by Michelle Dean)
The New York Times reports that a new volume of the letters of Robert Frost will soon be published. The letters, scholars contend, will reveal a softer side of Frost. They seem very eager to make the case that he was not all bad. In the Times piece there’s a lot of squabbling about a recent Joyce Carol Oates story in Harper’s — a bit of fiction, yes — that seems to have set off some insecurities among Frost scholars about the likeability of their subject. (Never mind that probably very few people read this story at all.) To that end the Times reproduces one letter signed, charmingly, “Robbered Frossed.”
The Times piece is amusing because of the tempest-in-a-teapot nature of the conflict it describes. Frost’s reputation doesn’t need such extreme rescue. Probably the general public thinks of Frost in avuncular terms, chiefly known to them as the author of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (or even just “that poem from The Outsiders“). It’s the people who have dug deeper — academics, the people obsessed with biographies like me — who “know” that Frost was a bit of a jerk. Anecdotes describe him behaving badly everywhere. My personal favorite example is the time he went to a reading by another poet, Archibald MacLeish, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Evidently unimpressed with the work on offer, Frost started heckling MacLeish. And when his bons mots did not have whatever effect was intended, he set a small fire, perhaps “by accident,” in the back.
The thing about that story, amusing as it is, is that it lacks some context. For one things, poets heckling poets is a relatively common behavior. It only sounds rude to the people who don’t attend poetry readings, which is to say nearly everyone. The fire-setting is what makes the story extreme, though I’ve always wondered if what he meant to do was light a bored cigarette, or even just to play around with the lever on his lighter. And now here he is, in the gossipy history books, forever doomed to be That Guy who could not behave like an adult.
The real kicker, though, is that actually around the time Frost went to this reading, he had just lost his wife. Elinor and he were married for 43 years when she died of heart failure. It was not always a happy marriage, in the way that pretty much all marriages are not always happy. But the way she died was this, according to a recent biography by Jay Parini: She was walking up her home stairs ahead of Frost when she collapsed of a heart attack. Frost and one of his sons carried her into a bedroom. As she was being treated, “Frost became so agitated that the doctor banished him from the room, forcing him to stand outside the door.” And he didn’t step over the threshold again before she died, two days later.
I do not think you need to know more context than that, about who loved who when and how, to know that for anyone that would have been a traumatic, hardening experience. That it might have made you into a “jerk” for months or years or even forever afterwards. No amount of evidence that Frost was a “good person” or a “bad person” will obviate that, either.
See the thing about these letters? As a person interested in the lives of writers, I will be glad to read them when they appear. I will be interested to know that Frost, like most people, had good days as well as bad. But I think, too, like most grownups, I already knew that. I already knew there was more to this story than one bad act or even a good one could encapsulate.