Censorship and Revision: Politics, Publication, and Robinson Jeffers’ Changing Sense of The Double Axe

[Society for Textual Scholarship conference paper]

 Saxe Commins, Robinson Jeffers’ editor at Random House, first read the manuscript for The Double Axe early October 1947 and found lines such as this one: “The crackpot dreams of Jeanne d’Arc and Hitler; the cripple’s vanity of Roosevelt.”  He was appalled.  In a memo to Bennett Cerf, his boss, he characterizes these “Roosevelt and isolationism passages” as the “manifestly obnoxious” statements of a “wildly prejudiced slanderer” and concludes that the “melancholy book” is “proof” of Jeffers’ “early senility.”  More fundamentally, he worried what should be done with the book.  He didn’t want to reject a collection by one of the firm’s most prominent literary figures, a writer who had (as Commins saw it) “earned the right to deliver his last dicta on Man” (though not, apparently, Roosevelt).  But he a1so worried that publishing the book would mean Random House would be criticized for “tolerating angry and irresponsible statements about America and more particularly Roosevelt.”  In the memo Commins stops short of telling Cerf what ought to be done and more simply recommends that the firm “protest” the offending passages.  Two days later he wrote Jeffers asking him to “temper” his “frequent and damning references to President Roosevelt” “for the sake of your book and the effect it will have.”

A half year later Random House published The Double Axe.  Ten of thirty-eight poems had been deleted and the political comments slightly muted.  In addition Random House had added a brief “Publisher’s Note” to announce its “disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume.”  Perhaps paradoxically the same note stresses as well “the writer’s freedom to express his convictions boldly and forthrightly and of the publisher’s function to obtain for him the widest possible hearing.”  In his own “Preface” Jeffers terms these comments “a normal difference of opinion” and claims the “Note” appears with his “cheerful consent.”  Even so, The Double Axe as published raises awkward questions:  Why were poems altered and dropped and on whose authority?  Does the published form reflect Jeffers’ desires for the collection or did Random House force the changes on him to a greater or lesser degree?

In his 1976 study, In This Wild Water, James Shebl concludes Jeffers was coerced, and in 1977 the poets William Everson and William Hotchkiss printed the missing poems as an addendum to their reissue of The Double Axe and (like Shebl) labeled them “supressed.”  I recognize that Jeffers would not likely have altered the collection if Commins hadn’t questioned it (this “questioning,” by the way, included the annotated manuscript Commins returned to Jeffers as well as several letters he wrote after Jeffers had dropped the ten poems and initially adjusted the phrasing of some others).  Still, we should question the conclusion that Random House forced these changes on Jeffers.

For one thing a letter to Commins from Una Jeffers, the poet’s wife, suggests Jeffers’ primary concern was whether Random House could support the book with sufficient enthusiasm or whether it would prefer to have another firm publish this one collection. Her letter does not suggest Jeffers was making changes as a condition of publication.  For another Commins’ letters request, rather than dictate, changes.  He asks in one, for instance, that Jeffers “consent” to a rewording and notes in the same letter, “I do wish I could persuade you to take out the word ‘little’ to describe Truman.”  Jeffers likely thought the requests ill-guided, perhaps even petty, but the tone of his response suggests he in no way felt coerced.  He explains, for instance, that Truman “is ‘little’ in a historical sense,” then adds (likely with a touch of irony): “However—to show you what a good fellow I am—Write ‘Harry,’ if it really matters to you.”

In general, Commins’ letters indicate that he wanted Jeffers to perceive him as a professional friend, a friend ready, if necessary, to accept Jeffers’ decisions.  (Jeffers and Commins had worked together, it should be noted, on a number of Jeffers’ earlier collections and would work together—cheerfully if the correspondence is to be believed—on his next collection, the last published during his life).”  In addition nowhere do the letters overtly suggest Random House would have refused to publish the book if Jeffers hadn’t altered it.  In fact, the addition of the “Publisher’s Note” indicates that the changes Jeffers did make had not, as Random House saw it, substantially improved the book’s politics and that the firm felt the revised manuscript represented the same basic dilemma as the manuscript Jeffers originally submitted.  It is also important to note that Jeffers did actually retain passages and poems that Commins asked him to reconsider and that—moreover—he deleted several poems that Commins had never questioned.  On balance this indicates that we should see Jeffers as the agent of the changes and that Random House would probably have published the volume as originally submitted, however reluctantly.

There is, though, a more important reason for questioning the conclusion that Random House forced Jeffers to suppress and alter poems: this view focuses attention on Random House’s motivations, not Jeffers’ own.  And concentrating on Random House’s meddling (if that is the way to characterize the exchange) obscures the more important story embedded in the manuscripts for what became The Double Axe.  These show that Jeffers himself was profoundly troubled by the nature of his World War II poems and that he was, as well, ambivalent about his aims for the book and how to shape it long before Commins ever saw it.  This, finally, is the important story for appreciating what the adjustments to The Double Axe mean for Jeffers’ career.  Whatever we think about the “Publisher’s Note” as a tactic, we need to focus on Jeffers’ own conflict about his work.  Most simply the manuscripts suggest that the war was both a poetic and personal crisis for Jeffers, and this crisis contributed both to his obsession with writing political poetry and his ambivalence about it.  Assembling The Double Axe only partly resolved these issues, as his shifting sense of how to shape this material—before and after submitting it to Random House—reveals.

As Jeffers himself hints in his own “Preface” to The Double Axe as published, his direction as a poet in large part stemmed from the trauma of the First World War.  Faced with a violent, and seemingly irrational, human world, he chose to emphasize nature’s redemptive beauty, its “transhuman magnificence.”  In doing so, however, he sought to subsume, rather than simply deny, the violence of history and politics in the way his particular view of nature emphasized nature’s own inscrutable qualities of power and flux, not simply its prettiness. Especially in the poems of the 1920s, he argued that we experience nature (including its human and social dimension) as violence if we focus on our own immediate and personal stake in it.  But these same poems argue as well that we can experience nature as a kind of transcendent redemption if we focus on it as a whole and contemplate its inherent flux as a kind of absolute beauty.

By the mid-1930s Jeffers recognized (he was, by the way, an acute observer of foreign affairs) that the Second World War was inevitable, and his work shows his growing obsession with the war and politics, an obsession that threatened (as he realized) both his own ability to transcend the flux of history and the adequacy of his vision and his poetics.  The later 1930s were also a time of domestic stress, which may well have been another factor in how he responded to what he (rightly) perceived would be America’s inevitable slide into war.  But at the least the poems of the later 1930s focus increasingly on political events and are increasingly didactic, perhaps because of his doubts, in presenting the claim that one should turn, as he later put it, “from man to not-man.”


The Double Axe itself was written during and shortly after the war,# and read chronologically the poems detail Jeffers’ increasing sense of despair, futility, and anger at the war’s violence, its irrationality, and the self-serving rhetoric of those in power.  This process culminates in “The Love and the Hate,” the narrative unit he eventually incorporated as the first half of the title poem, The Double Axe.  In it, the revived and decaying corpse of young soldier returns from a Pacific atoll to revenge himself on his father for selling him into the war, and also (in a passage that distressed Commins) to indict those who had led “the decent and loyal people of America” into the war “To feed the vanity of a paralytic and make trick fortunes / For swindlers and collaborators.”  In the Preface, Jeffers asserted that this poem was “not primarily concerned with the grim folly of the war,” but he also admitted (probably with more truth) that it “bears the scars.”  The other half of the title poem, “The Inhumanist,” was written the later part of 1946 and early 1947.  In it Jeffers uses the persona of an old and solitary caretaker of an abandoned ranch to inspect and gradually reassert his faith in nature’s transcendence.  The poems of The Double Axe, then, show Jeffers first struggling in the face of massive violence to maintain his faith that nature’s beauty still offered meaningful transcendence, all but losing that faith, and then finally recovering it—or at least a tempered version of it.

Initially Jeffers seems to have viewed The Double Axe as a collection to dramatize the struggle—even the implicit failure of his poetic vision.  The manuscript for the poem “Invasion” (dated May 8, 1944) includes notes for a much different “Preface” than either the one initially sent to Random House or the one eventually used.  He writes, “It was forced on me.  I tried to avoid it—refer back to ‘Rearmament’ 1934.”  And “Long poem [i.e. “The Love and the Hate”] also—forced on me—obsessive.  A picture perhaps of the emotional state of the time.”  And “It is a feminine role—I dislike it—one ought to choose one’s subjects.”  And “The wasted effort, the ridiculous dreams.”  These notes show (and the poems of the period corroborate) that Jeffers was as much concerned with what his own despair revealed about himself and how it threatened the truth he thought he’d found as he was with the war itself (though they also show his anguish and disgust at it).  In addition, the notes show he realized that the direction of his work placed him in awkward relationship with his readers.  He could not, as with earlier volumes, stand back and let the poems speak for themselves.  These poems pointed back to him and his own crisis more than to the beauty (albeit difficult beauty) of the world beyond man, and this meant he needed not only to explain his choice of material but also to justify what even he suspected was his “obsessive” inward turn in handling it.

Another note on the “Invasion” manuscript indicates that Jeffers at this time also planned to arrange his shorter poems into a “series” and title the section “The Political Animal.”  The phrase comes from a poem written early in the war, “Fourth Act.”  In it, “The Political Animal” is the title of a play, a “tragic farce,” where the hero (mankind) “ravages the whole planet.”  “Not a good play,” the speaker admits, but one that clearly shows “the author’s intention: to disgust and shock / The tragic theme / Is patriotism; the clowning is massacre.” The author  “wishes to turn humanity outward from its obsession/ In humanity” but (the speaker concludes) that the play, even though it will “pile on horrors,” will not convince its audience.  Paired with the undrafted preface of 1944, the doubt of “Fourth Act” is readily apparent.  The “author” of the “tragic farce” is clearly God, not the speaker or author of the poem, and the speaker/poet is part of the general “you” of humanity who must face and survive the catharsis of “disgust and shock” to be purged of his “obsession.”  Moreover, the poem leaves very much open whether the poet/speaker will be any more successful than the rest of the audience.

Although it means jumping ahead a bit, let me briefly contrast how this same poem functions in The Double Axe as published.  The Preface actually used (written not only after the war but after Commins had questioned the book’s tone and politics) stresses that the poems define and illustrate a “philosophical attitude” that Jeffers terms “Inhumanism,” an attitude that “offers,” he claims, “a reasonable detachment” to “neutralize fanaticism and wild hopes.”  It is, he concludes, a “religious instinct” that allows us to “rejoice in beauty.”  Framed by this “Preface” and the poems Jeffers placed before and after it, “Fourth Act” becomes primarily didactic, rather than dramatic (even confessional).  The figure of the “author” in this version (actually, of course, the same poem) seems either Jeffers himself, or God and Jeffers together.  Either way, the “you” to be purged and convinced is neither the poem’s speaker nor Jeffers.  In 1944, that is, we are asked to participate not only in the speaker’s desire for ideological serenity but also his admission that he has failed to realize it.  In the second, we are invited to read the poem as doctrine, an elaboration of an ideology.

Jeffers’ failure to elaborate his 1944 notes into a preface is not, I’d suggest, a surprise.  He likely realized that his war poems, whatever context he constructed, could only be seen during the war itself as poems of protest (which in part they are) —not as his attempt to face the crisis the war represented for him.  Also, he likely realized they weren’t publishable during the war in any case.#  [discuss “Tragedy Has Obligations”]  And finally, shortly after these May 1944 notes, he accepted Dame Judith Anderson’s request that he translate Medea for her, a project that largely occupied him until he began work on what became “The Inhumanist.”  Thus it’s no surprise that the next bit of primary evidence for Jeffers’ evolving sense of his project—an annotated table of contents—seems to date from sometime the first half of 1947.

This sheet demonstrates Jeffers’ continuing uncertainty over how to shape the volume.  Some poems (most eventually omitted) have an “o” in brackets beside them.  Others have a check and were eventually included.  Some are marked with an “x” to indicate, according to a note on the sheet, that they are “post-war”; others are coded as “war-free.”  And finally, the sheet shows that the short poems were now to be grouped as “Mornings in Hell.”  Jeffers’ apparent desire to find the right balance between war, post-war, and war-free poems is significant in several ways.  First, it suggests he was aware of how readers (including those at Random House) might respond to the poems and that he wanted to arrange the material to make it as palatable as possible.  Second, it suggests that he hoped to find a format that would balance two conflicting ways of thinking about the poems: seeing them as dramatizations of the crisis of their composition, that is, his attempt to affirm in the face of doubt, and seeing them as doctrine, as proof of his “philosophical attitude,” now that he had, with the war over, in part recovered his imaginative equilibrium.  When Jeffers finally submitted The Double Axe to Random House, he omitted “Mornings in Hell” as a section title, but his choice and arrangement of poems, along with the Preface he’d drafted (a longer, more complex piece than the one finally used) still reflect the tension between the poems as record of his own experience and the book as representation of his doctrine.

And it is this tension that explains, I think, why Jeffers reacted to Commins’ criticisms as he did. The actual pattern of deletions, revisions, rearrangement, and omissions suggest less that he was trying to placate Random House by muting his political argument than that (as his own imaginative crisis receded) he himself felt more pressure to foreground the lessons he thought he’d learned, and also as the crisis and anger receded he likely realized that some of the specific attacks on Roosevelt, those that could be construed as personal rather than those that used him to exemplify larger historical processes, actually obscured rather than clarified the ideology of his own work.  If so, Commins and Random House remain important players in shaping The Double Axe, but more by abetting Jeffers’ own drift toward erasing his own imaginative stake in having composed the poems than by censoring or suppressing him.  By forcing Jeffers to reconsider the manuscript some months after he thought he’d given it final shape, Commins, that is, encouraged Jeffers to reconsider the book as a whole, and Jeffers’ own changing sense of the material, himself, and his audience, led him to edit or rather to reselect, rearrange, and reintroduce the poems in a way that would clarify the doctrine of the book as a whole, even if (in retrospect) this seems to have required altering his own earlier sense of the material and the aims of the book.  Without his own ambivalence about the politics of his poems, rather his response to politics in general, and without his conflicting sense of his relationship to his own work and his shifting sense of how to address his audience, Jeffers would not likely have done much to alter his collection (though he might still, to humor Commins, have agreed that Truman should be “Harry,” not “little”).

I don’t have time to develop which of these poems should be considered part of the Jeffers canon or in what form, but I do think we can only fully understand the significance of these poems and The Double Axe if we engage Jeffers’ shifting sense of his work in this period.  Briefly, two examples: One is “Cassandra.”  In closing the speaker tells Cassandra she will “still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men / And gods disgusting.”  Jeffers then adds the final phrase, “You and I, Cassandra.”  Read against the 1944 notes we feel the despair the speaker feels in recognizing his compulsion, his fate, and this kinship.  Read against the final Preface (and repositioned as the first short poem in the book), we are apt to feel its disinterestedness—or arrogance.

The other example is “The Blood-Guilt,” one of the supposedly “suppressed” poems.  Cast as a dialogue (presumably between the poet and himself), it does briefly note that “fools” “lugged” the country into war, and Commins did note this phrase.  The poem’s tone and politics, though, are milder than many Jeffers retained; this is not a poem Jeffers dropped to placate Commins.  Rather, I’d suggest, he dropped it because it conflicted with his own (albeit revised) sense of the book’s ideology.  It had come to seem, in short, too personal, too revealing.  In the poem the poet argues with himself for having simply stood aside as the war came on and having used his historical fatalism to encourage others to do the same.  In it Jeffers both defends his fatalism and indicts it.  The poem closes: “You saw it, you despaired of preventing it, you share the blood-guilt”  The speaker answers himself simply “Yes.”  This, I should note, was the poem that preceded “Fourth Act” when Jeffers first submitted The Double Axe to Random House.