BERNARD DE VOTO put the contradiction simply: "You're a good poet, Robert, but you're a bad man." Another friend of Robert Frost, Theodore Morrison, wrote an appraisal that was at once more generous and complex: "He was . . . a great man who contained a small man." Few poets pose the question for us as squarely as did Robert Frost: Should any part of himself, great or small, concern us but the poetry? Frost himself clearly thought so. In fact, his poetry--great as much of it is--would very likely not be remembered so widely and well had he not been one of the foremost self-promoters in American literary history. But curiously--or with typical self-contradiction--Frost gave carte blanche to his official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, supplying information that could easily damn as selfish and hateful the man behind the poetry.
Natalie Bober's new biography for the young adult, A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost, retraces the benign portrait of Frost we had before Thompson. All his finest qualities rise to the book's elegant surface, and one rediscovers how perfectly he may serve as a model for children of eventual accomplishment. He hated school and was allowed for years to stay at home with his mother. Not until he was 14 was he reading whole books. His first attempts at poetry were rarely rewarded. His high school sweetheart, Elinor White, set such standards for both of them that it was years before their engagement led to marriage. Yet, with the publication of A Boy's Will in England in 1913, when Frost was 39 years old, his literary life began to tip giddily into a new dimension. He became, deservedly, famous.
Just how he became famous is a subject Bober glides over evasively. Much of Frost's life occurred on paper--when not in poems, in letters which reveal a man acutely aware of his position in the literary world. But this is not a literary biography; it is a moral one. Bober's greatest challenge--and she succeeds--is to show that the escapist who dropped out of colleges (both as student and professor), who changed houses and friendships when he grew uncomfortable with himself, possessed simultaneously an enormous store of courage. When his grandfather offered him a year's support on the condition that he give up writing if not successful, the young Frost refused, knowing that neither creativity nor recognition can be scheduled. When, many years later and still floundering, he sensed that a move would do his work good, he flipped a coin with Elinor (she preferred England, he Canada) and packed up his family of six for London without having obtained first either a house or a job.
Bober, quite naturally, has difficulty showing why such rashness can be at all advisable: "He had left (college) because he couldn't see the difference between being intellectual in college and being intellectual outside of college. . . . But his own lack of a formal college education would never allow him to respect a youngster who left school and did nothing-- who allowed his parents to support him." The sorry fact is that Frost's life was a difficult model for his own four children who, without his genius and his luck, simply drifted--one into a mental institution, one to suicide. Perhaps Frost's life, even a laundered version, is the sort that can't be "taught"; it worked because of who he was.
A few words about the laundering of this text. First, it suffers from one of its own strengths--the cooperation of Frost's granddaughter and Bober's friend, Robin Hudnut, who also painted a lovely snow scene for the dust jacket. In her acknowledgments, Bober thanks Hudnut "for enlisting her entire family to read and reread and correct the manuscript"--which may account for the "authorized" taste of the final product. But less forgivable, I think, is Bober's unacknowledged debt to the late Lawrance Thompson, from whose biography she borrows liberally.
Here is Thompson's treatment of Frost's father's death: "Their father's last request, before he died, was that his body be taken back to New England for burial, back to the New England he had so often said he hated." And here is Bober's: "Ironically, his last request was that his body be taken back to New England for burial--back to the New England he had professed to hate." Thompson gives us a scene of father beating son: "His father ... perhaps more enraged by this exposure of his own selfishness than by Robbie's bad manners, reached for the nearest weapon handy. It happened to be a metal dog chain, and with it he lashed the boy's legs until they bled." Bober's account reads: "His father, seeing this, and probably embarrassed also by the exposure of his own selfishness, reached for the nearest weapon, which happened to be a metal dog chain. He lashed Rob's legs until they bled." These are by no means the only such examples I could cite.
Ironically, Bober improves upon virtually every sentence of Thompson's she tinkers with; I wish she had been his editor. Thompson's inability to omit the slightest detail robs us of a comprehensive sense of the shape of Frost's life. (It will be interesting to see how Edward Connery Lathem has condensed the three Thompson volumes into one in an edition to be released this fall.) Bober--though she leaves out a few essentials, such as Frost's diplomatic mission to the U.S.S.R. in 1962-- feels the shape from the start, and her style is so readable and engrossing, even for the adult reader, that it is a mystery to me why--ethical considerations aside--she leans on Thompson.
Somewhat of a mystery, too, is why a not wholly honest account of a man prized for his honesty should be of any use to children. Yet this book (disregarding its borrowings) is accomplished enough to lead the child toward Frost's poetry itself. This is surely a virtue, and perhaps is all that matters.