150 Years Of The Atlantic December 2006

American Icons

This is the eleventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent.
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Robert Frost, Man and Myth
November 1966
By James Dickey

In the course of reviewing a new Robert Frost biography, the poet James Dickey (whose best-selling novel, Deliverance, would be published four years later) dismantled the myth of Frost as kindly farmer-poet.

Belovèd” is a term that must always be mistrusted when applied to artists, and particularly to poets. Poets are likely to be belovèd for only a few of the right reasons, and for almost all the wrong ones: for saying things we want to hear, for furnishing us with an image of ourselves that we enjoy believing in, even for living for a long time in the public eye and pronouncing sagely on current affairs. Robert Frost has been long admired for all these things, and is consequently one of the most misread writers in the whole of American literature …

Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. [In a new biography by Lawrance Thompson], we watch him live through the decline and death of his alcoholic, ambitious father, follow him as he is shunted around New England as a poor relation, supported by his gentle, mystical mother’s pathetically inept attempts to be a teacher. We see him develop, as compensation, a fanatical and paranoiac self-esteem with its attendant devils of humiliation, jealousy, and frustration. He considers suicide, tries poultry farming, loses a child, settles on poetry as a way of salvation—something, at last, that he can do, at least to some extent—borrows money and fails to pay it back, perseveres with a great deal of tenacity and courage but also with a sullen self-righteousness with which one can have but very little sympathy.

He wanted, and from his early days … to be “great,” distinctive, different, a law unto himself, admired but not restricted by those who admired him. He did well in high school when he found that good marks earned him a distinction he had never had before, but he was continually hampered by his arrogance and his jealousy of others, and after graduation seems to have been able to do little else but insult the people who tried to help him and accept and quit one humiliating job after another with as bad grace as possible.

During all this time, however, his writing developed, and in a remarkably straight line …

The persona of the Frost Story was made year by year, poem by poem, of elements of the actual life Frost lived, reinterpreted by the exigencies of the persona. He had, for example, some knowledge of farming, though he was never a farmer by anything but default. Physically he was a lazy man, which is perhaps why images of work figure so strongly in his poems. Through these figures in his most famous pieces, probably his best poems—haying, apple-picking, mowing, cleaning springs, and mending walls—he indulged in what with him was the only effective mode of self-defense he had been able to devise: the capacity to claim competence at the menial tasks he habitually shirked, and to assert, from that claim, authority, “earned truth,” and a wisdom elusive, personal, and yet final …

What he accomplished, in the end, was what he became. Not what he became as a public figure, forgotten as quickly as other public figures are, but what he became as a poet …

His poems were a tremendous physical feat, a lifelong muscular striving after survival. Though [he was] tragically hard on the people who loved him, put up with him, and suffered because of him, Frost’s courage and stubbornness are plain, and they are impressive. But no one who reads this book will ever again believe in the Frost Story, the Frost myth, which includes the premises that Frost the man was kindly, forbearing, energetic, hardworking, good-neighborly, or anything but the small-minded, vindictive, ill-tempered, egotistic, cruel, and unforgiving man he was until the world deigned to accept at face value his estimate of himself.

Vol. 218, No. 5, pp. 53–56

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