The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joyce Carol Oates skewers Robert Frost as a sexist, racist old bore

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In July, Harper’s magazine ran a snide broadside against modern poetry. But next month, it gets personal. The magazine’s November issue contains a wicked takedown of the kindly grandfather of 20th-century American verse: Robert Frost.

Lovely, Dark, Deep” is a sly short story by Joyce Carol Oates. Old Man Frost never stands a chance.

Oates coyly notes that her piece is “a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research” – a qualified admission that allows her to parry any objections from Frost defenders: Please, it’s just a story!

The scene rises on an innocent young woman named Evangeline Fife, who has come to interview the great poet at Bread Loaf in the summer of 1951. “My voice was tentative, apologetic,” she says. “My heart had begun to beat erratically like a small, perishable creature.”

But from the start, there’s a decided note of iconoclasm beneath the reverent tone. For all her timidity, when Evangeline finds Frost asleep on the porch outside his cabin, she grabs the chance to take some surreptitious snapshots. “His torso sagged against his shirt like a giant udder,” she observes.

The illicit pleasure of this story stems from watching shy, little Evangeline slowly turn on her idol — and skewer him alive.

But at first Frost has no idea what he’s up against. He’s boorish, running over the interviewer’s standard questions with his own worn pronouncements, even while she slavishly records every “precious syllable.” In a particularly creepy section, he ribs her about her underpants. He scoffs at her common ancestry and drones on about himself: “Only a poet who knew rural life intimately could have written any of my country poems. There are no other poems quite like them in American poetry.”

It’s a strangely thrilling moment when Evangeline quietly begins to assert herself. “My next question,” she says, “was a sharp little blade inserted into the fatty flesh of the poet.”

From this point forward, the story grows more and more poisonous with Frost’s outrageous statements – all provoked by Evangeline’s relentless, almost taunting questions about his racism, his black moods, his ghastly treatment of his wife and children.

If author Q&As were like this, we’d read them more often – but no authors would ever give them.

“Damn you, Fife,” Frost screams near the calamitous conclusion. But she won’t be put off. “Mr. Frost,” she presses on, “is it possible that your audiences have been deceived and that you aren’t a homespun New England bard but something very different? An emissary from dark places? An American poet who sees and defends the very worst in us, without apology – in fact, with a kind of pride?”

It’s a fascinating dramatization constructed from decidedly unflattering historical details. The subtle shift into the third person toward the end is just one of its clever strategies. (Oates even manages to work in a wry allusion to her latest novel, “The Accursed.”)

Is this imagined interview a brave act of truth-telling that raises complicated questions about our literary heroes and the often uncomfortable disconnect between artist and art? Or is it an act of cultural desecration?

In the final moments, Frost trips off his porch. “He’d fallen from a great height,” Oates writes, “like a toppled statue, too heavy to be righted.”

Who will come to the old man’s rescue?