This Old Book
by Kathleen Flenniken
Robert Frost: A Lifeby Jay Parini
Henry Holt and Company, 1999
In the December 2004 issue of Poetry, critic David Orr plays with the question, Can bad men be good poets? The answer of course is yes, but Orr’s interest is really in how poets insinuate themselves into their readers’ hearts and minds. Orr argues that some poets, like Ezra Pound, do not in their poetry claim any kinship with their readers, so the reader’s appreciation is not contingent on the poet’s nobility or agreeability. Other poets—Orr brings up Philip Larkin but it could be as easily Robert Frost—play on a reader’s sense of identification and portray themselves as ordinary, sympathetic, open. These poets have made a kind of pact with their readers, and have tacitly promised to be who they seem to be in their poems. So, Orr argues, it is a betrayal when they turn out to be bad, or at least, less than admirable.
Which explains why Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume biography of Robert Frost caused such a stir when it was released in the late 1960’s through mid-70’s. Readers and critics were inordinately upset to encounter Thompson’s ugly interpretation of Frost’s life, which revealed Frost to be a monster (a word that became a popular descriptor) who drove his wife to an early death, his son to suicide, a daughter to an asylum; who was petty, jealous, and mean. It helped contribute for a while to a reassessment of Frost’s place in the American canon. Since then, Thompson, who spent the last 15 years of Frost’s life following him around as his official biographer, has been revealed to have harbored a personal and grudging hatred of Frost. It’s probably not irrelevant either that he had an affair with Frost’s secretary, best friend and second love, Kay Morrison.
And that poet-reader pact helps explain why Jay Parini has written yet another scholarly (though much less detailed) biography of Robert Frost, a book 20 years in the making. Parini is indebted to Thompson for much of his research, but his aim is to set the record straight on Frost and to explain Frost’s insecurity and smallness by tying it to his unfortunate family life from childhood on. He attempts here to reclaim Frost for his readers, to portray him, if not as a great man, then as a flawed but sympathetic man—in order, one guesses, that we might embrace his poetry again without reservation.
Parini predigests most of Frost’s correspondence and filters his behavior through psychological and cultural lenses. For instance, on the subject of Frost’s use of derogatory language, Parini assures us, “Frost was not, like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, a genuine anti-Semite, but he shared the attitudes of his generation of Yankee Populists toward both Jews and blacks.” Rather than let Frost speak for himself and trust the reader to judge the content of his character, as Wallace Stevens’s daughter did when editing Stevens’s letters, the reader is protected from Frost’s language, except when he explains himself: “I’m not afraid of the radicals…nor the Jews. I may be a radical myself and there is a theory that the Scotch were Jews and another that the Yankees were Jews. I am a Scotch Yankee.” This becomes a pattern in the book—events that show Frost in a bad light are “handled” by Parini, like a press secretary in crisis-control mode. More flattering stories are usually told using original texts. Parini does not gloss over the bad news, however—he tells the full story, often by referring to the Thompson biography directly and questioning Thompson’s interpretations.
Frost’s life was often heartbreaking. His father died when Frost was ten of tuberculosis, thus Frost had a lifetime fear of that disease which later nearly claimed a daughter and a daughter-in-law. His unconventional mother moved the family from San Francisco to New Hampshire and had trouble keeping a job as a teacher, so they were always nearly destitute, and relied on relations for an occasional bail out. Frost’s only sister was institutionalized for madness. At the end of high school, Frost discovered Elinor and for two years or more, though she claimed to love him, she pushed Frost away, which sent him into a wandering despair. After their marriage, their parents died young and they lost a baby and a two-year-old child to illness. Though they had some inherited income and Frost made money from teaching, the couple never felt financially secure, even after Frost became famous and commanded large reading fees. Four of their children lived, but were often deathly sick (as were their parents), and three of the four demonstrated symptoms of mental illness in adulthood; one daughter eventually had to be committed (by Frost); his only son committed suicide. Another daughter died in childbirth. And after forty years of marriage, when Frost was in his sixties, Elinor died.
All through his life Frost battled deep depression. His most successful means of coping was pushing himself into the public eye. And once Frost burst out of obscurity, after the publication of A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, the public couldn’t get enough of his folksy New England manner and homespun wisdoms—though the persona was all constructed. Frost, who never graduated from college, was better-schooled in the classics than Eliot, and he was keenly aware that his “everyman” presentation enhanced his reputation and broadened the appeal of his poetry. He played the line between “regional” and “American” to his best advantage; he let his intellect flash just enough to keep scholarly critics respectful.
What Parini does best is present dozens of Frost’s poems in the context of his life. He is careful not to confuse the poems for pure autobiography. While many of the poems are based on events in Frost’s life, they cannot be relied upon as fact. (Such an expectation provides more corroboration that Frost’s readers want him to be the character in his poems.) But Parini sets the poems in the time and place where they were first written and gleans insights from Frost’s experiences. While he did not publish his first books of poetry until he was nearly forty, Frost wrote a number of his poems in the ten years his young family farmed in Derry, New Hampshire. Many of these poems did not appear until years, even decades, after they were written. Frost “hoarded” his best work, and used old unpublished poems as seed crystals for each new book. Their intermixing with new work is seamless. Parini argues that there is no observable growth in Frost’s work, no change in his style or shift in focus. One can observe perhaps a refinement in his methods, but Frost never felt compelled to change his concerns, even during World War II and the rise of industrial America.
Whether or not Parini is successful in painting Frost as a likeable character, he does not shy from his complexity and makes a convincing case for the timelessness of Frost’s poetry.
Kathleen Flenniken, a regular columnist for Umbrella, came to poetry late, after earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering from Washington State University and University of Washington, and working eight years as an engineer and hydrologist, three on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She started writing when she quit work to stay home with her children. Kathleen's poems have appeared in Poetry, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Farm Pulp, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Daily. Her first collection of poems, Famous, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry and was released by University of Nebraska Press in August 2006. She was awarded a 2005 Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. To read other poems and read more about Kathleen, please visit her website.