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Frost: The Icon and the Man

1.

In the middle of June 1957 Robert Frost arrived in Dublin at the end of a goodwill tour for the State Department: he had been to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Durham. His next assignment was to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland; then he was free to spend four or five days being feted. He was accompanied by Lawrance Thompson, since 1939 his designated biographer. I was teaching in the English Department at University College, Dublin, so I was included in a few social occasions. On one of those I met Thompson and we hit it off pretty well. Over the following days I showed him the literary sights of Dublin, Joyce’s tower at Sandycove, the Merrion Square of Wilde and Yeats, the Book of Kells, and the Hill of Howth.

We talked mostly about Melville, hardly at all about Frost. I sensed an awkwardness there. But I mentioned that I had written an essay on Frost that I thought of submitting to an English monthly magazine, The Twentieth Century. I might also use it as a chapter in a book I was writing on modern American poetry. Thompson offered to read it. I warned him that the essay was severe and that he would not like it. Why? Well, I thought that several of Frost’s poems were nasty and that they corresponded to the chilling, careless note of the Social Darwinists, especially Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. I couldn’t see the merit of transferring to politics, economics, and sociology the conclusions that emerged from Darwin’s biology. It seemed to me that some of Frost’s poems were corrupted by Social Darwinism, and that their narrative voice implied: “I’m surviving quite well under my own steam, why should I worry about you?” Thompson asked me which poems I had in mind. I named “Death of the Hired Man,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “Sand Dunes,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and the last lines of “Out, Out—.” More specifically, I thought it was cruel and glibly Darwinist of Frost to say of the parents of the dead boy in “Out, Out—“:

…And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Why should Frost think they turned to their affairs? “Since” gives the most blatant explanation available, and “turned” is morally facile. The parents may have turned their faces to the wall and lived out their lives in despair. “Give us immedicable woes,” Frost said, “woes that nothing can be done for.”1 Speak for yourself, I say.

Two or three weeks later, I sent Thompson the essay on Frost. In reply, he wrote me a long letter—which I’m sorry I’ve lost—in which he said that my sense of Frost was accurate but that I didn’t know just how accurate it was. Frost, he said, was a monster, a man of systematic cruelty. His indifference to other people was at least partly to blame for the insanity of his sister Jeanie, the sadness of his wife, Elinor, the mental illnesses of his daughters Irma and Marjorie, and the suicide of his son Carol. Social Darwinism was indeed an ugly prejudice, regularly called upon to justify mistreating poor people—if they haven’t survived, it proves they didn’t deserve to survive—and Frost’s version of it was so habitual as to be instinctive: he had probably inherited it, Thompson said, from his father, a drunken, violent lout.

That was the gist of Thompson’s letter, so far as I can recall it. His edition of Selected Letters of Robert Frost came out in 1964, followed by Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915 in 1966 and Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 in 1970. In those books, Thompson makes the same charge against Frost: that he was an appalling man, petty, vindictive, a dreadful husband and parent. Very little of the third volume of the biography, Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963 (1976), is Thompson’s work, so there is no need to put it in evidence: he died after a long illness on April 15, 1973, and the book was mostly written by a former graduate student of his, R.H. Winnick. But the books and essays for which Thompson is solely responsible make a sustained attack on the man he once revered. Jay Parini’s biography presents an almost entirely different account of Frost.

As Parini notes, there are three phases in biographies of Frost. The first one began in 1927 with Gorham B. Munson’s Robert Frost: A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense and culminated in Sidney Cox’s A Swinger of Birches (1957) and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant’s Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence (1960). In that phase, Frost is a farmer-poet, a man of classical temper, wise, imperturbable, humorous in a craggy way, a man accessible to the people and therefore universally loved. Thompson’s biography inaugurates the second phase. Jeffrey Meyers’s Robert Frost: A Biography (1996) is an extension of it. In this version, Frost was cruel to his wife and children and combative toward virtually every contemporary writer who had become prominent. He was also a predator: as soon as Elinor died, he took his friend Theodore Morrison’s wife, Kathleen, as his mistress and employed her as his secretary to facilitate the affair. He urged Kathleen to marry him, but she declined, preferring to stay with her husband. But she assured Frost that she was married to Morrison in name only. Meyers claims that she gave sexual favors not only to Frost but to Thompson, Bernard de Voto, and Stafford Dragon, Frost’s hired man on the farm in Vermont.

The third phase of biography began with the publication of Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost, edited by Arnold Grade in 1972. Kathleen Morrison’s Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle (1974), William H. Pritchard’s Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (1984), Stanley Burnshaw’s Robert Frost Himself (1986), John E. Walsh’s Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (1988), and now Parini’s book present Frost in far more genial terms. According to this version, he may not have been gifted with a sweet nature, but he was a faithful husband to Elinor for the forty-three years of their marriage, and a devoted parent to their several children. He supported his grown-up children not only financially but with endless and unquestioning affection. If he was combative, his early life gave him no choice. He had to win the struggle for existence.

These three phases in biography occur in other writers than Frost. In the first phase, the writer is presented as the author of works already widely loved: it is not a time for discrepancy between the writer and the work. The life is in accord with the poems. Discrepancy arises later and in a spirit of irony. A biographer in the second phase is not convinced that the writer was as agreeable as the standard portraits claim. In this phase, Van Wyck Brooks writes The Ordeal of Mark Twain and claims that Twain was a bitter man, not a humorist in a white suit. Mark Schorer writes nine hundred pages on Sinclair Lewis and makes him appear hateful. Lyndall Gordon shows that T.S. Eliot was often careless in his treatment of the women who attended him: he had good reason to reflect, in “Little Gidding,” on “the awareness/Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.” In the third phase, biographers who knew the writer—and some who didn’t—claim that the portraits painted in the second phase are libels: the subject was not like that disfigured wretch at all.

But it is difficult to revert to images of simplicity, the transparent smile, the lavish manner. After Thompson’s evidence, and even if we think that Thompson’s hatred of Frost accrued from many little slights, a sense of injured merit, and sexual jealousy, it is implausible to insist that Frost was a good man after all and that his true voice was the one we hear in “After Apple-Picking” and “Birches”:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Parini’s claim seems reasonable:

My narrative presents Frost as a major poet who struggled throughout his long life with depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion. His family life was not often happy, and he experienced some extremely bad luck with his children. On the other hand, he was a man of immense fortitude, an attentive father, and an artist of the first order who understood what he must do to create a body of work of lasting significance….

But some of those words and phrases—“struggled,” “not often happy,” “extremely bad luck,” and “what he must do”—could be interpreted as hiding something, as if Parini chose them to suppress many rival considerations.

2.

Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874, the first child of Isabelle Moodie and William Prescott Frost Jr. She had been a teacher and was still interested in literature: in her religious life she was a Swedenborgian, an adept of vision and second sight. William was a journalist, a Democrat with political ambitions, but mostly given to drink, gambling, and, so far as his bad health permitted, swimming and running. He died of tuberculosis on May 5, 1885, and the family soon moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to be cared for by William’s father and other relatives before Isabelle got a teaching job. Frost started writing poems in 1890 and took odd jobs to keep himself afloat.

On December 19, 1895, he married Elinor White in a ceremony conducted by a Swedenborgian pastor. In 1897 Frost entered Harvard on money borrowed from his grandfather. On March 31, 1899, he withdrew from Harvard and, partly for medical reasons, took up poultry farming in Methuen, Massachusetts, and later in Derry, New Hampshire, where he combined farming with a part-time teaching job at the Pinkerton Academy. During those years the Frosts were poor, but not—as some biographers claim—dirt poor. In 1901 their fortunes improved dramatically when Frost’s grandfather William Prescott Frost Sr. died and left Frost an annuity of $500 and use of the farm in Derry for ten years, after which the annuity was to be increased to $800 and Frost was to own the land.

In 1912 Frost and his family moved to England, where he intended to devote himself full-time to his poetry. By now there were four surviving children: two had died, Elliott at the age of four and Elinor Bettina in infancy. In London, Frost met the poet F.S. Flint and, through Flint, Ezra Pound, who took him up and reviewed his first two books of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). Pound reported to Alice Corbin Henderson in March 1913: “Have just discovered another Amur’k’n. VURRY Amur’k’n, with, I think, the seeds of grace.” But he lost interest in Frost’s poems after two or three years and decided, I surmise, that he was not up to the mark of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Russell Fraser, “Frost in the Waste Land,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 106, No. 1 (Winter 1998), p. 49.

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