The Book Club

Shulman and Kerr

Dear Sarah,

Was Robert Frost a monster? Did he get kicked out of Dartmouth? Was his mother the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute? Did he drag his little daughter downstairs in the middle of the night to watch him wave a gun at her mother and himself? Did his wife have an abortion? Would yeses deepen your reading of “The Road Not Taken”? Would noes? Is it any of our business, anyway?

I get the impression that Jay Parini thinks it isn’t. I’m sitting here with his new Frost biography; its most recent predecessor, by Jeffrey Meyers; the Library of America’s Collected Poems, Prose & Plays; Louis Untermeyer’s selection of the poems, decorated with engravings and worshipful commentary; and assorted recent reviews. “The reader must, in fact, wonder why another biography of Frost is necessary,” writes Parini in his afterword. He’s right on the money as far as this reader is concerned–especially after plodding through his 458 circumspect pages, trailing Frost from farm to farm and college to college with little narrative, personality, insight, or even dirt to liven the trip. Parini justifies himself with a brief history of Frost biographies: First, a flurry of adoration. Then three bitter, important, problematic volumes by Lawrance Thompson, a sometime lover of Frost’s mistress, who couldn’t stand the guy. Next, several attempts to rehabilitate the grand old man after Thompson convinced the public that Frost was a monster. Then the Meyers bio, a throwback to Thompson’s.

Parini’s entry, he hopes, will set the record straight by cutting down on the melodrama and not reading too much personal history into the poems. Parini scornfully dismisses Meyers’ story about Frost leaving Dartmouth under a cloud and the scene with the gun. He leaves out medical details–Elinor Frost’s abortion, Robert’s hemorrhoid operations. (Does he find them unsubstatiated? Too undignified? Irrelevant?) And he throws a pink glow of niceness all over the poet’s circle. Insane, furious, or hapless daughters, suicidal son, failed farms–don’t blame Frost. He did his best.

Of course, another biography is always necessary, or at least helpful, if only to layer over the previous biographies, lest they leave us with too vivid a picture of their subject. Biographies are like movie versions of favorite novels. If you give in and watch Emma, it’s a good idea to rent Clueless next–Alicia Silverstone’s flouncing should keep Gwyneth Paltrow’s toothy pout from monopolizing your mind’s eye next time you read the book.

I hesitated to read the Frost biographies out of concern more for my own privacy than for Frost’s. I love his poems–they’ve made a precise, swooping, echoing landscape in my ears. I didn’t want to risk having his personal story intrude–or his biographers’. But I went ahead because biographies have so much potentially to offer. They can open up possible readings of the poems or introduce us to our favorite writers’ favorite books. They can give a slice of history–what it was like to be alive at a particular time for someone who helped shape that moment. I particularly love getting to see familiar figures cross paths and observe each other. Then there’s the sheer pleasure of gossip. Like a novel, a well-written biography entertains readers with characters and anecdotes. And at their best, biographies can show how a person changes over the course of his life, how he decides what to do, how he makes sense of what happens to him. Although neither book quite rises to that level (have you found another one that does?), on the whole it was worthwhile to read them.

I didn’t know, for example, that Frost, the famous New Englander, spent his childhood in San Francisco. He had to be dragged East kicking and crying at age 11, after the death of his brutal, alcoholic father. And by most accounts he was a terrible farmer–rising at noon, staying up half the night reading and writing poetry. His grandfather had to keep mulching him with money; local farmers and bankers sneered. He assembled and published his first two books in England before returning to become our national voice. For better or worse, he pretty much invented the role of academic poet.

In his New Yorker review of the Parini book, John Updike remembers Frost’s attacking Archibald MacLeish at a reading. “This flash of bullying rather soured, for me, the charm of hearing ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘The Gift Outright’ in the voice of their maker,” he writes. Just what I was afraid of. But he goes on to qualify it: “In long retrospect, I think there was something salutary in seeing a revered man break loose from our consensual politics and raise the possibility that life, between great powers and old friends, is combat, and not clean combat at that.”

The incident reminded me of Frost’s sonnet “The Oven Bird,” about a gloomy descendant of Poe’s raven, who “says that leaves are old” and “says that highway dust is over all.” The poem ends, “The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.”

Is the Frost in Updike’s anecdote–or the biographies–a diminished thing? And what do you make of him?