Skip to content

Charles Austin Beard and Robinson Jeffers: A Historian and a Poet Against the American Empire

I became interested in the work of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) while doing research for a book on the life of the American historian Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948). Jeffers and Beard both published books in 1948 that denounced the foreign policy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for what they believed to be its warmongering character. Beard’s President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities came out in February and Jeffers’s The Double Axe and Other Poems in September. Appearing at the high tide of American triumphalism after the Second World War, both books received savage treatment from critics, and essentially for the same reason: they questioned the morality of America’s involvement in the “Good War.” Both authors were condemned for their isolationist views, their ridicule of Washington’s professed motives for entering the Second World War, and their supposed blindness to the efficacy and even existence of American idealism. My idea for this article began with the question of the extent to which Beard’s work might have been a part of Jeffers’s political education as an isolationist.

It seemed reasonable to assume that Beard would have been an inescapable influence on Jeffers, not only on his isolationism, but also his attitude of cold historical realism in The Double Axe. The country’s most famous and influential historian during the first half of the twentieth century, Beard throughout his career challenged what he called America’s romantic illusions about itself. For more than three decades, from the publication in 1913 of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States to his death in 1948, Beard’s work set the terms of debate among American historians and informed popular understanding of the nation’s past. He called attention to the workings of a complexly functioning economic and political power elite lording over the underlying masses. American democracy, to him, lay in the future, if it ever could be achieved against the oligarchy that he believed always had ruled the country and ruled it still. For millions of readers in the 1930s, the decade of Beard’s greatest influence, his work explained the Depression-era world in which they lived. Beard was part of the climate of opinion for educated Americans during much of the twentieth century.

Like Jeffers, Beard championed a non-interventionist foreign policy for the United States. Beard, however, did not like the term isolationism, thinking that there was nothing isolationist about a foreign policy calling for Americans to mind their own business and stop thinking of themselves as preceptors for the rest of humanity. Instead, he adopted the term “continentalism,” to signify that the United States should concern itself only with matters involving its own continental sphere of influence. Beginning in the 1930s, in such classic anti-war works as Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels (1939), Beard took the lead nationally as the foremost spokesman for an anti-interventionist foreign policy in the United States. Though an early supporter of the New Deal, he came to regard President Roosevelt as the catalyst in Washington for the decisions that brought the country into the Second World War. Jeffers felt the same.

Even after Pearl Harbor, Beard continued to question FDR’s rationale for the war as a struggle against Nazi and Fascist totalitarianism to preserve his vaunted Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. All noble objectives, but Beard thought that the war had to be about something else. He never could bring himself to believe that a war for freedom of any kind could be fought alongside the worst mass murderer in history, Joseph Stalin. Winston Churchill, an arch imperialist, also seemed to Beard miscast as a statesman with any serious concern about spreading freedom in the world, as the peoples of Ireland, Egypt and India knew at first-hand. FDR himself, Beard observed, had ample experience as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the administration of Woodrow Wilson in extending and maintaining the sphere of American imperial control in Latin America.

Taking these facts about the allied leaders into consideration, Beard concluded that the Second World War was at bottom a variation on history’s oldest theme, how the rich control the poor. All the other issues, some of them truly important and moral, stood in a subaltern relationship to the question of who would dominate the world’s markets and resources. In other words, whichever side won, the Second World War would have an imperialist outcome. He made these arguments most fully in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941. Jeffers, like Beard, had no illusions about Stalin, Churchill, and FDR. He, too, believed the war was motivated on all sides by imperialist aggressions.

That same year, in The Double Axe, Jeffers attacked FDR while making historical references that echoed Beard’s core contentions about America’s involvement in the war. Jeffers felt disgust for FDR and repeatedly referred to the President as a war peddler crazed by ambition. To the supreme misfortune of the American people, Jeffers believed, they had in FDR a leader of genius-caliber rhetorical gifts who with consummate political skill had succeeded in destroying the last vestiges of the Republic. For Jeffers’s generation, Beard’s historical works had called attention to the darker side of the nation’s past. America, according to Beard, had been a continental empire from the beginning, and then after the Spanish-American War of 1898, a regional empire in Latin America and the Pacific. Beard also taught that after 1941 the United States began to envision its field of operations as the whole world. Everything everywhere would now become a matter of national interest and concern for the United States. Henceforward, the underlying reality in American life and its driving force would be an unholy alliance between militarism and imperialism.

Jeffers appeared to have absorbed completely Beard’s teaching about the American Empire. He contended in “So Many Blood Lakes,” one of the poems in The Double Axe, that America’s imperialist ambition would require permanent military preparedness: “Now guard the beaches, watch the north, trust not the dawns. Probe every cloud. /Build power. Fortress America may yet for a long time stand, between the east and the west, like Byzantium” (CP 3: 133). As with all empires, Jeffers thought, a long time would not mean forever. The American Empire, too, would fall, and Jeffers believed it already showed signs of decay.

The Double Axe seemed to me to be Beardianism set to the music of poetry. What, I wondered, was the actual relationship between the poet and the historian? Jeffers certainly knew about Beard and admired him. In 1946, he voted to elect Beard to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (CL 3: 424). It surprised me very much, however, to find no other mention of Beard in The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers. I thought those volumes would be bulging with letters of mutual admiration between the two men. Instead, all I found was editor James Karman’s footnote about Jeffers’s vote for Beard in the American Academy of Arts and Letters 1946 election. On Beard’s side, the record of their relationship was similarly lacking in substantiating detail. He and his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, destroyed their personal papers, but some of his letters survive in scattered archival collections. I have found no mention of Jeffers in any of those extant letters.

Although there is no record of any direct personal contact between them, Beard and Jeffers were aware of each other’s work. In America in Midpassage (1939), the Beards cite Jeffers as one of the important poets of the 1930s, but they give him just one sentence: “Only Robinson Jeffers seemed to be content with complete frustration, seeing no escape from humanity’s incapacities and violence even in death; Such Counsels You Gave to Me followed Give Your Heart to the Hawks —both statements of the tortured poetic soul in a world infinitely hideous” (2: 679). As of 1939, the Beards considered Jeffers a non-political poet unconcerned about the mundane stresses of the Depression who looked to reach a higher level of tragic philosophical awareness in which the details of history are absorbed and lost in a cosmic force field.

For Jeffers’s part, his library included at least one of Beard’s books, the 1923 edition of The History of the American People (originally published in 1918), a textbook written with William C. Bagley. [see Endnote 1] Intended for use in the high school classroom, this is a very minor work by Beard and entirely lacking the passionate revisionism that would characterize his later studies of American foreign policy. A decade later, in The Idea of National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy (1934), he put forward his view that the country’s dealings with the world had amounted to little more than a hypocritical promotion and defense of elite economic interests. It cannot be claimed as a certainty that Jeffers ever read this book or any of Beard’s other major works on American imperialism. It does seem highly probable that Jeffers, a voracious reader, would have been familiar with President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941, a study by the most famous historian in America about the identical subject of his own 1948 anti-war book, The Double Axe. Probable, but not certain.

In my own book, Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism (2018), I devote an entire chapter to the history of the isolationist movement on which he exerted a powerful influence as a foreign policy authority. His books were required reading for isolationists. I had thought to find connections between Jeffers and such isolationist groups as America First, which might have served as another channel for him to have discovered Beard. Nowhere in my reading about American isolationism during the 1930s, however, did I see any treatment of Jeffers’s writing. Consulting the indexes for the three volumes of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, I found no mention of isolationism or the America First movement or any of the principal isolationist figures of this period, save for Charles Lindbergh, and mentions of him were sparse and perfunctory. Given the aggressively isolationist viewpoint of The Double Axe, the complete absence in The Collected Letters of references to the isolationist movement seemed as strange to me as the nearly non-existent references to Beard. Jeffers’s political education as an isolationist was turning out to be a much more complicated historical problem than I initially thought it would be.

Other research that I compiled for my book pointed in the direction of a third possible explanation for the Beardian historical backdrop of The Double Axe. If Jeffers did not go to school directly to Beard, he might have had indirect exposure to him through his connections with a circle of Republican friends and acquaintances who were prominent supporters of former President Herbert Hoover. During the Second World War, Hoover developed an enormous admiration for Beard, and his feelings were fully reciprocated by the historian. Their friendship is surprising in that they stood on opposite sides in domestic politics, with Beard to the left of the New Deal and Hoover to the right of it. They found common ground, however, in their shared opposition to FDR’s foreign policy. They agreed that he and his chief Cabinet officers had dragged the United States into the Second World War. In a chapter titled “Beard Finds an Ally in Herbert Hoover,” I relate how both men encouraged and helped each other to write exposés of the real forces that propelled the United States along the road to war, the same theme preoccupying Jeffers during these years when he was writing The Double Axe.

It excited me to learn that Hoover and Jeffers had several mutual friends. I began to speculate that the Beardian thesis about America’s involvement in the Second World War might have come to Jeffers through these Hoover connections. Foremost among them was Charlotte Kellogg (1874-1960). A prominent writer and social activist at the center of the Jefferses’ social circle in Carmel, California, she held his poetry in the highest regard and thought of him as a mentor for her own writing. She had participated in Hoover’s relief work during the First World War. Her husband, the Stanford University zoologist Vernon Kellogg, had been Hoover’s chief assistant in Belgium. After the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland, Hoover helped to establish the Commission for Polish Relief. Serving on that organization’s board of directors, and as a tireless fundraiser for it, Charlotte Kellogg would have been a likely link between Hoover and Jeffers (CL 2: 1043). The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers contain many references to the Kelloggs, who owned property in Carmel.

Another of their mutual friends, the financier Eugene Meyer, had been a key member of the Hoover administration. Hoover had made him the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and then the chief of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a government lending agency created as part of the President’s economic recovery program. Meyer later bought The Washington Post and adopted a strong anti-New Deal editorial line. He and Hoover remained close.

Meyer and his wife, Agnes, befriended Jeffers. On a poetry reading tour in 1941, Jeffers and his wife, Una, stayed with the Meyers as their guests when they came to Washington. Following a reading Jeffers gave at the Library of Congress, Meyer held a reception at his home attended by numerous dignitaries. A Washington Post headline the next day announced the brilliant success of the reading (CL 1: 76-77). The biographies of Hoover that I have consulted, however, do not mention Jeffers. In The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, I found two slight and politically innocent references to Hoover, both in volume two, and none at all in volume three, which covers the years in which he wrote The Double Axe. Hoover and Jeffers do not appear to have had any personal relationship. The poet’s personal relations with Hoover sympathizers notwithstanding, there is even less documentary support for a Jeffers-Hoover connection than for one between Jeffers and Beard.

In the absence of any definitive documentary evidence, can a case be made for a Beardian interpretation of The Double Axe and Other Poems? I think so, but the evidence for the case lies in the poetry itself, not in any external statements about it. The letters from the period when Jeffers was writing The Double Axe reveal little about his political views. Based on the letters, it can be said that he knew The Double Axe would cause hard feelings. In an August 1944 letter, he wrote to a friend that his publisher, Random House, did not agree with the political line of the new poems. He expected the major newspapers and literary reviews to react in the same negative way: “My next book, {which I hope to finish in a few months,} may give them a bit of a workout” (CL 3: 303). Concerned about the tepid response to the book of editor Saxe Commins, Una Jeffers, who often managed her husband’s correspondence, wondered in a 1947 letter, “do you think your firm wishes to publish this book— and, if they do, will push it properly?” She pleaded with Commins, “It would be best to tell us now if you’d prefer to skip this particular book…” (CL 3: 506).

About the main human targets of The Double Axe—FDR, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman—almost nothing of consequence can be found in The Collected Letters. Jeffers barely mentions these figures. Stalin, another monster of inhumanity by Jeffers’s reckoning, comes up twice in the nearly thousand-page-long third volume, once mentioned by Una in a 1940 letter and the other time by Jeffers himself in an enclosure for a letter he wrote in 1953. In “Teheran,” a poem from The Double Axe, he asks, concerning the statesmen meeting at the Allied conference of 1943, “— but who are these little smiling attendants/ On a world’s agony, meeting in Teheran to plot against whom what future?” (CP 3: 125). His opinion of FDR brims with disdain. In one of the “suppressed” poems from the 1948 edition, he has President Woodrow Wilson meet FDR in hell. Wilson self-protectively claims to have blundered into war “Through honest error…. But you/ Blew on the coal-bed, and when it kindled you deliberately/Sabotaged every fire-wall that even the men who denied/ My hope had built. You have too much murder on your hands. I will not/Speak of the lies and connivings” (CP 3: 117). [See Endnote 2]

Throughout the book, the Axis dictators come off no worse than FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. In the letters, however, there is not so much as a hint of animosity toward the Allied leaders, collectively referred to in The Double Axe as war criminals. Jeffers would have liked to have seen all of them hanged in a public execution, and if fate had put them on the losing side in the war they would have been. “[A]ll governments/Are thugs and liars” (CP 3: 234), he said, and the worst of them busily cook up world wars. The real reason for the execution of the Nazi and Japanese war criminals, according to Jeffers, was that they had committed atrocities on the losing side. Those who had committed atrocities on the winning side earned the privilege of writing the history books about the war and covering themselves with glory. He repeatedly refers to the leaders on both sides of the conflict as hellhounds.

Jeffers’s anti-war and isolationist politics, to be understood fully, must be viewed in the larger context of his “inhumanist” philosophy. “What is not well?” he asks in the poem “What of It?” from The Double Axe, and he answers, “Man is not well” (CP 3: 208). He explains in the poem that the natural world, not man, is the measure of all things. The presence of man spoils the natural world. Indeed, all will be well in nature once man, this insignificant speck in the grand scheme of creation, becomes extinct, a biological outcome Jeffers thought inevitable given all the contemporary trends in the world. Life would go on without mankind and in time revert to its primal beauty. Jeffers writes about the final disappearance of man as a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Yet the vehemence and passion of The Double Axe appear to contradict the fatalism of his inhumanist philosophy. This is not a book of stoical passivity in the face of an irresistible fate. He acknowledges his fierce partisanship. To a hypothetical critic, he says “—As for me: laugh at me. I agree with you. It is a foolish business to see the future and screech at it. /One should watch and not speak” (CP 3: 133). The Double Axe essentially is one long screech of pain and outrage at the folly of the perennially bamboozled American people and the perfidy of their leaders. In the book’s preface, he acknowledges that his anti-war cause had been lost in advance. American intervention in Europe’s wars had been calamitous, “But it is futile at present to argue these matters” (CP 4: 429). He grimly makes the argument for isolationism anyway.

That Jeffers’s political argument in The Double Axe, at its core, comes directly from the non-interventionist writings of Beard can be demonstrated most succinctly and tellingly by a line from the lead poem in The Double Axe. In that poem’s second part, “The Inhumanist,” the old man protagonist offers counsel to people concerned about the dying social order in America. When asked, “What’s your advice?” he responds, “[It] is not new: all the rulers know it. /If there’s a flea in the water, swallow a toad. If you have trouble at home, /Try foreign war” (CP 3: 303).

The old man’s recommendation is a reference to the most famous passage in Beard’s major isolationist book of the 1930s. In September 1939, Beard published an article in Harper’s Magazine, derived from a theme that he and his wife had raised in America in Midpassage: throughout history governments habitually have used foreign war as a diversion from domestic crises. The article grew into a short book that same year, Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels: An Estimate of American Foreign Policy. It rapidly became the bible of American isolationists. Beard borrowed its title from a scene in one of Shakespeare’s history plays. In the fourth act of Henry IV, Part Two, the dying king beckons his son:

Come hither, Harry, sit thou by my bed
And hear, I think, the very latest counsel
That I shall ever breathe.

The king reflects on the “by-paths and indirect crook’d ways/I met this crown.” Once on the throne, he worries incessantly about the men,

By whose fell working I was first advanced
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To be again displac’d; which to avoid,
I cut them off; and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state.

In short, there is nothing like a good crusade to keep domestic politics safe from covetous eyes and prying hands. Beard then continues with the quotation,

…Therefore, my Harry
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels….

Prince Henry responds,

My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, and gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be;
Which I with more than with a common pain
’Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain.
(Henry IV, Part II, Act IV, Scene V)

Beard thought that this exchange between the two Plantagenets, father and son, caught the true spirit of American foreign policy in the FDR era. For sheer deviousness, American leaders belonged in the same class with Henry IV. Ever since the Spanish-American War, the United States had been inserting itself ever deeper into world affairs. The Depression, however, had forced the country to concentrate on its economic problems at home. As the dreadful decade wore on, the Depression did not relax its hold. Beard thought that the President had steadily shifted his attention to world affairs for the same reason that Henry IV had fomented a crusade, as a diversionary tactic. As early as 1939, in Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels, Beard said of Roosevelt, “Evidently, he was clearing a way to make the next war a real holy war” (50).

Whenever FDR made his internationalist foreign policy moves too suddenly or sharply, the powerful neutralist and isolationist forces in the country blocked him. As Justus D. Doenecke explains in his history of the opposition to FDR’s foreign policy on the eve of the Second World War, Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941, “[o]bviously the house of anti-intervention contained many mansions” (8). Doenecke means that a vigorous opposition to FDR existed at this time across a broad spectrum of opinion, left and right, in American politics, journalism, and intellectual life. Jeffers was part of this spectrum of isolationist opinion, which derived its basic understanding of American history and politics from Beard. If Americans ever again engage in a national debate about the aims and methods of the country’s foreign policy, they would do well to turn to the ideas of Beard, as Jeffers did in his most important work of political poetry.

1. Cited in “The Last Word: A Record of the ‘Auxiliary’ Library at Tor House” (Girard 1998), which contains a listing of holdings in the personal library of Jeffers and his wife Una. I am indebted to Robinson Jeffers scholar James Karman for this information.
2. In the Liveright edition of The Double Axe and Other Poems (New York, 1977), “Wilson in Hell” is identified as one of the poems suppressed in the 1948 edition by Jeffers’s publisher, Random House. The editors of the 1977 edition, William Everson and Bill Hotchkiss, contend that ten of the poems intended by Jeffers for inclusion in the book were deleted “apparently at the urging (insistence?) of the editors [at Random House]” (153). In making their claim, Everson and Hotchkiss rely primarily on the authority of James M. Shebl, In This Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers (Pasadena, California: Ward Ritchie Press, 1976). Tim Hunt has analyzed the complex publishing history of the book and the interpretations of its composition. Random House feared a hostile reaction to the book’s inflammatory politics, but only succeeded in imposing some relatively minor changes on the text, according to Hunt. He concludes that in responding to Random House’s criticisms, Jeffers “had left the book’s political tone and judgments intact” (“Double the Axe, Double the Fun: Is There a Final Version of Jeffers’ The Double Axe?” Text 7, (1995), 444, critical-work-2/). Hunt disputes the claim that Random House suppressed any of the poems, while acknowledging that in give and take negotiations with the press, Jeffers did soften some of the book’s language and character portrayals. For the book’s published form in 1948, Hunt ascribes more responsibility to Jeffers’s own inner conflict and shifting intentions about these poems than to censorship at Random House.

This article first appeared in Jeffers Studies Volume 19, 2015/2016. The full PDF of which can be found here.

Published inNotebook

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply