On Thursday, August 30, 1962, Robert Frost dined on marinated mushrooms…
On Thursday, August 30, 1962, Robert Frost dined on marinated mushrooms, dark bread, caviar, salt herring, salmon, sturgeon, radishes, tomatoes, beet salad, “small, sweet cucumbers,” Georgian wine, and vodka. This was at the Moscow apartment of K.G. Paustovsky, the Russian novelist, an apartment which, in those days of the Khrushchev “thaw,” gave the visitor a sense of “tranquil, cultured excellence.” Back at the Sovietskaya Hotel, on the other hand, Frost inhabited “a kind of dreary ornateness.” “Mottled marble columns, stolid as elephants legs,” stood in the lobby, and among them the poet encountered overstuffed leather armchairs and “rose-plum” carpets with floral borders on a chocolate background. Behind the “heavy chocolate-colored” door of Room 207, of whose key a maid in a white apron and starched fillet head-band was the custodian, lay a drawing room with French doors, a balcony, more overstuffed armchairs, and a table attended by four more chairs, dark and straight. On the desk sat an inkwell with purple ink and two pens. The bedroom, to the left, contained a large bed with a blanket-in-a-jacket (i.e., a sheet and quilt combined). Beside it, on a table, stood a lamp with an “elaborately rigged green glass shade.” The room had no view, save for the tops of the trees that lined the Leningrad Highway.
Robert Frost didn’t hand these details down to us, of course. Franklin D’Olier Reeve, father of the actor Christopher Reeve, did. He was the specialist in Russian literature who accompanied Frost to the USSR in the summer of 1962. Reeve is a connoisseur. He knows the difference between a pretentious use and an unpretentious use of limestone in a building. His memoir of that strange 1962 journey, Robert Frost in Russia, is everywhere marked by an epicurean sensibility. Which is all the more interesting given that Frost himself had so little of that in him (Lucretian though he may have been). For the politics of the 1962 trip to Russia, read Stewart Udall’s The Myths of August; for a dutiful account of it, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography. But if you would know what Frost was served for dinner, what he slept under, what color his lampshade was, and what the officious maid wore, turn to Reeve. There is an engaging vividness, here. It is satisfying to think of Frost in all that “dreary ornateness,” sending down for his Spartan breakfast of raw eggs and milk.
That’s not all we look for in Reeve’s book, of course—not by any means. He intends to document what he regards as an especially promising, and later betrayed, moment in the history of the co-evolving intellectual lives of Russia and America. The particular edition of Robert Frost in Russia under discussion here, republished in 2001 by the Zephyr Press, includes a retrospective introduction. I find it telling that Reeve should begin this introduction by revisiting the 85th birthday dinner at which Lionel Trilling declared Frost a “terrifying” poet. Trilling’s speech contributed, Reeve suggests, to the “modernization of Robert Frost.” Thenceforth, he explains, “critics understood that Frost, putatively eclipsed by Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, was not to be set beside guitar-strumming [Carl] Sandburg, booming Vachel Lindsay and timidly patterned Amy Lowell.”
It is important to Reeve’s purposes that Frost be set alongside the high modernists, who neither strummed, nor boomed, nor patterned timidly. He evokes a time, in the years after the Second World War, when the high culture of the West (even the avant-garde culture of the West) enjoyed an esteem, and was characterized by a seriousness, that would soon be adulterated by “popular” culture—by entertainment. The temper of the new introduction recalls, it may be, a little of Dwight Macdonald, and a little of The Partisan Review. Reeve’s is a sensibility for which philistinism—whether of the sort enforced by Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, or of the sort so richly rewarded by the right wing of the Republican Party between 2000 and the advent of Sarah Palin—is the only truly unforgivable affront.
That’s why the limestone at the Sovietskaya Hotel bothers him. That’s why he takes care to remind us that, in 2001, “today’s presidents simply don’t read.” It is as if he wants a republic of letters in which, paradoxically, literary figures are also counter-cultural; that is to say, a situation in which the institutional prestige attached to literature inevitably evolves from its being counter-institutional. In this Reeve is, I suspect, rather closer to Pound than to Frost. And the idea leads him to a surprising conclusion. Reeve reminds the reader that in 1958 Frost intervened on Pound’s behalf to get the younger poet released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he had been confined as incompetent to stand trial for treason. Then he makes his point: “Frost’s role in rehabilitating Pound coincided with similar Russian efforts on behalf of venerable friends and the cultural tradition. People like the poet and critic Kornei Chukovsky, the musician Mstislav Rostropovich, and the physicist Pyotr Kapitsa helped to safeguard the lives and restore the reputations of poets like [Anna] Akhmatova, scholars like Oksman, and novelists like Solzhenitsyn. Despite ideological hostilities and Cold War rhetoric, outstanding intellectuals in both countries were moving toward a common goal.”That’s the context in which Reeve would have us set Frost’s 1962 visit to Russia—an international context in which, as it then appeared, literary intellectuals would play a not insignificant role in the public and political life of two great nations. It is a moment whose time, to Reeve’s regret, never came. In the United States, the exhilaration of the New Frontier gave way to the bitter recriminations of 1968. The high seriousness of literary culture in the early Cold War period yielded to the theatrical self-involvement of the New Left (and of “pop” art). The game sophistication of enlightened Camelot vanished in the Know-Nothing intrigue of the Nixon White House, with its “Southern Strategy.” Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the Khrushchev “thaw” became the long winter of Brezhnev’s stupifying regime.
The reader might well object to some of this. Consider Frost’s effort on behalf of Pound. Reeve finds in this a counterpart to the efforts Russian intellectuals made in the years after Stalin’s death to open up the culture to real liberty of exchange, even to the point of dissidence. But it isn’t easy to see how Pound might be compared, for example, to Solzhenitsyn or Akhmatova. He was no “dissident” in that sense. Had Pound really been a “political” prisoner, strictly speaking? Was he being confined in 1957, and had he really ever been confined, because his views posed a threat to the state? I don’t think so. In any case, he had no trouble getting his poetry published, reviewed, and revered, for example by the Bollingen Prize Committee in 1948. No doubt during the 1940s and 1950s the U.S. Department of State, the H.U.A.C., and the F.B.I. all harassed men and women on the left, many of whom were literary intellectuals of the first rank. W.E.B. DuBois is only one example. Pound’s long confinement is today an embarrassment; it was one even at the time. But it is hard to get indignant on his behalf when we remember the much greater, and much more principled, sacrifices made by men like DuBois. Pound’s political views had a paradoxically low-brow, even “Populist” lineage—after all, he was a “money crank” from Idaho—and were in certain respects closer to those of the John Birch Society than to those of the intellectuals who often studied at his feet, even if they didn’t prefer to dwell on it.
But all this talk of Pound is perhaps just quibbling. His was the sad case of a first-rate sensibility wrecked by second-rate thinking (and by an infatuation with the mere idea of being a “poet”). Still, Pound’s Menckenesque contempt for the market-place and for the mob has its place in the history Reeve would tell. Addressing himself to the situation in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he allows that the threat of political censorship, while still very real, counts for little when compared to what he calls the “economic repression” enforced by the new oligarchic capitalism. This, he suggests, “has changed everything,” including literature: “The rise of crass commodification in Russia, as in America, has turned books into verbal entertainment to be sold for profit. Quality poetry and fiction are only a small portion of what reaches the public. First-rate work is hard to find.” Here Reeve certainly sounds a bit like Dwight Macdonald in Against the American Grain, a fine Cold War book that dates from precisely the brief period Reeve would have us celebrate. Or maybe Reeve sounds a bit like Pound himself in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, complaining that beauty is “decreed in the marketplace.”
These days, Reeve suggests, there would in any case be no point in pursuing the sort of cultural exchange Frost undertook. “There is no politician on either side who represents national authority,” he says with regret, “and there is no poet who bears a national emblem. Some Russian writers have taken a stand against the oligarchs, as have some Americans against corporate financing. Many on both sides, however, have simply tucked their heads in the sand—or, like some of the Russian `stars’ from the Sixties, gone abroad or joined the dominant forces. Freed from political censorship, Russian poetry today makes no strident protest. The struggle for justice and egalitarianism that has long characterized the Russian intellectual world continues, but a blend of the old ideal and the new, sophisticated forms is only beginning—a David ready to hurl his five stones at the Goliath of the market place.” Fine writing, it would seem, is a matter of taking a stand on the question of the oligarchy and corporate greed. That sounds a bit too much like the poetry of “grievances” for Robert Frost. And it is doubtful whether Frost would have entertained any such sentiments as these. He is the poet who could speak with satisfaction, as he often did, of the “trial by market everything must come to,” and who could say, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer, that “nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.” He had no quarrel with the Goliath of the market place, not after 1923 anyway. And Reeve, in associating Frost with this somewhat high-brow vein in our literary culture, finds in him a bit more of the anti-establishmentarian than I do. Frost never conceived of poets as necessarily “counter-cultural” figures, or as what, in Lustra, Pound called men “of the finer sense / Broken against false knowledge.” But I am willing to go with Reeve for the duration of the piece, as the saying goes. The great contribution of his book lies in the portrait it sketches of a moment in the cultural history of the Cold War when great things, “magnanimous” things, as Frost would have said, did seem possible.
Reeve has much to offer by way of anecdote. For example, there is his account of the meeting between Frost and the poet Anna Akhmatova, the narration of which is complemented by the inclusion, in the 2001 edition of the book, of a long extract from an account of the visit by a Russian friend of Akhmatova’s. (Notes to the 2001 edition total some thirty pages, and include helpful biographical sketches of a number of the writers Frost met while in the U.S.S.R.) The episode is interesting because, among other things, it brought together two rivals for the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature; both were aware of the fact, and of course good manners prevented either from showing any anxiety about it. (The two poets very much wanted to win the prize, which went instead to John Steinbeck.) Akhmatova had, as Reeve puts it, “come to her position” as candidate for the Nobel prize “the hard way.” She was born in 1889, made her mark with the publication of several books in the years before the First World War, when she lived an expatriate life in Paris. She returned to Russia after the Revolution. Her husband Nikolai Gumilev, with whom she had borne a son in 1912, was executed in 1921 on a charge of “counterrevolutionary treason.” Her son and second husband, Nikolai Punin, were sent to the labor camps during the Stalin years, and her poetry was completely suppressed. After the Second World War she was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and compelled to make her way by translating. Only with the “thaw” of the Khrushchev years was her son released from prison and her work “rehabilitated.”
A young friend of Akhmatova, Lydia Chukovskaya, later published an account of her meeting with Frost, part of which reads as follows, in Reeve’s translation: “Frost gave her an inscribed copy of his book. She referred to it rather offhandledly: `Obviously, he knows nature.’ About the meeting, she said: `We sat in comfortable armchairs facing each other, two old folks. I kept thinking—every time he was accepted somewhere, I was excluded; when he received an award, I was publicly humiliated, but the result’s the same—we’re both Nobel candidates. That’s something to think about.’” One wonders what the implication of that last remark might be. And the meeting, as described by Reeve, is sad and poignant. Other things lodge in the memory: an account of an afternoon spent with Kornei Chukovsky, for instance. Chukovsky was a renowned literary critic, the author of much-admired children’s books, and the recipient of both the Lenin Prize and an honorary degree from Oxford. About the latter he teased his American visitor, pointing out (as Reeve explains) that “though Frost had received an Oxford doctorate in 1958, four years before Chukovsky, Chukovsky had received his at the age of eighty, four years younger than Frost.” The two writers paid a visit to a children’s library nearby Chukovsky’s house and, on their return, the Russian put on his Oxford gown and “danced liked a jester.” In reply, Frost “quipped, with the deliberate frugality of a Vermonter,” as Reeve says, “that he liked the degree all right but hadn’t bought the costume.” Many such moments animate Reeve’s book.
Everyone knows the sequel, of course: how Frost, on his return to the U.S., and much to the chagrin of the Kennedy White House, gave a flock of reporters to understand that Khrushchev believed Americans were “too liberal to fight,” and that the Premier had in fact said as much. The phrasing was entirely Frost’s, as it happened; he later took back the attribution to Khrushchev. But all the same he did have in mind a remark that the Premier actually made, as we know from several accounts of his meeting with Frost, Reeve’s among them. Here is how Reeve recalls it: “The United States and Western Europe,” Khrushchev had said, “were thousands of years old with a defunct economic system.” And this reminded him “of an anecdote reported in Gorky’s memoirs of Tolstoy, where Tolstoy told about being too old and too weak and too infirm to do it but still having the desire. Frost chuckled and said that might be true of the two of them but that the United States was too young to worry about that yet.” Hence the association, which came easily enough to Frost, between liberalism and impotence. Liberals were “sapheads,” he liked to say. They knew nothing about “power.”
In a letter to the American socialist Norman Thomas, quoted again in Reeve’s book, Frost gave his own account of the affair. Khrushchev, he explained, “was just being good-natured and literary when he expressed concern for American liberality. He was quoting either Gorky to Tolstoi or Tolstoi to Gorky, I forget which, when he said there was such a thing possibly as a nation’s getting like the bald-headed row at a leg show so it enjoyed wanting to do what it could no longer do. I was interested to find the old powerhouse so bookish.” The day after the meeting with the old powerhouse, Frost had referred to him in public as a “ruffian,” which understandably confused the Russian press. He meant well by it, though, as he later explained to Reeve: “He said he meant rough-and-ready; he meant the word in its northern Vermont sense of praise for the energetic, audacious, and virile man who comes down from the hills on Saturday night and has the courage and skill to pick the town up by the scruff of its neck.”
Frost believed he saw this sort of power in Kennedy, too, and, though he disliked infidelity, he must have calculated, in his own way, the significance of JFK’s rakish reputation. We are well situated, here, to understand Frost’s longstanding (often whimsical) quarrel with American liberalism of the sort he believed FDR epitomized; and well situated also to see why Frost should have been captivated by JFK when he emerged in the late 1950s. Frost had always been a Democrat, as had been his Copperhead father before him. (A certain contrariness motivated the hereditary New Englander to name his son, in the sixth year of U.S. Grant’s administration, Robert Lee Frost.) But Frost claimed to have been unsatisfied with the Democratic party since the days of Grover Cleveland, for whom his father had campaigned in San Francisco. That is to say: unsatisfied, at least, until JFK came along, when, lo, it emerged that Frost had always been a poet of the New Frontier. No doubt Frost admired the swagger of JFK—his daring and political audacity.
In the poem he wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration, he even apparently alludes—or so it would seem—to the controversy surrounding Kennedy’s infinitesimal margin of victory over Richard Nixon in 1960: “The greatest vote a people ever cast, / So close yet sure to be abided by.” The victory, of course, had been tainted by rumors that Kennedy stole the election through the good offices of Mayor Richard Daley’s Democratic machine in Chicago. But hints of a potentially abusive power are not, in Frost’s poem, necessarily an unhappy thing. “No one of honest feeling,” he writes, “would approve / A ruler who pretended not to love / A turbulence he had the better of.” A ruler has to tame the shrew. And rulers are to that extent like poets, who love, as Frost tells us more than once, to get the better of confusion, even if only “momentarily.” Referring in the inaugural poem to JFK’s campaign book Profiles in Courage, Frost writes: “There was the book of profile tales declaring / For the emboldened politicians daring / To break with followers when in the wrong, / A healthy independence of the throng, / A democratic form of right divine.” This is the language of Camelot. It is also, inevitably, the masculine language of the ruffian’s self-determination—of a “power leading from its strength and pride.”
An interesting late poem has some significance here. Frost had long been in the habit of issuing each year a Christmas card bearing a new poem. This one appeared in his card for 1950 (and was later collected in 1962 in the poet’s last volume In the Clearing):
“Our Doom to Bloom”
“Shine, perishing republic.”—Robinson Jeffers
Cumaean Sibyl, charming Ogress,
What are the simple facts of Progress
That I may trade on with reliance
In consultation with my clients?
The Sibyl said, “Go back to Rome
And tell your clientele at home
That if it’s not a mere illusion
All there is to it is diffusion—
Of coats, oats, votes, to all mankind.
In the Surviving Book we find
That liberal or conservative,
The state’s one function is to give.
The bud must bloom till blowsy blown
Its petals loosen and are strown;
And that’s a fate it can’t evade
Unless ‘twould rather wilt than fade.
The allusion is to the legendary priestess of Apollo whose cave lay at Cumae, near present-day Naples. The oracles of this charming ogress were collected in the so-called Sibylline Books, which were brought to Rome in the second century B.C.E., and which were later destroyed by fire. Reginald Cook has written well about this poem in his Robert Frost: A Living Voice. Noting the “serio-lighthearted” tone of the lyric, Cook points out that “the method is to release through the medium of the prophetess . . . the generalization that ‘the state’s one function is to give’”—a proposition that Frost had regarded with some skepticism since the early years of the New Deal. Cook points out that the analogy in the poem is from “the world of nature”: “growth and its ensuing ripening and fruitage” are simply “in the order of things,” and “the democratic principle, based on the general welfare and blessings of the vox populi, is that of diffusion”—of coats, oats, and votes to all mankind. In a word, as Cook has it, “these are the services of the welfare state.” “Our Doom to Bloom” mischievously suggests that the authority for such a state might be grounded in the processes of nature itself. The question is what attitude Frost expects us to take toward this proposition—what attitude he himself takes toward it. Should we be happy about “our doom to bloom”?
Cook suggests that Frost may have in mind the expansion of the United States’s largesse through such post-war programs as the Marshall Plan, an internationalization, let’s say, of the New Deal. There is an ingratiating irony in the implication, if that is what it is, that America, in the first flush of its superpower status, was inevitably “doomed” to bloom and fade: “Shine, perishing republic,” reads the epigraph Frost chose from the poem by Robinson Jeffers. America cannot, and probably ought not, in the larger scheme of things, evade the fate that befell the earlier, Roman republic of which the Cumaean Sibyl speaks. To decline and fall simply is in the order of things, as any botanist knows. Nothing gold can stay. Yet, as Cook points out, there may be an equivocation in “Our Doom to Bloom.” Frost’s little parable, he says, “may also contain the opposite of the wise old Cumaean sibyl’s suggestion.” Frost may be arguing, by contrast, in favor of a state which “operates, not with the generosity of social security, medical care, old-age compensations, but with a stern Puritan work ethic and a realpolitik of power politics in the totalitarian state.” Or, I would add, if not the totalitarian state, at least one which says to its citizens, as JFK did in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Who would take advice from a “charming ogress” anyway? There always is something a little Sibylline about Frost’s own writing. It is often hard to determine where he is in it.
This idea brings us to the setting of the second appearance of “Our Doom to Bloom” as a part of Frost’s last volume, In the Clearing, which also contains his inaugural poem for JFK. That poem, as I indicated, is written in the language of a noticeably virile rigor, not at all in the language of statecraft by “diffusion.” We should be alert in reading “Our Doom to Bloom” to the implications of the phrase “blowsy blown”: “The bud must bloom till blowsy blown / Its petals loosen and are strown.” “Blowsy” means ruddy-faced and, in its noun form, it refers to an unkempt or slatternly woman. In America, the word carries this latter meaning even more emphatically. J.E. Lighter’s The Historical Dictionary of American Slang records a number of instances throughout the twentieth century in which the word or its variants—for example, “blowser”—refers to a prostitute or, more generally, to a loose and immoral woman. In any case, the sexual metaphor latent in “Our Doom to Bloom” is plain enough and is to some extent borrowed from Jeffers. The state, through diffusion of votes, oats, and coats, to all mankind, inevitably “loosens” up. A state conducted on this liberal model loses its virile temper—loses its chastity, rigor, and integrity. It simply goes to seed. “Our Doom to Bloom” might be said to concern what from Frost’s point of view was the “feminization” of the American errand, and it seems to anticipate later criticism of the Great Society, even as it echoes criticism Frost himself had leveled any number of times at FDR’s New Deal. In 1960, Frost had this to say in an interview:
They think I’m no New Dealer. But really and truly I’m not, you know, all that clear on it. In ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ that I wrote long, long ago, long before the New Deal, I put it two ways about home. One would be the manly way: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That’s the man’s feeling about it. And then the wife says, “I should have called it / Something you somehow hadn’t to deserve.” That’s the New Deal, the feminine way of it, the mother way. You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s.
The father speaks the language of effort and self-discipline. The mother, for her part, speaks the language of what might be called the politics of diminished capacity: everyone is forgiven. And Frost goes on to say (too simply, of course), “One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.” A little whimsically, we can discern in these remarks what might have motivated Frost’s interest in JFK, a Democrat whose swagger apparently corrected the “feminizing” bias that FDR had given the party, and who brought Frost back into the fold. JFK’s ideal, as distinct from anything he actually achieved, was something rather closer to the Puritan state Reginald Cook refers to in his discussion of “Our Doom to Bloom.” That is to say, there is in JFK’s appeal an ingredient of authoritarianism that Frost obviously admires. The lines bear repeating: “No one of honest feeling would approve / A ruler who pretended not to love / A turbulence he had the better of.” This is the strenuous sort of talk that characterized Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican administration. It concerns a “democratic form of right divine” in which the leader realizes his own will in the larger body of the state (whether here at home or, in the case of McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, notoriously in the Philippines). The people are for him an instrument. He is not an instrument of the people. In this his authority is rather like the authority Frost ascribes to the strong poet, who is never merely an instrument of words, forms, or tradition.
There is, after all, great audacity in Frost’s suggestion, in “The Trial By Existence”—a poem collected first in A Boy’s Will (1913)—that life has nothing for us on the wrack but what we somehow choose, which amounts to the claim that the casualties we suffer are in fact personally willed, even if by some as yet unrealized agency of the self. It is an assertion of mastery over contingency itself. And for Frost the allegory is at once poetical and political. He writes in a 1938 letter to R.P.T. Coffin: “A real artist delights in roughness for what he can do to it. He’s the brute who can knock the corners off the marble block and drag the unbedded beauty out of bed. The statesman (politician) is no different except that he works in a protean mass of material that holds the shape he gives it long enough for him to point it out and get credit for it. His material is the rolling mob. The poet’s material is words that for all we may say and feel against them are more manageable than men. Get a few words alone in a study and with plenty of time on your hands you can make them say anything you please.” This is perhaps the masculine supreme fiction of poetic and political power. The strong statesman, like the strong poet, is never himself a “blowser,” never a yielder to the demands and appetites of his material, dilating so as to lose all shape and tone. He is instead what makes the “blowser”—the masculine force that “drags the unbedded beauty out of bed.” That is what Frost believed he’d seen in Khrushchev and in Kennedy, and it is what, in making his unfortunate remark on disembarking at Idlewild Airport in 1962, he thought “liberalism” had somehow betrayed. The virile rhetoric is quaint and embarrassing (or amusing, if we remember Bob Dole’s advertisements for Pfizer Pharmaceutical and Viagra). But there is something still to be said for a statesman or stateswoman who leads by “democratic right divine” rather than by focus group and opinion poll.
Frost’s expedition to Russia in 1962 had its farcical elements, and its poignant ones. There was frustration and mis-communication. There was boorish decor. There was even indigestion. But there was also, as we know from reading Reeve’s little book, something terrifically ingenuous about it all—this hope, against mounting evidence to the contrary, that the rivalry between Washington and Moscow might be conducted with candor, honor, and magnanimity. Instead, it was to be a nasty enough business indeed, in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; in the offices of the F.B.I, with its shameful dossiers; in Vietnam, and in all the now-forgotten carnivals of the proxy wars. Our rivalry with the Soviet Union was hardly what Frost had portended in his poem for Kennedy’s inaugural: a golden age of poetry and power. And among the more gratifying things in Reeve’s Robert Frost in Russia, read in its 2001 edition, is its winning nostalgia for an America and a Russia that were never made real—for a place where politics might have been as dignified, and as thoughtful, as the poetry sometimes written about it.