Sunday, January 30, 2011

29 January 1963: Death of Robert Frost (and a reminder about his presence in western Massachusetts)

The Mass Moments post for today discusses his career as a whole, in a narrative arc that moves from early literary struggles and disappointment to triumph and canonization.As it puts it, "success was a long time in coming" to the man who eventually became "the most popular and renowned American poet of the twentieth century." He was very much of our region but inspired and nourished rather than limited by it:
The sounds he expressed in his poetry were the cadences and rhythms of New Englanders' everyday speech. Frost found his poetic voice listening to, and then writing about, the working people of New England. But Robert Frost was not a regional poet. As one reviewer put it, Frost was to New England as Dante was to Florence: an artist able to express universal themes in local stories.
Frost credited his success to the simplicity of both the subject and style of his poems. He liked to write about the everyday objects and landscapes of New England. Frost's style drew from the artless cadences and sounds of New Englanders' speech. He liked to "speak" his poetry to audiences, to draw attention to the artistry in the sound of the human voice. "The ear does it," he wrote; "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader."
The geographical tag for this entry somewhat peculiarly says, "This Mass Moment occurred in the Northeast region of Massachusetts."Uh, not quite. Today's Moment refers to his death. Frost, who was born in San Francisco,  died in Boston (for Mass Moments, that would be "the Greater Boston region").Presumably, the entry lists "northeast" region because of the decisive role of Frost's youth in Lawrence. Although he briefly attended Dartmouth College, he never completed his studies there (which didn't prevent him from getting two honorary doctorates there later; evidently, there is hope for everyone). Instead (as the entry puts it), he recalled, "My year and a half of the [Lawrence] district school, and my four years in the Lawrence High School were the heart of my education.They suited me perfectly."

Given that the entry bases its geographical tag on a crucial phase of Frost's life rather than the place of his death, one could make a far better argument for western Massachusetts. In between his adolescence and his death, he spent much time in New Hampshire and Vermont (where he is buried), and of course, also in Amherst.He taught at Amherst College in 1916–20, 1923–24, and again, 1927–1938. Frost is among the figures depicted on the Amherst Community History Mural in the historic 1730 West Cemetery, created in 2005 by David Fichter under the auspices of the Historical Commission.In 2009, in conjunction with its 250th anniversary celebrations, Amherst undertook further steps to celebrate Frost's presence here. In the spring, Town Meeting voted to allocate Community Preservation Act funds for the Historical Commission's "Writer's Walk", a series of markers at the homes of literary figures, among them, the house at 43 Sunset Avenue, where Frost lived from 1931 to 1938. The request for proposals for fabrication of the signs is now in preparation.

It was in 1938 that Frost's beloved wife, Elinor, died of a heart attack in Florida ("Together Wing to Wing and Oar to Oar," reads the inscription on the gravestone). Frost subsequently moved to Boston and acquired his now-famous summer home in Ripton, Vermont, but the connection to Amherst did not end then.

In the fall of 2009, Friends of LIbraries USA (FOLUSA) honored the Jones Library with a plaque for its work in preserving the legacy of Frost.  The collection, which now includes some 12,000 items, was unusual in that it began in Frost's own lifetime, and enjoyed his cooperation. As the finding aid puts it,
This collection represents not just Frost's life as a professional poet, but also his life as a public figure. In particular, the collection documents Frost's nearly lifelong connection with the town of Amherst both as a professor at Amherst College and as a part-time resident.
Even at the end of his life, the connection was strong, in retrospect tinged with tragedy and symbolism.  As Mass Moments puts it:
In 1961 an aging Robert Frost braved the frigid weather to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. He died in Boston on January 29, 1963. At the memorial service at Amherst College, over 700 guests listened to readings of Frost's poetry. Later that year, President Kennedy paid tribute to the poet at the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. Frost had achieved his often-stated ambition of "lodging a few poems where they can't be gotten rid of easily."
The speech was far more than a perfunctory one, for, taking Frost as an example, it called for "full recognition of the place of the artist in society."  That was on October 26.  Less than a month later, Kennedy himself was killed in Dallas. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Endowment for the Arts.

One further connection to literary sites:  In 1940, Frost bought a South Miami farm, which he named, "Pencil Pines," and began to winter there.  As noted in a recent post, he was also among the prominent writers who visited fellow author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her North Florida home at Cross Creek.

the guest bedroom at Cross Creek
bookshelf, displaying works by authors who stayed in the guest room: among them, Frost's Complete Poems
During these New England winters—and especially, the unusually snowy one we are having this year—a Florida refuge surrounded by an orange grove sounds pretty good.  But then again, who would want to be deprived of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," which Frost himself called "my best bid for remembrance"?

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