The talented American poet and environmentalist was nationally known for his creative work about the central California area. But for USC, honoring this great talent comes from a more personal place: Jeffers was a USC alumnus.
The event, which takes place from noon to 5:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Doheny Memorial Library, will feature a prominent panel of speakers from USC’s history and English departments and the Keck School of Medicine, as well as from Occidental College. Panelists will include Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the award-winning Mars trilogy; Jeffers’ biographer James Karman; USC professors Kevin Starr, Dana Gioia, Devin Griffiths, William Deverell and Gere diZerega; and Occidental College librarians Dale Stieber and Helena de Lemos.
A rare 1936 edition of The Beaks of Eagles and a 1906 copy of The University Courier that included Homeward are two of many works on display at the event from the libraries of Occidental and USC.
Though planning for this celebration of Jeffers began a year ago, orchestrator Dana Gioia, the Judge Widney professor of poetry and public policy at USC and the president of the National Endowment for the Arts, had an eye on Jeffers since the 1970s.
“Twenty-five years ago, on Broadway, I saw his version of Medea, and it was so spectacular that I just didn’t know what to do,” Gioia said. “As we were walking out of the theater, I turned to my wife and said, ‘No one writes this well just once.’ I started reading Jeffers’ works, and I was just enchanted. I realized he was one of the greatest poets in American literature.”
The hype is not undeserved — not by a long shot. Not only was Jeffers the first poet to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine, but in the 1970s — a decade after his death — he also graced U.S. postage stamps. Even The Beach Boys noted his beautiful way with words, making a song out of his poem The Beaks of Eagles for their Holland album in 1973.
Yet, scandals also abounded for Jeffers. For one, after comparing former President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Adolf Hitler for responsibility for WWII, Jeffers experienced backlash that rendered him disreputable until after death. In the 1930s, Jeffers also landed on the front page of the Los Angeles Times for an affair with Una Call Kuster, a married woman he met during his time at USC. As a result, according to Gioia, Jeffers dropped out of USC’s medical school after earning a master’s degree in literature at USC in addition to a bachelor’s degree in literature from Occidental College.
According to Gioia, Jeffers found his second home at USC and was a member of the wrestling team, Sigma Phi fraternity and the track & field team. This high level of involvement at USC is what bewildered Gioia and drove him to initiate a celebration in honor of Jeffers’ memory at USC.
“Robinson Jeffers is one of the most important authors who have ever attended USC, and when I came to USC, I was surprised that there was really little acknowledgement of Jeffers. In fact, many people did not even know that he had attended USC,” Gioia said. “This conference began with my resolve to have USC acknowledge its greatest literary alumnus.”
Since his departure, Gioia said that Jeffers has not received proper recognition at USC.
“We’ve sort of just ignored this great writer who developed on our campus. At the risk of offending people, Occidental has done a far better job of honoring Jeffers’ memory than USC,” Gioia said. “But that’s about to change. In the future, we’re both going to do a great job.”
Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy and a guest speaker on the ecological aspects of Jeffers’ works at the event, read the poet’s work during his college years.
“He’s almost like a science fiction writer because he does talk about the human race and evolution and how we’re just tiny specks in the universe,” Robinson said. “He often goes too far in his anti-humanism, but he’s also trying to correct the natural prejudice that nothing really matters but human beings. Writers like Jeffers are here to tell us that that’s nothing true; the planet matters just as much.”
The Jeffers celebration is intended, in part, to preserve his legacy and remind the USC community of the alumnus’ accomplishments.
“This can’t do much on its own, but it’s a symptom that Jeffers is part of the cannon, and he’s not just going to slip away like his fellow contemporary figures,” Robinson said. “He’s an essential part of the story of California, so this celebration is a mark of that.”
Dean of USC Libraries Catherine Quinlan seeks to strengthen the Trojan connection with Jeffers through the event.
“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate Robinson Jeffers as one of USC’s own,” she said. “What really impresses me about Trojan family members is how they are always striving to do better, to do new things, and I think Robinson Jeffers really exemplifies that.”
Starting Oct. 25, USC Libraries hopes the future of Jeffers at USC will be just as bright as his legacy.
“I hope that this will simply be the first in a series of important events that honor Jeffers’ works,” Gioia said. “This is just the beginning [of] USC embracing its own artistic legacy.”