections and University Archives)

By Angela Davis-Gardner

December 5, 2016


Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the mid-20th century, taught a seminar in Russian literature at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the fall of 1964. I was an MFA student in fiction at the time and a member of Jarrell’s class—the last he saw through to the end before his death at the age of 51. One night in October 1965, Jarrell was killed by a car when walking along a highway in Chapel Hill. Although the driver said Jarrell had “lunged” at the car, the coroner ruled the death an accident for lack of sufficient evidence to confirm suicide. (He also concluded that the driver was not at fault.) Jarrell’s wife, Mary, always maintained that his death had been accidental, but his friends were convinced that he had killed himself. Jarrell’s biographer William Pritchard has pointed out that although the circumstances of Jarrell’s death will always remain unclear, something in him evidently “gave way” during his final years.

I saw that giving way in Jarrell’s seminar. Though his lectures, most of them about Nikolai Gogol, were mesmerizing, he sometimes seemed agitated and depressed. He occasionally veered into obsessive talk about Johnny Unitas, the quarterback nicknamed the Golden Arm, who was leading the Baltimore Colts to the NFL championship game that year. Jarrell, an avid football fan, told us of a recent encounter with Unitas on an airplane. Jarrell greeted his hero rhapsodically, but—to his dismay—Unitas had never heard of him, one of America’s most celebrated poets. Otherwise Jarrell was focused on Gogol, the wildly inventive, tormented Russian genius who himself committed suicide during a crisis in his writing life.

I had known Jarrell since I was in high school—I thought of him as Randall then. He and Mary were friends of my writer parents (my father was a historian, my mother a journalist), and Mary’s daughter Beatrice was my friend. The Jarrells frequently visited our Greensboro home on summer afternoons for picnics and tennis, Randall, my mother, and my brother in tennis whites, my father pouring lemonade from a silver pitcher. Sometimes other friends from town joined them, drawn by my mother, a nationally ranked player in her youth. She and Randall—a former tennis coach at Kenyon College—were fierce competitors; in doubles they were always on opposite sides of the net. Privately my mother fumed that Randall “cheated” by stamping his feet during her service; my brother, whom our mother was grooming for tournament play, and who sometimes partnered Randall, said that Randall dominated their side of the court, sliding over for a shot with an “I got it.” But the play seemed cheerful, the hypnotic sound of long volleys punctuated by Randall’s cries of “Peachy shot!” Mary watched the play from the sidelines. Between points, she and Randall blew kisses to each other. “Hello, pussycat.” “Hello, pussycat.”

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Angela Davis-Gardner is the author of four novels, most recently Butterfly’s Child. She is a distinguished professor emerita at North Carolina State University.

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