November 3, 2015
avid Orr’s new book on Robert Frost’s famous poem jettisons the strictures and jargon of academic writing in favor of language that is colloquial, warm, and often witty. Its first hundred pages are inspired, ducking and weaving like the unexpectedly passionate monologue of a graduate student in a pub who is on a tear about beloved authors after a dreary day discussing transgressivity and intertextuality.
Orr, the New York Times Book Review poetry columnist, engages in a bit of Frostian misdirection with his title. It takes him only 40 pages to explain that Frost’s most popular poem is routinely misunderstood as an ode to rugged Yankee individualism. Orr disabuses his readers of this familiar interpretation without triumphant iconoclasm, making a persuasive case that “The Road Not Taken” is better understood as “a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.” This interpretation is familiar to careful students of Frost, but will edify a generation of readers about the complexity beneath Frost’s apparent simplicity.
Though Orr’s reading of the poem is hardly groundbreaking, it would be unfair to dismiss the freshness of his close reading. His extended discussion of the word “sigh,” for example, makes his analysis worthwhile even for readers familiar with and disposed to accept his book’s central thesis.
After largely completing his close reading of “The Road Not Taken,” Orr unexpectedly but admirably takes on the controversy about Frost’s character that has raged since the three-volume authorized biography of the poet was published in 1966, 1970, and 1977. Its author, Lawrence Thompson, Frost’s former student and friend, relied on Karen Horney’s neo-Freudian theories to savage the poet in a legendary literary betrayal. As Orr notes, Thompson’s biography has sidetracked Frost criticism for decades; postmodernism’s self-appointed ethical gatekeepers have anathematized Frost in order to dismiss him.
Orr does not shrink from naming names in his defense of Frost. He notes that Harvard’s Helen Vendler called Frost “a monster of egotism” who “left behind him a wake of destroyed human lives,” and that David Bromwich, who must not have attended many Yale faculty meetings, once declared that a “more hateful human being cannot have lived who wrote words that moved other human beings to tears.”
Though it’s undeniable that Frost’s life does not square with the avuncular Yankee image he fostered so carefully, recent Frost biographers Jay Parini and William Pritchard have ably documented that Thompson’s ideology and personal spite greatly distorted his biographical judgment. Yes, Frost could be egotistical, manipulative, and sometimes downright mean, but a standard of exclusion based on those qualities would come close to emptying our universities of their faculties. And, yes, Frost had challenges as a father and husband. Unlike Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and many other deities of the postmodern pantheon, however, he did not leave behind him a trail of personal devastation.
By the end of the second chapter of The Road Not Taken, I was confident that I could recommend this book without significant reservations. Unfortunately, like the graduate student in the pub who continues longer than he should, this short book loses its way and meanders. Chapter Three, entitled “The Choice,” begins by declaring:
What does it mean to make a decision? This is perhaps the only question to be debated with equal intensity by neuroscientists, business executives, philosophers, economists, game show contestants, and married couples, and it’s unlikely to be resolved by, of all things, a poem.
This rhetorical question and answer signals an abandonment of the close reading that made the first two chapters fun and valuable. This mistake mars the rest of the book, an exercise in free association about our culture only loosely connected to “The Road Not Taken.” Orr opines briefly on a dizzying array of topics, including the Founding Fathers, The Great Gatsby, William James, LeBron James, “brain science,” “soft libertarians,” Amazon, and David Hume. We learn much information of little value, such as the tidbit that The Huffington Post set President Bush’s “I’m the decider” comment to the tune of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.”
Orr is a top-notch literary critic, but an unimpressive cultural critic. One cannot help but wish that he had spent more time applying his analysis of the tricky techniques of “The Road Not Taken” to other Frost poems. He also could have further explored the overwrought reaction of academic superstars to Frost, giving us a broader understanding of their biases and blind spots.
Let’s hope that in future books Mr. Orr focuses on what he does exceedingly well—explaining great literature in clear terms that are addressed to both the public and the academy. In the meantime, let’s be grateful that he has so many people talking again about one of America’s greatest poets.