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'The Road Not Taken' Travels the Blurred Boundary Between Sincerity and Performance

David Orr's exploration of Robert Frost's famous (and famously misinterpreted) poem will have you questioning Frost's intentions -- and your illusions of self-agency.

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

Publisher: Penguin
Author: David Orr
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-08

This year marks the hundredth since Robert Frost wrote his legendary poem "The Road Not Taken" (quotation marks used to differentiate the poem from the title of the book). We remain assured of legendary stature because it has survived one hundred years of wanton misinterpretation by starry-eyed graduates, savvy marketing companies, and basically anyone who takes a shine to American ideals of free choice and individualism. One hundred years later, not only does the poem continuously offer possibilities for rich and multi-layered readings, but it actually appears to indulge less accurate interpretations. Take the last stanza, for example:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Do we construct the self, or do we find the self? Orr postulates that the poem appears to corroborate both possibilities. At the crossroads, the selves blur.
This final stanza epitomizes one of the central delights of Frost's poem: its ambiguity. What emotion did Frost mean to evoke with the speaker's sigh? What specific difference has taking the less traveled road made in the life of the traveler? Why did taking this road make all the difference when only two stanzas prior, the speaker revealed that both roads appeared to have underwent about the same degree of erosion? After reading this last stanza in isolation, it's easy to feel like that poem's only possible meaning is the one thrust upon it by generations of casual readers: a sense of self-fulfillment resulting from treading the unbeaten path.

However, as David Orr elucidates in his excellent analysis, the unbeaten path is a red herring. The unbeaten path is irrelevant. The unbeaten path is not even unbeaten compared to its alternative -- the speaker admits that "the passing there / had worn [the paths] really about the same". So why has this popular interpretation clung to the poem, to the point that people incorrectly refer to it as The Road Less Traveled? And why, with a poem that appears so straightforwardly written, are Frost's meaning and intentions so elusive?

Orr seeks to answer these questions and relate them to the inherent "American-ness" of the poem. He divides the book into four parts -- "The Poet", "The Poem", "The Choice", and "The Chooser" -- each part addressing the tangle of contested assumptions that average people and literary scholars alike have bestowed upon Frost as a writer, upon Frost's poem, the poem's central conflict, and its speaker. Like all effective critics, Orr knows that the myth of the poem is deeply intertwined with the myth of the poet, and that these two aspects in turn remain inextricable from the cultural psyche from which the poem was born.

To undertake a consolidated examination of all these factors without sacrificing accessible prose and cohesion requires a strategy that takes into account both the big picture and the minute details. Thus, Orr wisely opts to rely on a recurring, overarching topic that underpins his analysis of all four aspects (poet, poem, choice, and chooser). In this case, the overarching topic is the idea of the liminal, that which occupies a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. Or in simpler terms, a crossroads.

Regarding Frost the poet, for example, Orr scrutinizes the "twinning" that tends to occur when people attempt to unpack his character and persona. On one hand, Frost is the quintessential American poetic voice, rivaled perhaps only by Whitman. As his celebrity grew in the first half of the 20th century, readers conflated his image with his poetry, projecting upon Frost all the qualities worthy of a "witty, rural sage": sincerity, authenticity, naturalness. However -- and herein lies the crossroads -- history has not always been kind to the man behind the poems. The "real" Robert Frost is a disputed figure, one whom biographers and other writers have depicted as a racist, a monster, a loveless father.

Knowing this, all of a sudden, the unwritten contract between Frost and the reader's perception of Frost appears breached, the expectations violated. Who is this man who speaks of apple picking and piles of wood and diverging roads, yet whose homespun authenticity seems to be nothing but a performance? In one of his most revealing letters, Frost writes, "Say what you will effects of actuality and intimacy are the greatest aim an artist can have. The sense of intimacy gives the thrill of sincerity." In other words, there's no need to achieve actual intimacy, or transmit genuine sincerity. As Frost cultivated his persona, Orr writes that he relied on this appearance of "studied informality", taking on "the look and the speech cadences of a rough-hewn, slightly salty Yankee man of the soil." Was this a form of deception? Perhaps. But the ability to stand at the division and blur the boundaries between sincerity and performance is undoubtedly one of Frost's hallmarks.

The poem in question is famous for similar reasons. As mentioned, readers have erroneously referred to the poem as "The Road Less Traveled", a mistake that unearths the poem's abilities to "'juxtapose two visions", as Orr puts it. There's the vision of self-congratulation, with which most people are familiar, and the vision of regret over the path not taken. Scholars discount the first vision and exhaustively comb through the evidence supporting variations of the second. When Frost sent the poem to Edward Thomas, a literary critic and his good friend (who had also been the inspiration for the poem), Thomas' inability to see the intended humor in the verses foreshadowed the range of responses the poem has provoked. True to his fashion, Frost's writing "encourages interpretations, only to undercut them, separating readers into those who thought they understood, other's who thought those readers didn't understand, and so on in a nearly endless cycle." Once more, the crossroads emerges; which path to take, which understanding is closer to Frost's original intention?

"The Road Not Taken" raises questions that transcend academic inquiries about meanings and authorial intentions, however. Take the issue of choice, for example, a concept that affects us all. Frost's poem invites us to inhabit the mind of a speaker who, at some point in time, chose a particular path over the other. So frequently have high school valedictorians and speakers alluded to this scenario that it's easy to forget how isolated the speaker's choice is. In real life, as Orr points out, the average person faces an onslaught of variables when making life decisions. They must take into account other people, their native culture, circumstantial pressures, momentary distractions, moral consequences, trivial or inconsequential options (stepping with the right foot over the left, or choosing the path with the prettiest leaves), as well as the option of no option at all. None of these variables exist in Frost's poem. How realistic of a choice can it be?

This query prompts Orr's energetic forays into philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Studies have shown, for example, that the United States is one of the most individualistic countries in the world. In 2002, 82 percent of people in the US cited individual failure as the reason for why people don't succeed in life (as opposed to societal failure). This statistic points to the centrality of choice and free will in the American value system, and if the self-help book industry is any indication, people in the US fear the consequences of wrong choices. Forget the evidence uncovered by neurological studies suggesting that our choices are products of processes outside of our control, or the fact that we tend to retroactively invent ad hoc justifications for why we made the choices we did -- we want our choices to be meaningful.

But how can we know if we have made meaningful choices if the choices change us along the way? The speaker of Frost's poem is keenly aware of this; he knows he cannot "travel both / and be one traveler". Faced with a crossroads, our first reaction is uncertainty, an uncertainty that the speaker feels when he repeats the "I" in the final stanza, an uncertainty that we all feel when making a decision that could change everything. In the US, people are encouraged to make the decision that feels authentic to their true selves, and to use this choice to "aspire to a certain kind of glorified personhood". But therein lies the age-old question: do we construct the self, or do we find the self? Orr postulates that the poem appears to corroborate both possibilities. At the crossroads, the selves blur.

"The Road Not Taken" could not have been written anywhere else by any other poet. America is the embodiment of the liminal, the country of crossroads. We're all aware of the idea that people come to America out of a desire to choose paths that will lead them to success, self-fulfillment, and satisfaction. People come to America to find their true "selves". But in reality what these people find is uncertainty. The crossroads they confront promise no discovery of the "true" self as a reward; on the contrary; the crossroads demand equal parts consolidation and sacrifice of current identities. Further, instead of consciously and deliberately choosing, people in America improvise, adapt, and accommodate to situations over which they have no control. At the end of the road, they look back with a sigh (of disappointment? Of contentment? Who knows?) and concoct explanations for why they traversed this road and not that one. Yet the promises of America live on. As Orr beautifully states at the end, "We are the threshold nation, the American self-myth says, offering doorway after doorway, behind each of which lies a new beginning."

Thus, Orr concludes a brilliant exploration of one of the most beloved and polemic artifacts of Americana. His writing is a lesson in how to wring pertinent and compelling meaning from 20 lines of poetry, and his approach succeeds by being instructive without insulting the reader's intelligence. Reading his book is immensely pleasurable. Those who appreciate learning about American literature and reading scholarly or cultural analyses will enjoy The Road Not Taken, even if they have only a fleeting interest in Frost's poetry. In fact, they might enjoy it slightly more than Frost fanatics, who may feel inclined to project their own knowledge and arguments onto Orr's.

Perhaps most critically, however, Orr takes care not to pierce the poem's mystique. He acknowledges the basis for popular, albeit less accurate, readings of the poem, and his analysis preserves the poem's essential tensions by not prescribing "correct" interpretations or reading too much into this word or that. At no point does Orr try to challenge the poem's resistance to explanation. Instead, the book vigorously engages with the vagaries of Frost's poem, wholly respectful of its impenetrability, the degree of which is such that even Frost himself had to state: "I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken."


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