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Attacking Robert Frost

So, Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, does not care for Robert Frost—not a-tall. That is if we can take her fiction as an expression of her view of the man.

In the November issue of Harper’s she takes him to task in “Lovely, Dark, Deep” [1]—a story in which a young, attractive, female graduate student visits the elderly poet (whom she worships) and discovers he’s a dirty-minded bigot.

The story ends in what might be a cathartic evisceration of Frost for some.  The folks at The Washington Post seem to have enjoyed it [2]. I found it, well, unimaginative.

For starters, Frost is rather one-dimensional. Oates states that her characterization of him is based on “limited, selected” research drawn largely, it seems, from Jeffrey Myers’s biography of the poet.


Limited is probably about right. However difficult the man was in real life, however self-centered, Oates’s Frost is little more than caricature. For example, for some reason he becomes fixated on the interviewer’s “panties” and shows nothing but contempt for women in general, non-whites and his stupid fellow Americans. He is slovenly and grotesque, unaware of the nuances of his own work, and takes a childish pleasure in attention:

Unlike other poets, who would have become restless, irritable, and bored being asked familiar questions, Mr. Frost seemed to bask in the familiarity like a religious mystic who never tires of being worshipped.

Yes, well, I know the type–powerful, overweight, womanizing, racist, elderly, white male with a God complex–but I just don’t buy it. I was half expecting a cheap allusion to Dick Cheney. It doesn’t work as fiction.

The same is true of her 31 year-old graduate student with American-pie good looks. In the span of a short conversation on a front porch, she goes from fawning devotee (it is a “great honor” to interview the “homespun American…seer,” she tells us) to feminist warrior. She peppers him with questions that he cannot answer. She even berates him for his view of Native Americans in “The Gift Outright”:

Mr. Frost, the collective meaning of your poem seems to endorse manifest destiny—the right of American citizens to claim virtually all of North America. It totally excludes native Americans—the numerous tribes of Indians—who lived in North America long before the European settlers arrived. British, Spanish invaders—”Caucasians.”

My, my. (Was the phrase “native Americans” even in use in 1951 (the time at which the story was set)? I suppose it doesn’t matter. Those details would only get in the way, right?)

Oates solves the problem of her heroine’s sudden change by making her a figment of Frost’s imagination. That’s right. It was all a dream! She is one of his haunting “demons.” Genius.

So we have a story in which an evil character with no redeeming human qualities is humiliated (he even pathetically falls on his face at the end to make sure we get it, I suppose) by a wholly pure adversary.

Not exactly the most nuanced or insightful bit of fiction I’ve ever read.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Attacking Robert Frost"

#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On October 21, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

“Unlike other poets, who would have become restless, irritable, and bored being asked familiar questions, Mr. Frost seemed to bask in the familiarity like a religious mystic who never tires of being worshipped.”

Wow, that does seem a bit much! Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I doubt seriously, if he was portrayed as acting restless, irritable and bored, that that would be seen as a good thing either.

Act bored, and you’re a cranky old jerk, don’t act bored, and you’re an egotistical religious phony seeking worshippers!

#2 Comment By Kyle On October 22, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

“The three saddest words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates.”–Gore Vidal

#3 Comment By FredR On October 22, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

It’s embarrassingly bad. I’m surprised Harpers published it.

#4 Comment By J.D. On October 22, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

Oates is the single most mediocre writer in the modern canon. Her characterizations are bludgeoningly unsubtle — the rapist in her inexplicably popular story “Where Are You Going, How Have You Been?” is every bit as broadly drawn and unconvincing as the characterization of Frost — and her dialogue reads like it was written by someone who spends most of her time talking to college students.

Thurber could have made a delightful comic vignette out of the idea of poor Robert Frost being grilled by an uptight young academic from the 21st century. Alas, all we get is Joyce Carol Oates, the incarnation of everything smug, self-vaunting, sneering, and unimaginative about contemporary literature.

#5 Comment By Richard W. Bray On October 23, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

It’s worth noting that Thyatira, Job’s wife in Robert Frost’s “A Masque of Reason,” is a feisty feminist who really tears into God for His treatment of women.

By the way, if a male writer spent innumerable hours watching (and talking about) women beating each other up in public and then wrote gushing prose about how this “sweet science,” is some sort of metaphor for the Human Condition, well, what do you suppose people would say about such a man?

#6 Comment By Dave Lull On October 29, 2013 @ 8:43 am

“Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Frost, and Robert Lowell | The Era of Casual Fridays”