William Pritchard’s “literary life” of Robert Frost is a persuasive antidote to Lawrance Thompson’s official biography, which reached its demolishing conclusion in 1976 with its third and final volume. Its portrait of the poet inspired one reviewer to conclude that he was “a monster”; another that he was “a mean-spirited megalomaniac”; still another that “a more hateful human being cannot have lived.” Whatever its other qualities, Thompson’s biography obviously had its culturally cathartic uses. It released long-suppressed irritation at someone whose image of folksy nobility had become overexposed on the literary scene, and whose poetry remained stubbornly challenging to the current academic taste for literary modernism, as represented by Eliot and Pound.
The three volumes were useful in more obvious ways. Thompson was appointed to his task by Frost in 1939, given free access to all materials and the benefit of the tapes of extensive interviews, on file at the University of Virginia, which are said to be amazingly forthright, more forthright than anything Thompson quotes. They are not alluded to in Pritchard’s book. Thompson managed to assemble more information about Frost’s life than anyone else ever had, including Frost himself. But as is often the case with literary scholars who are reputed to know “everything” about a writer, Thompson did not in fact know how to read him. Above all he did not know, as Pritchard does, how to listen to the poems, the letters, and the talk. This is especially crippling when the writer insists again and again that we should attend with “the ear on the speaking voice,” and elevates to a governing principle of writing and reading what an intelligent child learns fast enough in the schoolyard: that, as Frost says in an early letter, “the sentence sound often says more than the words” and can “convey a meaning opposite to the words.”
Even his casual sentences give warning of having multiple warheads. Years ago I heard of a dinner party at which the hostess, turning to the poet after a lengthy talk with his biographer, remarked that “your Mr. Thompson is a charming man.” Frost’s reply—“Yes, but that isn’t enough, is it?”—can be taken as a put down of Thompson, but it was more likely, or also, a comment on the vulgarity of being a literary hostess. Years of close attendance on someone continually given to inflections of this kind took its toll, and while the portrait waited, as it were, in the closet—Frost forbade publication of any part of it in his lifetime—it accumulated signs of wear and tear, of old scores unsettled. Thompson’s index reads like a prosecutor’s brief. The entry for “Frost, Robert Lee (26 Mar. 1874–29 June 1963)” is followed by subject headings like “Brute,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Jealousy,” “Murderer”—the typical bit of adduced evidence is that Frost “used razor words in public to achieve a murderous revenge”—“Spoiled Child,” “Vindictive.”
Pritchard means to correct this bias …