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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.

By / April 8, 2008

Fall of Frost By Brian Hall Viking 340 pp., $25.95

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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."

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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."