Jay Parini Criticism - Essay

Lewis Stone (review date 19 October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Patch Boys, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 19, 1986, p. 3.

[In the following review, Stone offers a positive assessment of The Patch Boys.]

The easy rhythms and harsh reality of “patch” towns where coal was king. People with names like Will, Bing, Jesse, Lucey, and “The Nipper.” Boys sneaking puffs of Fatima cigarettes while gazing in rapture at passing Pierce-Arrow automobiles. Purple twilight in a tent along the banks of the Susquehanna. Idle talk of Babe Ruth and Roger “The Rajah” Hornsby. Fields and woods shimmering in heat while far below in the black bowels of the earth, men labor and die. A young boy with...

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Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 10 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tolstoy's Tumult,” in The Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 1990, p. 14.

[In the following review, D'Evelyn offers positive assessment of The Last Station.]

Once involved in this famously unhappy family, it’s impossible not to take sides. Jay Parini’s witty, immensely moving presentation of the Tolstoys, Sofya and Leo [The Last Station], concentrates on the last year of the writer’s life the year he finally took steps to put distance between himself and his wife of 50 years.

Parini has used the journals of both Tolstoys, their children, and the “Tolstoyans,” to provide as objective a view of the matter as possible. Of...

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Edward Condren (review date 9 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tolstoy's Final Days,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, p. 4.

[In the following review, Condren offers a positive evaluation of The Last Station.]

Tolstoy was one of the greatest novelists in any language. As a man whose ideals often contradicted his life, he has a less certain reputation.

Among his many idiosyncrasies, none seems more apparent, nor more responsible for tormenting his last months, than his habit of laying guilt upon others to atone for his own excesses; or, to turn the same coin on its opposite side, his fondness for half-baked ideals which actually arose from some personal inability. For example,...

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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1991)

SOURCE: A review of The Last Station, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1991, p. 21.

[In the following review, the critic offers a brief positive assessment of The Last Station.]

Widely reviewed and well-received (Gore Vidal calls it “easily one of the best historical novels written in the last twenty years”), poet and novelist Jay Parini’s story [The Last Station] is concerned with the 82nd, last year (1910) in the life of the great Leo Tolstoy and, in the words of the publisher, “dances bewitchingly between fact and fiction.” Parini has based his account mainly on the actual diaries, memoirs, letters, and published writings of the principals. Using the familiar modern device of multiple narration, Parini lets six characters tell the story from as many different angles: Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Andreyevna; Bulgakov, his secretary; Dr. Dushan Makovitsky; Vladimir Chertkov, disciple and would-be publisher; Sasha, Tolstoy’s daughter; and Tolstoy himself. Beginning at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate south of Moscow, and following Tolstoy on his final flight which ended with the old man’s collapse in the house of the stationmaster of the town of Astapovo, the story is of the battle for the soul, wealth, and future of the master. Parini builds to a brilliant ending, concluding with an excerpt from Tolstoy’s own The Death of Ivan Ilych and, finally, with “Elegy,” a poem by Parini. The overall method, not unlike a superior collage, overcomes the possible objection to making fiction out of the well-documented lives of “real” people. Parini reinforces his method with a fidelity to fact: “A novel is a voyage by sea, a setting out into strange waters,” Parini writes in an “Afterword,” “but I have sailed as close as I could to the shoreline of literal events that made up the last year of Tolstoy’s life.”

John Bayley (review date 28 December-3 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Household and Its Head,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 28-January 3, 1991, p. 1408.

[In the following review, Bayley offers a favorable evaluation of The Last Station.]

In spite of the eulogy on the cover by Gore Vidal, himself the pioneer of a remarkable new kind of historical novel, I began this book rather sceptically. Biographers have surely drained the last of Tolstoy dry, recording the latest period of his life from every angle—that of his wife, his daughters, his young secretary Bulgakov, his medical adviser Dr Makovitsky, the odious but somehow also pathetic disciple and bad angel. Vladimir Chertkov, A. N. Wilson’s biography, Anne...

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Tom Wilhelmus (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Visionary Historians,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 125-32.

[In the following excerpted review essay, Wilhelmus offers a positive assessment of The Last Station.]

History, mother of truth; the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an investigation of reality, but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what took place; it is what we think took place. The final clauses—example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future—are shamelessly pragmatic.

—Jorge Luis Borges, from “Pierre Menard,...

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D. M. Thomas (review date 23 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “All That Glitters,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 23, 1992, pp. 3, 12.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable assessment of Bay of Arrows.]

Jay Parini begins his new novel [Bay of Arrows] with a short scene richly evoking the arrival of Columbus in the New World. A cacique and his high priest gaze in awe at the three caravals standing in the ultramarine bay. They are ancestors, says the high priest, they are returning to claim kinship. The cacique, deeply impressed by these words, resolves to make the supreme sacrifice of his only daughter. The beautiful black-eyed maiden is bathed and anointed, then tied naked to a stake....

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Merle Rubin (review date 6 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Tale of a Not-So-Heroic Hero,” in The Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1992, p. 13.

[In the following review of Bay of Arrows, Rubin describes Parini's novel as “unobjectionable” but “less profound than it pretends to be.”]

Apart from a small, but persistent, scholarly dispute as to whether he, Leif Ericson, or someone else ought to be credited with discovering the New World, Christopher Columbus enjoyed a fairly glorious reputation for most of the five centuries following his famous voyage.

Honored for his courage in braving the unknown, his contribution to proving that the earth really was round, and his...

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Andrew Rosenheim (review date 30 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bay of Arrows, in Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Rosenheim offers a tempered assessment of Bay of Arrows, which he characterizes as a “campus novel.”]

Christopher “Geno” Genovese is a forty-two year-old poet, teaching at a small college in Vermont and suffering from a fairly standard mid-life crisis. His writing has come to a virtual standstill, his marriage is weakening, his two young sons seem remote and unintelligible to him. As in most campus novels, little is made in Bay of Arrows of Geno’s professional commitments; predictably, his relations with students are...

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Robert Coover (review date 26 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Resurrection,” in New Statesman and Society, March 26, 1993, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Coover offers a positive evaluation of The Last Station.]

The 20th century has produced so many monsters and so few even-might-be saints that the temptation is to cling on to the few moral exemplars we inherited from the 19th: Schweitzer, Gandhi, Tolstoy … the list seeps into the sands already. Written from the points of view of six protagonists, including Leo Nikolayevich, the American poet Jay Parini’s novel [The Last Station] appears at first to be little more than another appliqué of varnish in the Tolstoy hagiographic tradition, all breathless...

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Zachary Leader (review date 15 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Simple, Clear, Generous, and Lucky,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 15, 1994, p. 25.

[In the following review, Leader discusses John Steinbeck's literary career and Parini's biography of him, which Leader finds to be an insubstantial contribution to existing Steinbeck scholarship.]

The chief virtues of John Steinbeck’s writing are those he associated with superiority in all its forms: “simplicity, clarity, and generosity”. The best stories and novels quickly grip and proceed with easy, confident economy. Their effects are straightforward, unstrained, which may help account for their popularity both with the young and in translation, as well as...

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Paul Binding (review date 6 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Paupers to Presidents,” in New Statesman and Society, May 6, 1994, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Binding offers a favorable assessment of John Steinbeck.]

Perhaps we all met Steinbeck too young; there can be few readers, particularly in his own America, who have missed having The Red Pony, The Pearl or—for all its unflinching grimness—Of Mice and Men put their way during their schooldays. And so they have tended, as they moved forward into wider reading, to relegate him to some unsophisticated region, a perpetual adolescence of sensibility. Jay Parini reminds us [in John Steinbeck] that many fewer academic studies of...

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Paul Foot (review date 7 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sun Went Down with His Wrath,” in The Spectator, May 7, 1994, p. 28.

[In the following review, Foot offers unfavorable assessment of John Steinbeck, finding Parini's depiction of Steinbeck disjointed and overprotective.]

John Steinbeck’s great novel about the migrant workers of the American depression, The Grapes of Wrath, was published in May 1939. The original print was 19,804. By the end of 1939 it had sold 430,000. Every year since then, Jay Parini tells us, the novel has never sold less than 50,000.

At the time, not everyone rejoiced. The ‘Okies’ who fled or were evicted from the dustbowl were...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Robert J. Corber (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gore Vidal, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 377-8.

[In the following review, Corber offers a positive evaluation of Gore Vidal.]

Gore Vidal is arguably one of the most important writers of his generation. Unusually prolific, he has published over twenty novels, several collections of essays, a volume of short stories, five Broadway plays, and several screenplays. Moreover, his treatment of gay male experience in such novels as The City and the Pillar (1948) and Myra Brickingridge (1968) helped pave the way for the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. Vidal’s refusal to treat gay male identity...

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Charles Tomlinson (review date 21 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “True Nature First Inspires the Man,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 21, 1994, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Tomlinson discusses American poetry and offers a positive evaluation of The Columbia History of American Poetry.]

“American poetry is a very easy subject to discuss for the simple reason that it does not exist.” This italicized passage (unattributed) appears in Book Three of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Williams having excerpted it from an article of George Barker’s published in Poetry London in 1948. Tackled almost twenty years later by Mike Weaver, then in the preliminary stages of his book on...

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Charles Altieri (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 3, December, 1994, pp. 1258-9.

[In the following review, Altieri offers an unfavorable assessment of The Columbia History of American Poetry,citing omissions and empty homages.]

The first two-thirds of this collection of essays [The Columbia History of America Poetry,] provides a lively, informative, and intellectually stimulating treatment of the major moments in American poetry up to World War II. Some of the work offers engaging and useful traditional literary history—of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor; of early African-American poetry;...

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Ed Folsom (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 832-3.

[In the following review, Folsom offers an unfavorable assessment of The Columbia History of American Poetry,noting that “the overall result is an uninformed and internally contradictory history.”]

This volume [The Columbia History of American Poetry] has the look and heft of a history of American poetry, but it does not read like one. It reads more like The Columbia Big Book of Essays on American Poetry. Like the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), this project betrays suspicions about...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Mark Jarman (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shifting Sands: The Columbia History of American Poetry,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 641-7.

[In the following review, Jarman provides an extended analysis of The Columbia History of American Poetry,noting both the volume's flaws and strengths.]

In the mid-1600s, as the Massachusetts colonist Anne Bradstreet was writing the poems that would be published in London in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately sprung up in America, the oral tradition of Native American poetry was uniting use and beauty inextricably, though in ways unknown and even ignored until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, two hundred years later, tried to...

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Mark Shechner (review date 12 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Laureate of the Underdog,” in Washington Post Book World, February 12, 1995, pp. 4-5.

[In the following review, Shechner discusses Steinbeck's literary career and Parini's biography of Steinbeck.]

The first clause of any brief on John Steinbeck’s behalf is that he was the quintessence of Main Street, Huck Finn with a typewriter, who put no stock in Europe or its cultural exports. Painfully shy and short on social graces, self-educated (a wayward student at Stanford, he never graduated), ignorant of art or music until he discovered jazz late in life, innocent of abstract ideas except about biological interdependence, and a true-blue binge drinker—he was...

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Brian A. Bremen (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in American Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 195-6.

[In the following review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, Bremen discusses the difficulty of compiling such a volume and the successes and shortcomings of Parini's History.]

Recounting his signing on as editor for The Columbia History of American Literature, Emory Elliot told the audience at last year’s MLA convention that it was done via instructions from a self-destructing tape recorder, with the theme from Mission Impossible playing in the background. No doubt Jay Parini heard the same tune as he compiled...

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John Piller (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Poetry History for the 1990's,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 362-6.

[In the following review, Piller offers a positive evaluation of The Columbia History of American Poetry, though notes shortcomings in the volume's limited treatment of contemporary poetry.]

In The Columbia History of American Poetry editors Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller have given us the politically correct critical volume for the 1990’s. On the whole, this is a good thing, for they have accurately reflected the current thinking about American poetry. Their method was simple. They simply solicited a diverse group of writers from...

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Jonathan Vos Post (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 160-3.

[In the following review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, Vos Post comments on the lack of “science” poets and poetry in the volume.]

Since the United States of America put human beings on the moon twenty-five years ago, it is no surprise that science is profoundly “In the American Grain,” and this is amply confirmed by a thematic thread running through The Columbia History of American Poetry. This is not to say that science dominates American poetry as much as it dominates the physical landscape of the...

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Willard Spiegelman (review date Summer-Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “History By Many Hands,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XVII, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1995, pp. 219-24.

[In the following extended review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, Spiegelman weighs the volume's weaknesses against its strengths and concludes that it contains disparate perspectives and inconsistencies which detract from the work as a whole.]

David Perkins is the most recent in a long, scholarly line to pose the question, as the title of his elegant 1992 book puts it, Is Literary History Possible?, and to answer with the ambivalent response that, on the one hand, it is not, but that, on the other, we had better keep doing it. The...

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Andrew C. Higgins (review date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Columbia History of American Poetry, in Melus, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 154-6.

[In the following review, Higgins praises the general quality of The Columbia History of American Poetry, though finds fault in its exclusionary focus on major figures and its failure to address the cultural significance of American poetry.]

At the present moment, a wide spectrum of claims are being made about the health of American poetry. More poetry is being published in America today than ever before, and yet poets regularly complain about a lack of readers, especially outside the university. The editors of poetry journals regularly complain...

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Kevin Hearle (review date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of John Steinbeck, in American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 881-2.

[In the following review, Hearle offers a negative assessment of John Steinbeck.]

The British edition of this book [John Steinbeck] contained so many errors that this American edition was delayed almost a year, and still there are so many problems with this biography that its value as a scholarly reference is negligible. At his best Parini merely rewrites Jackson Benson’s earlier and much superior biography of Steinbeck; at his worst Parini displays an almost humorous ignorance of California geography and of Steinbeck’s work. In his discussion of...

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Marvin J. LaHood (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gore Vidal, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 191-2.

[In the following review, LaHood offers a favorable assessment of Gore Vidal.]

Gore Vidal has written over twenty novels (starting with Williwaw in 1946), three mystery novels under the pseudonym of Edgar Box, nearly a hundred television scripts, a volume of short stories, two very successful Broadway plays (Visit to a Small Planet, 338 performances; and The Best Man, 520 performances), film scripts, and a collection of essays on literature and politics. He ran for Congress in 1960 in New York; in 1982 he ran in the Democratic primary for the...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

David Watt (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Liking Steinbeck,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 155-9.

[In the following review, Watt offers a positive assessment of John Steinbeck, which he regards as a homage to its subject rather than a work of scholarship.]

Steinbeck didn’t much—like Steinbeck. Well into his forties he remained self-dismissive. As a young man his chosen emblem was Pigasus, the flying pig. Sensitive about his appearance—the protruding ears, hulking upper body, Oil Can Harry mustache, and, later, pointy goatee—he likened himself to the devil. “Don’t you go liking people, Jim. We can’t waste time liking people.” Mac issues this...

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Stephen Allison (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of John Steinbeck, in Antioch Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring, 1996, p. 245.

[In the following review, Allison offers a favorable assessment of John Steinbeck.]

[In John Steinbeck] Parini does not ignore the popular question among academics, referred to by Donald R. Noble as “the Steinbeck question”—“Why,” Noble asked, “has Steinbeck not received the intense academic scrutiny awarded his peers?” In other words, why is Steinbeck not considered a great American writer like Hemingway and Faulkner? Parini addresses this question, but his main focus is how Steinbeck’s creative powers endured despite the odds against him. This...

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Joe Moran (review date April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gore Vidal, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 160-1.

[In the following review, Moran offers a positive assessment of Gore Vidal, though notes a lack of focus in the volume.]

This collection [Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain], published in hardback in 1992, announced itself as the first serious book-length study of Vidal, aside from the usual Twayne and Frederick Ungar volumes intended primarily for undergraduates. It consists of a series of nineteen essays, half specially commissioned and half pre-published, sandwiched between a long introduction/career summary and an interview with the author...

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Jeffrey Mehlman (review date 18 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Critical Overdose,” in Washington Post Book World, May 18, 1997, p. 7.

[In the following review, Mehlman offers an unfavorable assessment of Benjamin's Crossing.]

Walter Benjamin, the subject of Jay Parini’s new novel [Benjamin's Crossing], is as close as the self-styled iconoclasts of the literary-theory crowd have come to producing a genuine icon. A delver into the devious autonomy of signs, Benjamin, a German Jew, wrote his major work—on the arcane subject of German tragic drama—in the 1920s. Baroque “allegory” was the touchstone of semiotic perversity in that work, “intercepting” images of plenitude, waking readers from their every...

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David S. Gross (review date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Benjamin's Crossing, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 2, Spring, 1998, p. 372.

[In the following review, Gross offers a positive assessment of Benjamin's Crossing, despite what he asserts are its inaccuracies concerning Marxist thought.]

Benjamin’s Crossing is identified on the title page as a novel. And that it is. It also has as its main character a real person, who can lay claim to being the most original and important thinker of the twentieth century. Jay Parini’s novel is quite good, but would probably not get much notice were it not about Walter Benjamin. As a book “about” Benjamin it has both its moments...

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Jason Mauro (review date March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Some Necessary Angels, in American Literature, Vol. 71, No. 1, March, 1999, pp. 205-6.

[In the following review, Mauro offers a tempered assessment of Some Necessary Angels.]

This collection of essays [Some Necessary Angels] is an uneven array of homages, nostalgic meditations, and reflections on the “writing life” that seems at odds with itself. While some of these pieces individually are engaging, as collected, they create some tension among themselves, revealing lapses and distracting inconsistencies.

In his chapter “Mentors,” Parini pays tribute to Alistair Reid, Robert Penn Warren, and Gore Vidal, each of...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 21 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Frost: The Icon and the Man,” in The New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999, pp. 17-8, 20-1.

[In the following review of Parini's biography of Robert Frost, Donoghue discusses Frost's life, legacy, and critical assessment of his work.]


In the middle of June 1957 Robert Frost arrived in Dublin at the end of a goodwill tour for the State Department: he had been to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Durham. His next assignment was to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland; then he was free to spend four or five days being feted. He was accompanied by Lawrance Thompson, since 1939 his...

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