When Robert Frost met Khrushchev
This genre-bending bio-novel considers Frost's life through the lens of his last year and his 1962 trip to Russia.
Robert Frost, wrote one of his biographers, was "a loner who liked company; a poet of isolation who sought a mass audience; a rebel who sought to fit in."
A people's poet – and a rebel to boot. Perhaps it was this aura – plus the crustiness of Frost's manner and the careful beauty of his language – that enticed the Kennedy administration. Did they perhaps imagine that Robert Frost and Nikita Khrushchev, two curmudgeonly country boys, left in a room together, might talk their countries to peace?
If so, it was a dream that did not come true and his 1962 trip to Russia became yet one more dark disappointment in the life of Robert Frost.
It's hard to know whether to call Fall of Frost a novelistic biography or a biographical novel. Either way, Brian Hall has created a careful, haunting, bittersweet portrait of America's most loved poet. He takes Frost's journey to Russia – made in the last year of his life, at a moment of poor health and failing strength – as both his beginning point and one of the themes that threads its way throughout this narrative.
Split into 128 chapter-fragments, Hall makes a collage of the various sides of Frost as he sees them: meticulous craftsman, failed farmer, heartbroken father, disappointed husband and son, yearning friend, spoiled celebrity.
In so doing, Hall draws rich connections between Frost's language and the seminal events in his life, liberally sprinkling the book with the verse of Frost and references to that of others. (As Hall teases in his afterward: "Poetry lovers: Happy hunting.")
The book's title is apt, as it offers a decidedly autumnal view of Frost and a life full of tragedy. Hall briefly visits Frost's drunken father, flighty mother, and unstable sister. He tells how Frost married his high school sweetheart – two people who should have settled down "with Rob (oh say) as foreman of a Lawrence mill and Elinor active in the local church." Instead, Hall tells us, "Frost didn't believe in work and Elinor didn't believe in God."
They had five children only, it seemed, to break their own hearts. Together they created a "haphazard household of caravaners (meals, if any at all hours, father to bed at 3:00 a.m, mother up at 6:00)" and raised "a brood of brooders, incipient artists, or maybe incipient failures" all of whom seem to "take the world too hard."
Of the five children, only two outlived Frost. The deaths of the two boys are referred to early in the book and both are stunning blows. Young Elliott's death from cholera triggers a lifetime of guilt, remorse, and sorrow for his parents. They tried homeopathic remedies before turning to traditional medicine and Frost had been careless about a contaminated well.
Both parents forever blamed themselves. Younger son Carol lived to adulthood to become a failed poet and struggling farmer who finally took his own life. Marjorie died in childbirth and Irma in a mental institution. "It comes down to a doubt about the wisdom/Of having children – after having had them," wrote Frost.
But family life did not fully define Frost. There was his public – and there was poetry. In fact Hall wonders if Frost did not come to "replace the love of his children, whom death could touch, with the love of words."
Hall creates the character of Younger Poet as a stand-in for Daniel Smythe, Robert Francis, Galway Kinnell, John Ciardi, Robert Lowell, Padraic Colum, Donald Hall, and Philip Larkin, all of whom touched Frost or were touched by him.
Frost loved his admirers almost as much as he raged against them. "He knew all about the dangers of standing on a pedestal," writes Hall. "Not that they'll knock you off – no, they're happy to leave you standing there, making a spectacle of yourself."
And then there was Russia. Frost met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at a Washington dinner party and the two enjoyed a lively exchange. From this was born the idea – endorsed by Kennedy – that Frost should travel to Russia in the summer of 1962 as a kind of good-will ambassador.
Despite his own doubts and fears, Frost agreed. Hall paints Frost and Khrushchev as somewhat kindred spirits. "Frost liked the shoe-banging," he writes. "If he had to sit through all that United Nations talk he'd bang his shoe, too." The notion that the two might connect on some deeper level does not seem so farfetched.
But the trip in some ways becomes symbolic of Frost's difficult latter years, involving uncertainty, dark periods of waiting, and frustrating public relations exercises while Khrushchev dallies.
When the meeting finally takes place, Frost's charisma works its charm. But at a press conference on the way home, Frost paraphrases Khrushchev's remarks and angers both Kennedy and Khrushchev – a failure of language that ends up wounding him deeply.
Throughout this work Hall sticks meticulously to what is actually known about Frost. When possible, he uses Frost's own words, drawing heavily on letters and Frost biographies.
This is not Hall's first foray into novelized biography. He quite successfully did something similar in "I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark."
Not all readers appreciate books that blur genres. Those looking for a straight biography of Frost should stick with Jay Parini. And those who want a story with a poet at its center will probably be happier with A.S. Byatt's "Possession." But for readers desiring a richly poetic treatment of Frost in all his splendid contrariety – kindly/surly, selfish/magnanimous, caring/distant, childish/infinitely wise – this is a book to savor.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.