The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 -1920
(Harvard University Press)
US: Feb 2014
In his 1997 mountaineering classic Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer described how Mt. Everest’s allure as a climbing challenge had faded considerably by the ‘70s and ‘80s as many in the adventure community viewed it as more of a tourist destination that any climber, regardless of skill, could navigate as long as they were willing to pay for the privilege of doing so.
However, by the time of Krakauer’s own ascent in 1996, and the deaths that accompanied his expedition, Everest had once again assumed mythic proportions in the eyes of climbers who saw climbing the peak was more of a mental challenge that many could attempt, but few could actually attain.
A similar analogy could be applied to the allure of Robert Frost, possibly the most recognizable poet in American history. While celebrated during his lifetime, he became the disdain of modern and post-modern poets who ridiculed his “formal” and rigid style which, in the eyes of many, was so overtly simplistic as to be the work of a tyro, and not a “real” poet. And yet, like Everest, Frost’s stature has risen again. It’s not surprising, really since pop culture is cyclical. The poet, known for his evocative use of place, has become celebrated again and academics, perhaps the very same who lampooned Frost two decades ago, are once more singing his praises.
The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 – 1920 is a staggering effort by the three editors – Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen – and Harvard University Press to present, for the first time, the entire collection of all of Frost’s preserved correspondence. What’s unique about this effort is that there’s no discernible bias made by the editors; instead, their expectation, as suggested in the preface, is that unlike prior biographies and incomplete collections of correspondence, “the availability of the correspondence in its entirety will present both an occasion and a means to come to know Robert Frost anew.”
At 848 pages, The Letters of Robert Frost appears to be a bibliophile’s wet dream; a collection so massive that casual readers may look at its fatty binding and flee in terror with memories of being forced to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Joyce’s Ulysses or Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But those people would be mistaken; while visibly daunting, The Letters of Robert Frost, should be read by everyone.
The book is divided into five sections: “The Early Years” (1886 to 1912); “England in the Grip of Frost” (1912 to 1914); “This Quiet Corner of a Quiet Country” (1914 to 1915); “Making It in America” (1915 to 1917); and “Amherst” (1917 to 1920). I think it’s absolutely essential for any reader to first tackle the introduction because much of Frost’s motivations can be gleaned from this section.
One issue that blew my mind was mention of T.S. Elliot’s landmark The Waste Land in 1922; according to the editors, “the problem may well have been that Frost didn’t terrify most of his readers… But Frost un-anxiously took up where Wordsworth left of … The letters collected here show us a poet perfectly at ease with tradition.”
Now, I did not read this collection in its entirety before penning this review (I will enjoy it fully at my leisure); rather, using the exhaustive, 14-page index, I skipped around. Of particular interest to me were Frost’s letters to and references made of other writers, and there is much respect evident in his correspondence to those who came before him (Emerson, Byron, Dryden, Burns, James, Bronte, ) as well as his contemporaries (Shaw, Aiken, Sandburg, Pound, Hardy).
In the end, writing a review of an 800 page collection of letters in a 34-year span of a former U.S. Poet Laureate seems at once intimidating and feckless. However, why not end with one of Frost’s shorter poems, “Fire and Ice”, (read by Richard Burton, below), that clocks in at a pithy nine lines, and reverberates with realism and encapsulates why we continue to love Frost’s poetry.