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Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Frost, and Robert Lowell

October 29, 2013

oates-tweetJoyce Carol Oates has just published, in Harpers, a short-story in which Robert Frost figures, monstrously. I will soon write here a detailed account of how the story works, and of how Oates tendentiously distorts the biographical record. She tacks on a coy note at the close of the story to the effect that, although “Lovely, Dark, and Deep” is fiction, it is “based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffery Meyers (1996).” This book is widely acknowledged among scholars of Frost (and of American poetry) as one of the worst biographies ever done on the poet. In her review of it, Helen Vendler condemned the book, suggesting that the sooner it was pulped, the better. Dabbling in it in a “limited, selected” way hardly amounts to “research.” I should hope Oates has some other scholarship in mind besides what’s on offer in Meyers. She ambiguously gives her reader to understand that she does; reading a third-rate biography is not historical inquiry.

Today I will discuss one passage in Oates’ tale. The story is quasi-gothic in genre, tricked out with sly narrative manoeuvres that appear to insulate—in bad faith, I think—its author from the appalling portrait rendered of the poet, which led, in the blogosphere, to such headlines as this: “Joyce Carol Oates skewers Robert Frost as a sexist, racist old bore.” Worth noting in connection with this is a remark Oates made on Twitter in February 2013:

What we know of Robert Frost’s life suggests that a demon had somehow come to inhabit a brilliant poet; or, the reverse.

Anyway, the passage I have in mind illustrates very well Oates’ procedures (which aren’t clever enough to be called demonic); the reader may judge of its integrity.

In the tale, a 30-year old would-be poet (with a strange interest in Frost’s body and also in her own) goes up to Bread Loaf to interview Frost. She is, as we learn a few pages into the story, chimerical, unreal, insubstantial; eventually she evaporates into a third-person narrator who leaves the reader with the curious impression (unstably so) that Frost, in bad conscience, has suffered something like a nightmare while trying to get some “rest” (Oates’ third-person narrator’s term). But during the course of the “interview” that never actually happens, the young woman, now no longer the narrator but the subject, with Frost, of the narration, lodges this charge against Frost, referring to his daughter Irma who, as did Frost’s sister Jeanie, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia:

Why was poor Irma so obsessed with being kidnapped and raped? Forced into prostitution? You were scornful of Irma’s terrors. You’d told her bluntly when she was just a girl that she was so unattractive she needn’t fear being raped, no man would be interested in her sexually, she wasn’t worth “twenty cents a throw.” Later, to Robert Lowell, you said laughingly that Irma Frost couldn’t “make a whorehouse.”

The fictive Frost replies:

That is not true. That is—a lie, slander . . . Lowell was a sick, distressed person. I spoke to him in a way to lift his spirits, to entertain him. He’d thought that he was bad, but old Frost was badder. But none of it was meant to be taken literally.

What is a reader to make of this, a reader, say, unschooled in the long history of scholarship that attends biographical accounts of Frost? The first thing to point out is that the answer to the first two questions here put to Frost is self-evident: paranoid schizophrenia. The second thing is that Oates’ fictive Frost’s rejoinder is, in a certain sense, correct. This is a lie, a slander. But what unwitting readers will not know is that the remark about Irma not being worth twenty cents a throw traces back to Meyers and is very dubiously sourced. Nor will most readers know, unless they are schooled not only in Frost but in Lowell, that Oates has here introduced a surpassingly weird and invidious anachronism.

Had Frost ever laughingly said that Irma “couldn’t make a whorehouse”? Bear the following in mind. Oates’ tale is set in 1951. The only record of Frost’s ever having said such a thing, if it constitutes a record, is a poem Robert Lowell wrote in the late 1960s, the details of which derive (it would appear) from a conversation he recalled having had with Frost in November 1962, the last year Frost saw full to its end in a hospital bed at Peter Bent Brigham in Boston. This is but one of the  anachronisms laid into the tale, and it is typical of Oates’ narrative tricks. Here is Lowell’s poem:

“Robert Frost”

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone
to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs,
his voice musical, raw and raw—he writes in the flyleaf:
“Robert Lowell from Robert Frost, his friend in the art.”
“Sometimes I feel too full of myself,” I say.
And he, misunderstanding, “When I am low,
I stray away. My son wasn’t your kind. The night
we told him Merrill Moore would come to treat him,
he said, ‘I’ll kill him first.’ One of my daughters thought things,
knew every male she met was out to make her;
the way she dresses, she couldn’t make a whorehouse.”
And I, “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself.”
And he, “When I am too full of joy, I think
how little good my health did anyone near me.”

Merrill Moore was the psychiatrist Frost consulted, again and again, over two decades (in connection with his son Carol and his daughter Irma). He served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and was a poet himself. Frost wrote a tribute to him when he died. Lowell was also close to Moore and a friend of Frost (who, generally speaking, regarded the younger poet warmly).

Did Frost say what Lowell has him saying? We don’t really know; the poem is a work of art, and far better than anything Oates’ could ever give us on Frost and whatever haunted him. But in the poem the damning phrase is no “laughing” matter. The note Lowell registers, in closing, is one of rueful regret. If there’s humor in it, well, it smacks of the gallows. I’ve seen depression enough to hear that note. God knows Lowell had. “My son wasn’t your kind”: interesting (and artful) that he gets that in of himself from Frost.

Most of Oates’ readers won’t see how she abuses Lowell’s poem, which is, I think, a fine thing. She can’t pawn this one off on the chimerical “interviewer” who interrogates Frost, for reasons that should be obvious. The poet might have been haunted by many a thing in 1951, but among them couldn’t be the phrasing of a poem written after he died, or remarks he may have made in confidence to Robert Lowell in the dying fall of November 1962. Oates works dubiously with what any party to the affair could have been conscious or “unconscious” of at the time (that last term pops up at the end of the tall tale). She has her “limited, selected” way with the intersecting “histories” of two dead poets.

Whistle in a literary graveyard, sure, but never cackle.

~ ~ ~

Postscript: Alice Robb, at the New Republic, has now written an article about the controversies associated with Oates’ short story.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2013 11:07 AM

    On the one hand, it’s a work of fiction and on the other, she says, it’s based on historical research. Seems she wants to have her cake and eat it too. Which trumps which? If it’s fiction, one can’t really be posturing too much. On the other hand, she calls the character Robert Frost and clearly means us to read it as a representation of the real person. Why else use the name?

    To complain too much risks Bardolatry (of a Frostian kind). I mean, who are you (or I) to care how another author portrays a poet who has nothing whatsoever to do with you, me, us or them.

    More broadly speaking, I do think the whole meme of Frost as the dark and terrifying poet (thanks Lionel) has gotten far too much air time. Oates is clearly playing into that portrayal for a little, literary quickie. The story has obviously prompted a response from the likes of you (and maybe I’ll have to have an opinion too) and that’s a good thing.

    • October 29, 2013 11:32 AM

      Thanks for this, Patrick. Interesting, isn’t it all? My investment in it, insofar as I have one, has to do with how distortions of the historical and biographical record are introduced to serve particular narrative ends (as when the last line of After Apple Picking is misidentified for tendentious purposes). JCO, one presumes, knows what the last of the poem is. JCO might want us to say: “Well, the chimerical narrator who haunts RF in the tale must be making the error for tendentious purposes, and if she is RF’s chimera, then RF abuses his own poem for purposes of self-abuse.” Really? I won’t let JCO off that easy. She’s coyly in and out of the game she’s playing (as you indicate). She shows herself a bad maker of deliberately bad diction (Christ, how she has RF talk [in a nightmare about himself?]). The tale’s a muddle, really, and toys with iconoclasm without being “about” iconoclasm (which would have been more interesting).

      Nice to see JCO go on record in that tweet of hers: either RF is demonic, or possessed. Coming from a dabbler in the gothic, that claim might seem mischievous––had she not said she reached her gothic conclusion by means of “what we know about RF’s life.” “We”? Cheap manoeuvre, there, though familiar: assume agreement without winning it.

      Anyhow, more to come on this matter, unless I simply tire of examining a tale whose narrative machinations are so patent.

      Yours, Mark

      (By the way, I was reading your fine treatment of After Apple Picking just the other day.)

  2. marlyyoumans permalink
    October 29, 2013 6:03 PM

    Thanks for sending me the link to your interesting reaction; I doubt that I have much to add to what I said earlier, although it occurs to me that a woman (even a writer whose business it is to imagine other lives) who did not become a parent may not be quite as understanding and sympathetic to what it means to raise multiple children, and particularly a child who is “different.”

    And certainly that notorious biography seems to be a strange source, used alone. She is certainly not as generous and loving to Frost-the-character as Frost was to his own characters, even when they were very faulty or ill in mind.

  3. marlyyoumans permalink
    October 30, 2013 2:09 PM

    Mark, I like your “What I Want” piece so much. Read it last night… Shall come back and ramble around your edifice-in-aether!

    Oh, and it was Dave Lull who left me your link.

    • October 30, 2013 8:10 PM

      Thank you (and Dave). So glad you stopped by.
      Best regards, Mark


  1. Joyce Carol Oates attacked for ‘distasteful’ portrayal of Robert Frost

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