Frost scholar details the famed poet's letters, criticism of anthology of them


SHAFTSBURY -- Dr. Donald Sheehy, editor of the recently published, "Letters of Robert Frost Volume 1: 1886-1920," spoke at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury on Sunday, discussing the preconceived notions many hold about Frost, and how his publication of letters could help people overcome them.

The 848-page book, the first in what is scheduled to become a five-part series of Frost letters, was published by Harvard University Press earlier this year. The Feb. 4 headline in the New York Times, accompanying Jennifer Schuessler's article about the project, reads, "Volume of Robert Frost's Letters Renews Debate About His Character." However, according to Sheehy, many critics' analysis of Frost might as well have been based only on the letters published by Frost biographic Lawrance Thompson in 1966, not the 286 never-before published letters in his anthology.

"The Frost that came out of the book," he said, "was the Frost they went into the book with."

Sheehy's talk focused on what he called the danger in distorting a letter writer by selectively quoting, and focused on three critiques of the volume, one by Christian Wiman of the Wall Street Journal, one by Denis Donoghue of the Irish Times, and one by William Logan of the New York Times. Each, he said, presented some criticisms of Frost that were not supported by the text, and made several points at the expense of the true meaning of the letters. "I hope my letters will provide both an opportunity and a means to look at Frost in a different light," he said to the audience.

Before the talk, which would last almost 40 minutes over its scheduled hour-long time slot, began in earnest, Sheehy asked the audience to let him know if he became "too detailed or deathly dull."

"That will never happen," said museum vice president Lea Newman from the front row.

"Tell that to my students," said Sheehy, who is a professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

One of the passages that Sheehy found offensive was from Wiman's review of the book, which was published on Feb. 21. Wiman wrote, "He went around the country performing as the self-made philosopher contemptuous of philosophy... Of course, it was garbage. Frost might have written that ‘nothing is quite honest that is not commercial,' but he was too much of a modernist to trust a broad audience ('I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road not Taken')." According to Sheehy both of these quoted remarks have very different meanings in the context of the letters in which they were written. The first quote, designed to show what Wiman calls Frost's "extreme careerism," is immediately followed in Frost's letter by a second line which changes its meaning entirely, but was omitted from the review: "Mind you, I don't put that everything commercial is honest."

The second quote from Wiman's piece, involving what is perhaps Frost's most famous work, "The Road Not Taken," is also lacking in context, said Sheehy. Frost had been writing to a satirist, who had recently produced some parodies of Frost's poems. "Frost wrote ‘The Road Not Taken' as a comic poem, although it is rarely read as such," said Sheehy, "What he was saying was that he had written a less successful parody, because nobody got it! If he took the other road, could he not have sighed and said that it made all the difference? When he wrote the poem, that was intended to be a little mockery, a joke." Wiman in his piece goes on to call Frost's letters "monomaniacal," "gaseous," and "tedious to read."

What Sheehy found to be the worst example of using out of context quotes from Frost's letters to prove how terrible of a person he was came from Logan's June 20 piece for the New York Times' Sunday Book Review. In it, Logan wrote that Frost believed America should have done a better job not granting blacks any rights. The passage he references does indeed exist in the letters, in a 1918 letter to Louis Untermeyer, however, in that letter, Frost is attributing those words to 1870s Democratic politicans Samuel Tilden, Allen Thurman, and David Bennett Hill, not claiming the words as his own. One of Sheehy's co-editors, Mark Richardson, submitted a letter to the editor pointing out to error to the Times, and while Logan emailed them to apologize, no retraction was ever published.

The talk was followed by a question and answer session and a book signing. Tyler Resch of the Bennington Museum announced that in the next edition of the Walloomsac Review, which is published by the museum, would feature a review of the book, by Newman.

The final anthology will contain more than 3,000 letters from 100 sources, including library archives and private collections, although Sheehy said they are still receiving more letters as more and more people in possession of them hear about the project. Sheehy received his doctorate from the University of Virginia and has written extensively on Frost. Two of his essays were recently published in "Robert Frost in Context." He served for a few years on the board of the Stone House Museum, according to Newman.

The talk was part of the museum's Sundays with Robert Frost series. The final presentation of the summer will take place on Sept. 14, with museum president Carole Thompson speaking about "The Personal Side of Robert Frost." That presentation will take place at 2 p.m. in the Little Red Barn.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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