Robert Frost, strongly identified with New England woods and country roads, led an interesting, if unconventional life, according to Jay Parini’s new biography. Begun over twenty years ago, this exhaustively researched text combines analysis of Frost’s poetry with gracefully written narrative to give the reader a fair and balanced look at the life of this cultural icon.
And a balanced look is required, for Frost’s image has gone through several phases since his death in 1963. According to Parini, Frost was initially viewed as a wise and genial man. Then he was perceived as the “farmer-poet offering homespun wisdom from the lecture platform.” Finally, and most recently, Frost has been condemned a monster.
Lawrence Thompson published an extensive, three-volume biography in the decade after Frost died. Thompson was close to Frost, grew to despise him and used the biography to exact a measure of revenge. As Parini describes, public perception of Frost, as colored by these works, paints him as a “selfish, egomaniacal, dour, cruel and angry man.” And while the raw material for both Parini’s and Thompson’s work is more or less the same, Parini takes a far more sympathetic view towards his subject than Thompson. Parini is a fan of Frost’s, and seeks, in Robert Frost: A Life, to dispel the mythos created by Thompson.
The biography reads like a novel. Parini describes the major events in Frost’s life, including insightful analysis of his poetry. It is clear Frost probably suffered from clinical depression (although Parini is unwilling to commit completely to this so many years after Frost’s death), but he was also a loving and attentive husband and a hands-on father. He suffered setbacks in his family life and struggled artistically until he was in his forties. His sister and oldest son suffered from mental illness, and he lost two children in infancy and a daughter to childbirth. He was financially dependent upon his grandfather until he achieved literary success, and moved his family around endlessly, alternately farming – although he never achieved much success as a farmer – and taking teaching positions. Before publishing his best-selling poetry volumes, he had already earned a reputation in education circles as a teacher and lecturer. In fact, throughout most of his life, he was in some way associated with a university, either as guest artist, lecturer or instructor (this despite the fact that he left Dartmouth before completing a graduate degree). Parini describes Frost as “by nature an autodidact, which meant he intensely [disliked] being told what to read and when to read it. He preferred to go his own way, despite what his family or friends might think or say. ‘We go to college,’ he said, ‘to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in high school. Once we have learned to read, the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us.'” During his career, he received four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, traveled extensively, was awarded over 20 honorary doctoral hoods (he had these made into a quilt) and, finally, was considered one of the great poets of the twentieth century.
But he was far from a saint.
Parini may like his subject, but even he has trouble glossing over some of the less savory incidents in Frost’s life. He was known to occasionally make mean-spirited remarks about other poets and writers, held grudges against friends and colleagues and, though he grieved for the death of his beloved wife, Elinor, apparently had an affair with the wife of a friend after her death. Parini relates these episodes, incorporating them into the overall portrait of Frost. Throughout the telling of Frost’s life, Parini illustrates how resilient Frost was, how he struggled to keep his family together and how he incorporated his life into his work.
Ultimately, Parini finds Frost to be “a loner who liked company; a poet of isolation who sought a mass audience; a rebel who sought to fit in. Although a family man to the core, he frequently felt alienated from his wife and children and withdrew into reveries. While preferring to stay at home, he traveled more than any poet of his generation to give lectures and readings, even though he remained terrified of public speaking to the end.”
I picked up the book knowing nothing of Robert Frost, save some of his best-known poems, and put it down with a deeper understanding of the man and his work. In the end, Parini accomplishes his goal which was, in his own words, to set “the record straight here and there, putting in place a fresh mythos, one that combs the facts in a certain direction but does not preclude a future biographer from combing the same material differently.” Robert Frost: A Life, is definitely worth the read.