With the sturdy binding and beautifully illustrated cover -- Thomas Hart Benton's oil painting, "Haystack" (1938) -- this is an inviting introduction to Robert Frost's life, poetry and critical reputation.
Robert Faggen, Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College, contends that Frost's popularity and notority from some of his best known and loved poems obscure the real range of his work and achievements. Offers an excellent biographical introduction, then focuses on Frost's major poetry. Finds that while he was "a consummate craftsman and maker of some of the most psychologically engaging and artistically beguiling poetry of his or any time," a careful look at his life and work also reveals him to be "a far more elusive shapeshifter and trickster, a learned and trenchant intellectual with a sometimes terrifyingly bleak vision of human existence."
Named after Robert E. Lee, Robert Lee Frost lived a long life, long enough to endure seeing his sister committed to a mental institution (where she died in 1929), the death of four of his children, the suffering of two with mental illness, the horror of losing a son to suicide, and lose his wife, Elinor, to cancer and a series of heart attacks in 1938. "He long outlived his wife and fell into an affair with a woman who would not leave her husband."
We learn that this poor poet-farmer, was actually greatly assisted financially by his grandfather, was educated at Harvard in psychology, philosophy and geology by some of the most recognized teachers of his time, and spent much of his early career teaching literature and psychology before traveling to England and mingling with such luminaries as: Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T.E. Hulme, and Ford Madox Ford.
I enjoyed the sections of the book that offered a biographical or period-context for Frost's poetry, that discussed his interest and roots in the writings of Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Emerson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Emerson. And, I thought Faggen did a good job of discussing Frost's literary reputation in the context of his time and contemporaries.
From the perspective of undergraduate students using the book to write a paper -- it would have been helpful if Frost's major poems were reprinted in full and the discussion of the broader thematic elements incorporated into the explications that are typically found following the snippets of text of the poem discussed.
Also, the inclusion of illustrations and photographs to break up the text would have made the interior of the book more enticing to undergraduates. And, while I liked the inclusion of a "Further Reading" bibliography in the back, I was surprised that the titles of Frost's poems were not included alphabetically in the index; instead, one has to go to the entry for "Frost, Robert", and then look for the title and page references there.
Still, these are minor issues and due most likely to the series format. As such, I enthusiastically recommend this title as being a well-written, interesting and very useful introduction to the life and work of one of the most influential and important American writers of the 20th century.
Highly recommended for college and university libraries and large public libraries supporting local high school students writing papers on literary topics.
R. Neil Scott
Middle Tennessee State University