After editing collections of Ciardi's letters and poetry, Cifelli offers a record of Ciardi's accomplished life.
As this diligently detailed biography shows, though Ciardi (who died in 1986) never got his long-hoped-for Pulitzer or a mandatory place in the anthologies, he compensated with a career that was lengthy, varied, and industriousnot to mention profitable. Ciardi, who became one of America's wealthier men of letters, was born in 1916 to an immigrant Italian family whose modest means were further diminished by his father's early death. A series of awards and useful contracts sped Ciardi's climb. He received the Hopwood Prize while a graduate student at the University of Michigan, gained an early contract with the New Yorker, secured teaching jobs at Harvard and Rutgers, and struck an editorial alliance with Twayne Publishers. On his elevation to directorship of the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Robert Frost wrote to him in 1956, "By all signs [God] is playing you for one of his favorite boys, professor, publisher, lecturer, director, and accepted poet"which left out Ciardi's success as the translator of an immensely popular, distinctly American version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Cifelli omits nothing in tracing the arc of Ciardi's life in letters, even noting the later dips, such as the negligible reception of his personal favorite among his books, Lives of X, and his ouster at Bread Loaf in 1972. Although Cifelli is less a narrator than a documenter, his use of Ciardi's letters, poems, and autobiographical fragments (and even his FBI file, begun in Ciardi's leftist days) makes up a more than adequate portrait, particularly of his wartime experience as a B-29 gunner in the Pacific theater and his contentious tenure as poetry editor of the Saturday Review.
Never part of any movement or school, except perhaps that of craftsmanship, Ciardi's busy life spanned many hectic decades, and Cifelli provides a lively record of the man and his times.