Robert Frost

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

Robert Frost was singularly unlucky in his choice of biographers. Perhaps no other American writer has been so maligned by his biographer since Rufus Griswold’s malicious slander of Edgar Allan Poe. An early Frost biographer, Robert Newdick, died before he completed his book and the person Frost eventually chose as his “official” biographer, Lawrance Thompson, spent too many years with his subject and came to dislike Frost intensely. As a result, when Thompson’s “definitive” three-volume biography was eventually published, beginning in 1966, three years after Frost’s death, scholars noted Thompson’s bias in his tone and arrangement of material, most evident in his detailed indexes of Frost’s negative personality traits. Perhaps Thompson felt that he had to be critical to counter the folksy Frost public persona, but the result was a biographical portrait that, in the opinion of many readers, distorted Frost’s personality, unfairly blamed him for his family tragedies, and belittled his achievements.

Now Jeffrey Meyers has published a full-length revisionist biography that not only corrects the distortions in Thompson’s work, but sheds new light on Frost’s later career, particularly in regard to his relationship to his secretary, Kathleen Morrison, after his wife’s death in 1938. Many authors rightly fear the scrutiny of a biographer while they are still alive, and Frost was a particularly difficult biographical subject. Intensely private, he guarded his privacy by throwing his biographers off the scent when they came uncomfortably close to discovering information that Frost preferred not to disclose. When Robert Newdick discovered a cache of unpublished Frost juvenilia at the Huntington Library in California, Frost coyly denied authorship. Frost would repeatedly change versions of events in his early life and warned Thompson to check up on him. Like D. H. Lawrence, Frost preferred that readers trust the tale, not the teller. Thompson, a Princeton rare books curator thirty-two years younger than Frost, first approached Frost about writing his biography in the late 1930’s, after organizing a Frost exhibition at Wesleyan University. Thompson’s research would take thirty-five years to complete and could not be published until after Frost’s death. During that period, Thompson’s attitude toward Frost gradually changed from admiration to hostility. No Boswell, Thompson came to resent Frost and his own role as factotum and servant, and consequently exaggerated Frost’s faults while minimizing his accomplishments. Thompson spent nine summers with Frost after 1946 and came to know him so well that he could not be objective about Frost’s character and temperament, or about his relationship with Kay Morrison. Partially out of deference to the Morrisons, Thompson disguised the romantic nature of Frost’s attraction to Kay Morrison. With the cooperation of Anne Morrison, Kay’s daughter, Meyers is now able to tell the full story of their affair.

Perhaps the most startling revelation in Meyers’ biography involves the story of Frost’s romantic involvement, after his wife’s death in 1938, with his secretary Kathleen, who was married to Harvard lecturer Ted Morrison. Daughter of a Scottish Episcopal minister, the red-haired Kathleen Morrison reminded Frost of his mother, Isabelle Moodie Frost, who was also a Scotswoman with red hair. Depressed and despondent after his wife’s death, Frost turned to Kay Morrison for stability and emotional support and gradually became dependent upon her not only to look after his welfare, but to take the place of his wife Elinor. Frost virtually became a member of the Morrison family, and was very jealous of Kay’s attention. Kay, in turn, enjoyed the attention of a famous man and perhaps sought in Frost vicarious satisfaction for the disappointment of her ambitions. Frost felt revitalized by their affair, and Kay provided the inspiration for some of his most famous love poems, such as “The Silken Tent,” which slyly hints at Kay’s dual bondage to her husband and Frost. Thompson never admits the full nature of their intimacy, but Meyers recounts the remarkable story of this quarter- century affair between Frost and a woman more than thirty years younger than himself. Morrison herself later published a personal memoir of Frost’s later years, Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle (1974), calling herself a “close personal associate” of the poet. It is particularly illuminating to read Morrison’s and Meyers’ accounts of the same events side by side to understand why Frost needed a biographical reassessment. Morrison was simply too close to Frost and too protective of his reputation to be objective.

Unlike Thompson, Meyers has the advantage of objectivity, writing more than thirty years after the poet’s death and reflecting the substantial reassessment of Frost’s poetic reputation. Meyers’ objectivity prevents him from becoming overwhelmed by biographical details and trivia and allows him to offer balanced and informed critical assessments of Frost’s work. Meyers correctly emphasizes the importance to Frost of English poetry, particularly of the British Romantic and Victorian...

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Robert Frost

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robert Frost has long stood in need of a balanced and objective biography. Frost’s “official” biographer, Lawrance Thompson, came to dislike his subject and his biography casts an unfair and unfavorable light on Frost’s life and work. Frost scholars have long noted the biases and omissions in Thompson’s biography, particularly in regard to Frost’s later years, and have called for a revision. Now Jeffrey Meyers has published a new, full-length biography that corrects the defects in Thompson’s work and sheds new light on Frost’s career.

Perhaps the most startling new information involves the story of Frost’s romantic involvement, after his wife’s death in 1938, with his secretary, Kathleen Morrison, who was married to Harvard lecturer Ted Morrison. Depressed and despondent, Frost turned to Kay Morrison for emotional support and gradually became dependent upon her not only to look after his welfare, but to take the place of his wife Elinor, and she provided the inspiration for some of his most famous love poems, such as “The Silken Tent.” Thompson glossed over the details of this tacit relationship, but with the cooperation of Morrison’s daughter, Meyers is able to tell the full story of this remarkable quarter-century affair between Frost and a woman more than thirty years younger than himself.

Meyers’ biography also deals fully with Frost’s later career and documents the emergence of Frost’s public persona during the last two decades of his life, including his friendship with President John F. Kennedy and his remarkable trip to the Soviet Union in 1963, when he met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev. A fair and balanced biographical portrait, Jeffrey Meyer’s ROBERT FROST is destined to become the authoritative life of this great American poet.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar. LXV, Spring, 1996, p. 219.

Booklist. XCII, April 1, 1996, p. 1339.

Chicago Tribune. May 26, 1996, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXXI, April 15, 1996, p. 89.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 19, 1996, p. 10.

The New York Times. April 23, 1996, p. C16.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, May 19, 1996, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 19, 1996, p. 193.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 28, 1996, p. REV3.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 30, 1996, p. 4.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Autumn, 1996, p. 122.

The Wall Street Journal. April 30, 1996, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, August 11, 1996, p. 7.