It Giveth More Than It Taketh Away

Shulman and Kerr

It Giveth More Than It Taketh Away

Shulman and Kerr

It Giveth More Than It Taketh Away
New books dissected over email.
March 29 1999 6:11 PM

Shulman and Kerr

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Dear Polly,

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Nicely, nicely done--you've laid out nearly all of the fun/thorny issues we have to tackle this week. I sympathize with your disappointment in the latest biography. Like you, I was frustrated by Parini's partisan prudery. After finishing his account I feel I understand too little about Frost's basic behavior toward those he loved, those he liked but took advantage of, and those he rolled over like a truck. Frost himself is vivid, but the supporting players in his life seem indistinct--mere paper cutouts gliding by in the distance. Parini's take on Frost's relationship to his wife, Elinor, struck me as especially murky, and suspiciously trouble-free. To be fair, part of this imbalance may be Frost's doing. The great poet made himself the dead center of his world; perhaps it was inevitable that his satellites would be weak, blurry personalities. But there's no doubt that Parini is overprotective to the extreme. Even the Victorians would marvel at his discretion--and near the end of the book, Parini does in fact adopt a distant but adulatory voice that would be perfectly at home in a musty Victorian appreciation.

Again, to be fair, the contours of Frost's life make writing about his final years very difficult. The man lived into his late 80s, survived most of his family, and produced little groundbreaking work in his last two decades. Toward the end he milked his fame and coasted; I thought the most intriguing aspect of later years was his touching but vampiric dependence on a few young acolytes (he forced them to stay up till 3 in the morning and sucked energy from their heated debate). The final chapters of Parini's treatment are little more than an itinerary of college lectures and honorary dinners. In late February of nineteen fifty-whatever, Frost stopped over at Amherst. Then it was on to Columbus, Ohio, for a dinner hosted by Professor Fill-in-the-blank, with a toast delivered by Dean Whosis ...

Less scintillating this material could not possibly be. However, having listed all my complaints, I'd now like to shift gears and tell you several things I liked quite a bit about the book; taken together I guess they add up to a yes on the question of whether a new Frost biography is useful. First of all, Parini's prose is supple and intelligent, which is more than you can say for the prose in 9 out of 10 biographies. Second, I have to admit that at times I was charmed by his allergy to gossip, if only because it meant a welcome break from the knock-'em-off-the-pedestal insinuations we've all grown used to.

Most of all, I felt Parini was pretty strong on the themes in Frost's career. He vividly captures the way in which Frost wrote to keep hideous depression at bay; the poet's melancholy side may not excuse his piggy side, but the hard-fought victory Frost won against the melancholy does seem like a good thing, an admirable thing, and, yes, even a moral thing. You point out that Frost basically invented the role of academic poet. I too found it fascinating that this preacher against conformity essentially started the creative-writing-workshop ball rolling, and I thought Parini was insightful about, and sometimes even critical of, Frost the entrepreneur. I liked the emphasis on Frost's amazingly sensitive ear--even though he apparently couldn't have cared less about music. (Nabokov was the same way. I'll never understand why it is that writers with the finest-tuned ears on the planet are often the deafest when it comes to song.) I also enjoyed Parini's take on Frost's spiky-Zen philosophy--the way he had in life and in poetry of asserting something, retracting it, asserting the opposite and then retracting that, so that the assertions canceled each other out and all you were left with was nothing.

I guess what I'm saying is: Why not a new biography? John Updike makes some good points in his criticism of Parini, but we should remember that he's writing from the point of view of an older man, and a man whose canny mastery of the whole literary-institution gig exceeds that of just about any American writer this century--any writer that is, except for Frost. Updike knows Frost up and down and inside-out, and you get the sense he's had enough for a lifetime. For the rest of us--well, I wouldn't argue that Parini's book is great, essential reading, but I do think it giveth more than it taketh away.

I'd love to take up more of your points and questions--and of course, the great poems--but the deadline calls. Let me just add that I know what you mean about half the fun in a biography coming from odd intersections, and surprising walk-ons by the famous. My favorite guest appearance was by T. S. Eliot, whom Frost couldn't stand as a young man. Eliot shows up every hundred or so pages in the Parini. I was moved by the gradual fading--so slow over the decades as to be imperceptible--of his once-fierce rivalry with Frost. It's nice to know that the people one envies and resents in one's youth can stick around and become allies in old age, consoling us as we lose our hearing, protecting us when we lose our marbles.

Best,

Sarah

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Polly Shulman is a senior editor at Discover magazine. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini (click here to buy the book).