Was Robert Frost a monster? New letters compilation offers insights


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The letters are still floating in -- about a half dozen in the past two weeks -- even as the first of a groundbreaking four-volume set of "The Letters of Robert Frost" hit the bookstores Thursday amid national media attention.

"We're going to have to think about a fifth volume," said Donald Sheehy, an Edinboro University professor who is one of three editors of "Letters," which is being published by Harvard University Press in two-year installments, complete with exhaustive notes and appendices.

Robert Frost, it seems, didn't just craft some of the best poetry in the English language, he wrote a lot of letters, too: 3,000 and counting.

While many have appeared in prior collections, nothing matches the size and scope of this project -- the first complete letters in chronological order and still a work in progress. For the past decade, Mr. Sheehy and his two colleagues, Frost scholars Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen, have been chasing down every last clue in a search for every letter the poet ever wrote.

Why this book, why now?

To bring all available primary material into accessible print is "a confirmation, of sorts, of realized stature and lasting influence, of continuing relevance. Such acknowledgment of Robert Frost has been long overdue," Mr. Sheehy said.

A selection of Frost's letters was first published in 1964, and additional collections followed, but many had not been published when Mr. Sheehy and his colleagues began their work. Some libraries hadn't yet converted their catalogs into a digital database, and it was difficult to estimate how many letters were out there. Major Frost collections held unpublished letters, and it quickly became apparent that numerous smaller collections had not been fully explored. The editors also checked every place Frost had been known to give a reading or a lecture -- many of them at secondary schools, given his strong interest in education -- as well as historical societies. They watched sites of auction houses and major booksellers, and Mr. Sheehy wrote hundreds of letters of inquiry.

Some of Frost's letters are from the Special Collections at the University of Pittsburgh. Those mostly date from the 1930s and will appear in a later volume, including 14 to Hervey Allen, the author of "Anthony Adverse," a Pittsburgh native, a Pitt graduate and a close friend of Frost, between 1935 and 1940. In all, the four volumes will gather correspondence from more than 100 archives and a dozen private collections, letters retrieved from attics, pasted inside books and in pencil boxes.

Indeed, the first letters, fragments, really, to his childhood sweetheart Sabra Peabody in 1886 -- "Ever your faithful lover, Rob" -- are from just such a pencil box, a batch of them found decades later by the recipient. It isn't until 1894, however, that the next letter surfaces, to an editor who had accepted "My Butterfly: An Elegy" for publication. ("The memory of your note will be a fresh pleasure to me when I waken for a good many mornings to come.")

Frost's handwriting could be crabbed, to say the least.

"If a letter presented challenges in terms of transcription, we shared the scan and looked together," Mr. Sheehy said. "One gets used to the handwriting pretty quickly, as you would if a friend were writing you a letter a day over the course of a few years."

Sometimes they had to give up and merely note, "indecipherable," but not often. One letter to former student John Bartlett "must have been folded and refolded repeatedly, carried in a back pocket, and left out in the rain, but we still managed to capture large portions," Mr. Sheehy said.

'Monster myth'

Frost, an ambitious young poet, would struggle for recognition until the publication of "A Boy's Will" in 1913 and "North of Boston" in 1914. By 1920, when this first volume of letters ends, Frost had become famous, something that surprised him not at all. To Bartlett, his former student, he had written in 1913, "To be perfectly frank with you I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time. ... That will transpire presently."

As, of course, it did.

Frost was immensely popular in his lifetime -- he died in 1963 -- captivating the public with his use of traditional meter and rhyme in poems that captured the cadences and rhythms of American speech -- as much a public performer as a private poet, touring constantly. While he is still regularly taught in American high schools and colleges, many young people don't know much about him beyond "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which, like so much of his work, are deceptively simple.

His popularity, of course, made him unfashionable among academics, who preferred to spend their time deciphering impenetrable abstractions and allusions in modernist poetry by T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens.

Then, too, there was the problem of the "monster myth" -- one that has dogged Frost's reputation since his official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, savaged him in a three-volume biography published between 1966 and 1976. It was, in the words of New York Times critic Jonathan Miles, "a big fat voodoo doll of a biography ... puncturing Frost from every angle."

Thompson, a onetime disciple, had become disenchanted by and distrustful of his subject. In his accounting, Frost was no swinger of birches, but a nasty piece of work, cruel to his family, dismissive and contemptuous of other writers, a liar and a manipulator. A raft of corrective biographies came out in the 1980s that provide a more balanced, humanized view, but Thompson's portrayal seems to be the one that has stuck, reinforced last November by Joyce Carol Oates' piece of fiction in Harper's, "Lovely, Dark, Deep." In it she imagines an interview between the old poet and a young female journalist. Frost is racist, sexist, loathsome, bullying, but ultimately defeated by the young woman's contempt.

Mr. Sheehy was among many Frost scholars who protested, telling The New Republic that Ms. Oates' assertions about the poet's character "would be laughable if they weren't so malicious," and even now he's surprised at critics who have seized on certain letters in the book that "prove" Frost was a careerist, self-absorbed or grandiose.

As editors, however "we are neither apologists nor prosecutors," said Mr. Sheehy, and offered as example a letter to Louis Untermeyer in which a racial epithet that Untermeyer had expurgated in his edition was restored.

It was made in reference to African-American poet W.S. Braithwaite, a significant figure on the early-20th-century American poetry scene who, as publisher of a yearly anthology of poems, was one of Untermeyer's rivals. "It was a bad moment for Frost," Mr. Sheehy said, noting that Frost and Braithwaite had otherwise friendly relations. While Frost's remark to Untermeyer may have reflected prevalent racist attitudes of the time, "it is also surprising and disturbing. There is also no sense that racism was a habit of Frost's; his comments about race were scattered, few and non-systematic."

The poet Joseph Brodsky once said, "Would you like to meet Mr. Frost? Then read his poems, nothing else." Perhaps, but there is poetry in these letters, too. No letters survive to his wife Elinor, a deeply private person, but there are many that show his devotion to her, a tender attentiveness to his children -- and a gift for friendship, carefully tended over decades.

Look at the whole man

It is not clear if this book, and the ones that follow, will change the minds of those who have already decided that the grandfatherly American poet-laureate was, somehow, a moral failure. But this is a project about the whole man, and yes, Frost haggles about money, curries favor with prospective publishers, slings a little mud, gossips about rivals. If this first volume fails to banish the monster myth entirely, it won't be the first time a great artist or public figure -- from George Washington to Frank Sinatra -- has undergone revisionist scrutiny and come up short.

"America has a paradoxical take on Frost," says Peter Gilbert, the poet's literary executor. "On the one hand he is a giant on the landscape, so he has to be reckoned with. He casts such a big shadow in American poetry that many might be inclined to write the man bites dog, to take him down a notch," which is exactly what has happened in the 50 years since his death.

But these letters are primary documents, Mr. Gilbert added, a major new contribution to Frost scholarship, "and while some will see their preconceived notions confirmed, others will be able to look beyond them and draw new conclusions about an inevitably complex and fascinating man."


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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