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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”—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. 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.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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