In 1922 The Literary Digest asked selected American poets and novelists to name “the most important” living American writer: Joseph Hergesheimer finished first and Eugene O’Neill Second; Sherwood Anderson edged out Willa Cather for third. For fifth place James Branch Cabell tied Robert Frost, who first gained wide attention in 1915 with the American publication of A Boy’s Will, his first book of poems.
In the decades that followed, Hergesheimer and Cabell plunged into obscurity, and Anderson—whose Winesburg, Ohio was described by Susan Sontag as “dogged and pretentious”—became, in some quarters, some thing of a joke. O’Neill and Cather remained widely respected, but neither came close to achieving the enormous popularity and acclaim of Robert Frost. By the late 1950’s, Frost was America’s unofficial poet laureate—the regular recipient of testimonial dinners, honorary degrees, and senatorial proclamations.
Frost deserved the accolades. He produced solid, often indisputably first-rate verse for close to five decades. Consider “The Gift Outright,” “The Black Cottage,” “Two Tramps in Mudtime,” and “The Death of the Hired Man.” As these poems remind us, Frost steered clear of self-pity and morbid introspection. Hee combined precise diction, careful phrasing, and a brilliant narrative sense; on occasion he frankly celebrated time-honored American values: work, thrift, self-reliance. Indeed, as David Perkins has noted, Frost was “one of the few significant Miters of the 20th century whose work seems to preserve poise and sanity of mind.”
Of course, some American critics—particularly those with leftist inclinations—found much of Frost’s work most unpalatable. Edmund Wilson, who cut his teeth on Rimbaud and Mallarme’, thought Frost’s neo-Georgian style and New England settings “excessively dull.” Granville Hicks complained that there were no factories in Frost’s poems and no allusions to the theories of Sigmund Freud. Rolfe Humphries suggested that the older Frost got, the more he sounded like Edgar Guest; Horace Gregory insisted that he detected, in Frost’s A Further Range (1936), the voice of Calvin Coolidge.
After his death in 1963, Frost’s reputation did suffer a more general decline, but not principally because the objections of the likes of Humphries and Hicks had begun to take their toll. It was Lawrance Thompson’s biography—published in three volumes between 1965 and 1976—that prompted many to reexamine not only their sense of Frost’s poetry, but their admiration for Frost the man. As William Pritchard points out, Thompson portrayed a generally venal and vindictive Frost, and many American reviewers—like gossipy matrons in a beauty salon—eagerly repeated the charge. Helen Vendler, for example, proclaimed Frost “a monster”; Howard Moss dubbed him a “mean-spirited megalomaniac.” An other reviewer decided that he simply could not imagine a human being more “hateful” than the cagey old fraud who hid behind “Birches” and “Rose Pogonias.”
As Pritchard notes, making one’s way through Thompson’s biography is a bit of a chore. The book is filled with important dates and not irrelevant domestic details, but it also displays a flat and overweight prose style that Vendler aptly described as “doughy.” It is, moreover, badly skewed. Thompson, Pritchard suggests, was obviously earnest and well-intentioned, but he simply failed to appreciate Frost’s sense of irony, theatricality, and play. He was “overeager to fix Frost in explanatory categories,” and thus was quick to find in virtually every one of Frost’s actions “another example of retaliation, or vindictiveness, or arrogant ‘spoiled-child’ behavior.” The “particularly unattractive” Frost whom Thompson portrays is then—according to Pritchard—”much at variance” with the real-life Frost whom many still remember with vividness and some affection.
Pritchard, who teaches at Amherst, made the pages of USA Today some months back when he publicly protest ed the cancellation in his viewing area of Search for Tomorrow—one of the hoarier afternoon soaps. He is not, however, a lightweight. He is invariably perceptive and fair; he is—as his 1968 study of Wyndham Lewis also proves—a reliable guide to the difficult works of complicated and often cantankerous authors. Pritchard’s well-written and balanced life of Frost is short on scandal and long on intelligent exegesis; all who attend to it will find it worth their while.
Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered by William H. Pritchard; Oxford Uni versity Press; New York.