There is no denying that Robert Frost was an enigmatic figure. With his keen sense of play, he loved to tease and perplex his audience, both in his poetry and his public readings, even to the point of creating false or misleading impressions about himself. During his later years, he carefully cultivated the public image of the New England sage, the wise and hoary dispenser of proverbs and witticisms. This image may have increased his popular audience, but it sometimes prevented literary critics from taking him seriously as a major poet. He was compared unfavorably with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and the New Critics found his poetry to be lacking in “complexity.” After his death in 1963, his critical reputation gradually improved, thanks to perceptive new critical studies by Ruben Brower, Richard Poirier, and others, but even today, opinions remain divided over Frost’s place as a modern American poet.
More than anything else, the publication of Lawrance Thompson’s massive three-volume “official” biography marked a change in critical estimation of Frost. Trying as much as possible to counterbalance the benign public persona, Thompson offered a strikingly different portrait of Frost, one that emphasized the mean and vindictive side to his personality. While purporting to collect every scrap of information about the poet, Thompson arranged and presented it in such a way that an almost entirely unattractive portrait of Frost emerged—petty, egotistical, jealous, insecure, malicious, and destructive to those around him. Recent critical studies of Frost have taken their cue from this portrait, in concentrating almost exclusively on the negative side of Frost’s character. Given this biographical imbalance, friends and admirers of Frost have thought that a more objective portrait was needed, and in his Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, Amherst College professor William H. Pritchard has given readers just such a fair and balanced reappraisal of Frost’s life and work.
While not attempting to replicate the scale of the Thompson biography, Pritchard nevertheless presents a lively and readable literary portrait which should earn a place as the most dependable introduction to Frost’s life and work. In keeping with his lucid and engaging style, Pritchard employs a straightforward chronological approach that traces Frost’s poetic career, volume by volume, from the early years on his Derry, New Hampshire, farm, through his three-year stay in England with his family from 1912 to 1915 and his “discovery” there by Ezra Pound as a new and original voice in American poetry, to his subsequent return home to the United States in 1915 as an established American poet. Pritchard unfolds the often fascinating story of Frost as a skillful but not unscrupulous self-promoter and agent of his literary career, which took him back and forth between Amherst and Michigan for many years as the first “writer in residence” on an American college campus, and of the many famous public readings and lectures, later in life, which brought him before a wide public audience in a way that few American poets have been. In a reasonably short, one-volume biography, Pritchard presents enough information and critical judgment to make this the essential book to have as a companion to the full Poetry of Robert Frost (1969), allowing one to read Frost’s poems in the light of his life.
Literary biographies are ways of appropriating the lives of writers one cares about most. They provide a context for the writer’s work which enables the reader to understand not only the creative impulse of the writer but also the forces that prompted it. A good literary biography presents a sense of completeness and coherence which may be imposed by the biographer but is nevertheless essential for one’s understanding of the writer. The relationship between writer and biographer is symbiotic, with each depending upon the other, the writer for a fair presentation of his life and the biographer for his very subject matter. If the relationship is mutually enriching, then the credit redounds to both, as in the case of Walter Jackson Bate’s life of John Keats, but sometimes the relationship sours, and then a mean-spirited, punitive biography results, which reflects poorly on the biographer and his subject and may well injure the writer’s posthumous reputation. Such was the case with the Thompson biography of Frost.
The chief virtue of Pritchard’s biography is its judiciousness and reliability. He presents the reader with no new or startling information about Frost or his poems, but he reconsiders what is known in a far more reasonable and impartial manner than did Thompson, so that a fresh portrait of Frost emerges as a witty, inventive mind, ever eager to seize upon a new image or metaphor and spin it out as a poem or lyric. Pritchard stresses the enormous playfulness of Frost’s imagination and notes the ways in which that playful, teasing wit could be misinterpreted, particularly by a literal-minded biographer such as Thompson. While one does not necessarily return to the myth of the good, white-haired...
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