By all accounts, the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) was a difficult man, moody, contrary, competitive, exacting. Not, one would have thought, a sympathetic subject for a novel. It is all the more miraculous, then, that Brian Hall’s biographical novel—historical novel, really—weaves a tapestry of prose and poetry, fact and intelligent imagination, that is aesthetically gratifying, informative and psychologically compelling. By novel’s end, we feel we have learned more about what it was like to be Frost than any standard biography—and there are a number of very useful biographies, including those by William H. Pritchard and Jay Parini—could tell us.
Hall is the author of three previous novels, and this one should confirm his status as a writer who deserves attention for his artistry. He has built Fall of Frost around the poet’s late-life visit to the Soviet Union.
In 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis was heating up, Frost asked connections in the White House to arrange for him a tour of the Soviet Union and, he hoped, an audience with then-Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev. Frost had conceived the notion that he, as an unsentimental farmer, and Krushchev, as an unsentimental peasant, would be simpatico. Man to man, he would point out to Krushchev that attacking the United States with missiles would lead to mutual ruin. Enough of drawn-out diplomatic folderol, enough of bluster and saber-rattling: frank talk between equals would save the world.
Like an anchor, this trip to Russia holds the story of Frost’s life in place. Hall needs this device, because the book shuffles its short scenes out of chronological order; he touches base with it now and again and returns to it near the book’s end. The effect of the shuffling is twofold: it heightens the emotional chiaroscuro of a complicated and dramatic life and permits maximum poetic play between past and present, present and future. When Frost remembers, we are likely to remember, too. When Frost anticipates, we anticipate—or, perhaps, remember and wish we could tell him not to anticipate.
Robert Frost, son of a woman who placed religion before anything else, including housekeeping, and an alcoholic, gambling father who died early of tuberculosis, had six children with his beloved wife, Elinor. Four of the six died during his lifetime: Elinor Bettina as an infant, Elliott as a child, Marjorie in childbirth, his son Carol by suicide; Irma, like Frost’s sister, Jeanie, went insane and was institutionalized. Their dog Schneider died. In 1938 Frost’s wife died. A son-in-law committed suicide. Only the eldest child, daughter Lesley, “who became the family historian,” managed to survive and thrive. Frost often felt there was a family curse that he had passed on to his children.
Nothing stopped Frost’s poetry. It flowed from him, but never like an underground stream—he brought his full consciousness to bear on every line; and his technical abilities, honed in England, were extraordinary, as was his awareness of what used to be called “the human condition.” He won four Pulitzer prizes. More important, his reputation since death has continued to blossom, despite some unwarranted bruising to his character.
Hall supplies endnotes that let us know exactly what his sources are, what he has invented and what he has borrowed, what are “facts gleaned” and where we are reading a novelist’s daring interpretation of events and perspectives. Throughout, reference is made to someone called “The Younger Poet,” who, he tells us, is by turns various actual poets who interacted with Frost. Robert Francis, Robert Lowell, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall and Philip Larkin are among the poets who play this economical and highly effective role. In his author’s note, Hall observes that “my interest has been to suggest how a great writer’s language flows out of his life and back into it, how certain mysteriously fecund words and their associated ideas are turned under in the writer’s mind....” At this task he has succeeded brilliantly. His Frost thinks on the page; Hall sometimes incorporates phrases from the poems into the novel’s text. It is hard not to believe we are inside Frost’s mind. When Hall has Frost say to a friend, “You hurl experience ahead of you, and it somehow makes a road,” you hear it in Frost’s voice, ironic, compassionate and matter-of-fact at once.
Or this, when the children are little, and playing in the dirt: “All they could ever want, right here. See it, touch it. Their older sister’s attention, her momentary lack of scorn, every variety of delicious dirt they can imagine. Frost wanders away, weeping.”
Or Frost’s confused half-dream of his deceased friend, the British poet Edward Thomas:
Come, Edward, step through with me. Into the clearing....
Ring around the rosie.
Hurry! It’s dangerous here. Something is falling.
But Edward isn’t there. The rainbow circle has turned into a net. Frost is holding a tennis racket too heavy to lift. The net is too high. On the other side is Krushchev, his arm stretched behind him for the smash of the shuttlecock into Frost’s face. The cock is in the air, floating, falling in a slow parabola toward his opponent, and Frost can’t raise the racket to protect his face, and Krushchev, dressed all in seaside white, shining, is floating upward like the full moon.
Beautifully written, Fall of Frost reaches deep into the man who endured any number of griefs and hardships to write poems that have become a part—no doubt, the better part—of America.