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Robert Frost & the Squirrels of Ann Arbor

July 14, 2012

Robert Frost, at about the age of 40, some seven or eight years before he first moved to Ann Arbor.

In the summer of 1921, Robert Frost accepted a post at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. President Marion LeRoy Burton had tendered the offer, partly at the suggestion of the poet and dramatist Percy MacKaye, who held a similar post at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Frost was to be, for a year, a fellow in the creative arts on a stipend of $5,000, a sum underwritten by the industrialist and former Governor of Michigan Chase S. Osborne. The fellowship carried little to no formal teaching responsibilities. (Incidentally, the inflation calculator at the U.S. Department of  Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics tells me that a $5,000 stipend in 1921 had the same “buying power” as $64,194.13 would today.)

On October 1, Frost boarded a train with his family, and left Vermont—where he’d bought a pre-Revolutionary stone cottage—for Michigan and a house at 1523 Washtenaw Avenue in central Ann Arbor. A public reception held on November 15 formally welcomed the poet to the university. But he’d already been at work, as the item reprinted below from the Washtenaw Post, dated 27 October 1921, makes clear. I reprint it here partly as an example of how not to read or listen to Frost. But I find in it also the note of resentment conservatives (chiefly religious) often register now, and have registered for two decades or more, whenever funding for the National Endowment of the Arts comes up for review. In short, I see, in this short article from 1921, some of the elements of what would later be called “the culture wars.” We have, here, a poet enjoying a posh (for the time) fellowship at a major university, saying things in public fora that irritate religious conservatives—conservatives who pretty clearly harbor suspicions about the moral probity of intellectuals.

Bear in mind, in reading the item below, that if Frost said anything at all about God or Divine Providence, the article stating that he did provides no evidence of it whatsoever. Indeed, Frost almost certainly said nothing about “divine providence” in October 1921, unless in an ironic aside the mischief of which was lost on the Washtenaw Post. The article gives us instead a Malthusian sort of Frost. What sort of Frost lies behind this report is not, to my knowledge, recoverable (no good record of the talk he gave survives, so far as I know).

Anyway, in letters dating from the period of the Great War and after, Frost never advances a Malthusian theory of its cause, and most certainly not a “providential” one. He may have gotten the politics wrong, from time to time, especially when he predicted the outcome of the Russian Revolution (about which, in the very early going, he was badly mistaken: in 1917 he thought Kerensky’s government would almost certainly prevail). But he generally saw the Great War largely for what it was: a nationalist political affair, associated with rivalry for colonies and economic power.

The Washtenaw Post fetches God in, on the assumption, it would appear, that no one can speak (as Frost appeared to here) of large, self-regulating systems (however appalling their operations) without speaking also of the Christian Deity. “Nature’s way,” says Frost, and the Washtenaw Post hears, “God’s way.”

Finally, a note of some interest on the paper in question. A history of Washtenaw County published in 1881 credits one L.J. Leisemer with founding the Washtenaw Post in October 1879 as the first German-language paper in Washtenaw county. Earlier that year, Leisemer had married Emma H. Helber. ArborWiki, a site devoted to the history of Ann Arbor and its environs, dates the origins of the Post instead to 1894 and to Eugene J. Helber, whom I assume was related to Leisemer’s wife. Likely what occurred was a simple transfer of editorship within the extended family; that the Post had been in operation at least since 1880 is certain. Anyway, Helber was charged with sedition during the Great War, owing to pro-German editorials his paper had published. Answering a subpoena from Washington, he was interrogated, and, ultimately, denied use of the mails. Whereupon he handed the reins over to his son, James Helber, whom the Federal Government allowed to continue publishing the paper, but in English only, not German.†

I mention this because it may explain the bitter reaction against what the Post mistook for an intimation (by Frost) that Germany’s defeat in the war—and subsequent humiliation through the Treaty of Versailles?—was a thing ordained, if not by God, then by Nature. The editorialist doesn’t spell that out, of course. But the inference is there to be drawn, given the paper’s pro-German character (at the time). How dare this pampered “New England” poet speak in such a way about war, at a moment when Germany had suffered so unjust a defeat and so unjust a peace.  Maybe some of that’s behind it, and couldn’t be spoken of more directly owing to censures the paper had endured for its writing about the war. Then again, maybe not. Who knows? Such records as I’ve seen also suggest that The Washtenaw Post treated the University of Michigan with wariness. In October 1917, the university fired a member of its German Department (Carl Eggert) for entertaining pro-German sentiments. The German-American community in Ann Arbor was still smarting. That some elements within the university had supported Prohibition, which the local German-American community opposed, probably didn’t help matters.††

Did all these affairs, or merely some of them, lead the Post snidely to suggest that Frost’s august (and well-financed) presence on campus might inspire, if it inspired anything at all, one or two of the university’s 11,000 students to write lyrics of the kind sung by barbershop quartets (e.g., Silver Threads Among the Gold)? Perhaps. Were it not for the religious high-dudgeon and the very dubious characterization of Frost’s views as to the cause of WW I—”the great world war was nothing to be regretted, but simply God’s way of thinning us out!”—I might suppose this to be garden-variety grumbling about the uselessness of scribblers (a possibility a friend mentioned to me).

In short, we have, here, a highly refracted report of what would appear to have been a mischievous, Malthusian-Darwinian bit of Frostian foolery about the squirrels of Ann Arbor, and about what their little struggles implied. And it is a report from a newspaper with (it would appear) a vexed relation to the Great War and a history of contentious relations to the University of Michigan—a university that had just hired Frost at $5,000 to do less than “twirl his thumbs.”

In Ann Arbor, it was harder, in 1921, to engage in whimsical thought-experiments about war than Frost may have supposed.

≈   ≈   ≈

The Washtenaw Post
27 October 1921

ROBERT FROST’S OPINION OF A MERCIFUL GOD

HE LOOKS UPON PESTILENCE, DISEASE AND WARS AS INTERPOSITIONS OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE

Robert Frost, called “the best loved of New England’s poets,” is in Ann Arbor for a year, by invitation of the University of Michigan. He is not asked to do anything, not even twirl his thumbs, if he does not so desire. And for his presence he is presented with a [sic] honorarium of $5,000.

Mr. Frost may be worth it. Far be it from the Washtenaw Post to question the wisdom of President Burton and the U. of M. board of regents. His presence may be such an inspiration that some of the 11,000 students here may blossom out into writers of verse that will stir the world as did that marvelous poem entitled: “Down Went McGinty to the Bottom of the Sea,” or “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” or “Tommy Trott’s Toothsome Tomato.”

The attention of Mr. Frost was drawn to the fact that some of the squirrels in Ann Arbor were dying; that a mysterious disease was carrying them to “timely” graves; “timely,” because they were getting too numerous. So speaking of the lessening number of squirrels he remarked:

“That’s nature’s way. Animals breeding rapidly after a time become a menace for one reason or another. Then comes a scourge and they die off. It is true of humans. When the world becomes so over-populated that its organizations can no longer protect its peoples there will come a pestilence, a famine, a scourge of disease—possibly a war—and men die by the thousands or are killed by the hundred [sic] of thousands; and then once more organization is able to care for the people of a great world.”

How simple. The great world war was nothing to be regretted, but simple [sic] God’s way of thinning us out! Poor, ignorant man may think he blundered, but Mr. Frost doesn’t think so. The black plague, tuberculosis, gripp [sic], smallpox, scarlet fever—these must be looked upon as God’s blessings in disguise to prevent over population.

God first creates too many stomachs and backs to get along comfortably, and then He sends His servants in the shape of wars and pestilence to thin us out!

One might well argue that man has no right to try to interfere with God by endeavoring to cure diseases, or to prevent wars. Doesn’t God know best?

The University of Michigan is welcome to Mr. Frost and his theory of God’s ways; but there will still be those who believe that it is the ignorance of man rather than the goodness of God that brings these scourges upon us.

≈   ≈   ≈

† N.B.: There are details about the paper’s history of which I am doubtless unaware. I offer only what I’ve been able to gather from such archival resources as a few hours poking around the web turned up. I’d be grateful for anything anyone reading this entry at The Era of Casual Fridays has to add to the tale.

††  From A HISTORY OF THE GERMAN SETTLERS IN WASHTENAW COUNTY 1830 to 1930, by Dale R. Herter and Terry Stollsteimer:

After a pro-war bond rally in Ann Arbor on the evening of April 15, 1918, several German-owned businesses and offices were smeared with yellow paint, supposedly to identify the disloyal Americans. Even churches came under suspicion of disloyalty during and just after World War I. In 1919, West Side United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor was forced to close for a few months. Upon reopening, the congregation gave up German language services and changed its name to West Side Methodist Episcopal Church for a while. Loyalty toward America was high, however, and many German descendants in Washtenaw County went off to the war in Europe, serving their country along-side their fellow Americans.

With the end of the war, pressures on German-American citizens in the Washtenaw County lessened, but the community was changed forever. English became the language of everyday use, so that children of German-American families no longer learned German, even at church schools. Children born during and after WWI could not fully understand their historic tongue, even though their parents often used it at home or among other descendants. The community was becoming part of mainstream America now, and most neither knew nor remembered relatives in Germany, and had never seen, nor now felt great passion for the land of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. These feelings were only heightened during WWII, when Germany was only thought of as the enemy.

From the same:

The Prohibition Movement drew speakers and rallies to Ann Arbor from the late 1880’s through 1920 when national prohibition of alcohol was eventually enacted. Factions of students from the University of Michigan sometimes echoed the chant and joined in the marches. In 1888 when students entered the 2nd Ward to protest the many saloons, ‘a few heads were broken’ by the local Germans who didn’t like being told they shouldn’t have their beer! 

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