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The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1: 1886–1920
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
848 pp., $47.50
More Letters from Robert Frost
When Robert Frost died in January 1963, he had been America's Poet for half a century. Such was his fame that his correspondence with two of his old friends, John T. Bartlett and Louis Untermeyer, was published within the year. The following year his "official" biographer, Lawrance Thompson, edited The Selected Letters of Robert Frost, which, until now, has been the standard edition. These and later volumes of Frost's letters introduced readers to the man behind the poetry.
Not everyone liked what they saw. Thompson's own animus was revealed in his introduction to the Selected Letters, where he charged that Frost "was never as natural as he seemed," a man who hid behind "dramatic masks" in order to "protect his excruciating sensitivities." The publication of Frost's letters, Thompson hoped, would help to unmask him, revealing his "gloom, jealousies, obsessive resentments, sulking, displays of temper, nervous rages, and vindictive retaliations."
The index to the Selected Letters, where we find such keywords as "Ambition," "Cowardice," "Fears," "Masks and Masking," and "Self-Indulgence," only confirmed Thompson's dislike of his subject. The question is whether Thompson's bias influenced his selection of Frost's letters. Did he pounce on the most damning letters while ignoring others that might have created a more balanced impression of the poet? Possibly not, although he chose to publish fewer than a third of the 1,500 letters he examined.
The letters Thompson omitted—along with those that were not collected until after 1964—will soon be available in one place, thanks to Harvard's decision to publish all of Frost's letters in a three-volume scholarly edition. The publication of these volumes promises to be an event in American literary scholarship, like the publication of Emily Dickinson's letters in 1997 (also by Harvard). Whether they will serve to correct Thompson's distorted portrait of Frost will depend on their use by future biographers.
Prior to 1912—the ...