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Joyce Carol Oates Has Written Something Outrageous About Robert Frost

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

Half a century after Robert Frost’s death, his reputation remains contentious. His image as a kindly New England swinger of birches and walker through snowy woods was tainted by his one-time friend Lawrance Thompson, whose three-volume biography, published in installments beginning three years after Frost’s death, depicted one of the great American poets of the twentieth century as a self-centered egomaniac. Thompson's portrayal—dubbed the “monster myth” by scholars like Stanley Burnshaw—has been the scourge of Frost’s descendants and a generation of biographers, who’ve sought to expose the biases and personal grudges steering Thompson’s work. Joyce Carol Oates, the prolific essayist and fiction writer, once called Thompson’s takedown of his former mentor a “notorious” pathography guided by “true malevolence.”

But Oates herself drew from that very book for a short story published in the November issue of Harper’s. “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which imagines a meeting between an aspiring writer and an aging Frost, paints the latter as an arrogant, sexist pig who gave up on his mentally ill children. The story has outraged Frost’s fans, biographers, and especially his survivors. “I would like to see the record set straight before I die,” said Frost’s 86-year-old grandson, John Cone Jr., who was most upset by the insinuations about Frost’s family life. “My first reaction is wonderment that Harper’s has to stoop so low to fill its pages.” Frost’s granddaughter Lesley Lee Francis wrote me to say the story is “an ill-spirited and confused attack.”

Some people without a blood relation to the poet are furious, too. Last week, I got in touch with two prominent Frost scholars, Mark Richardson and Donald Sheehy, who promptly sent me a 14-page joint reply detailing the problems with Oates’s portrayal of Frost. Another of Frost’s biographers, William H. Pritchard, called the story “utterly preposterous and quite distasteful.” Sheehy, a professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania who has spent years studying Frost and coedited The Letters of Robert Frost (due next year from Harvard University Press), said, “Oates’s characterizations are so wrongheaded that they would be laughable were they not also malicious.”

Oates cites both Thompson’s slurs and artistic license in her defense: “It’s totally a work of fiction,” she told me over email. "The portrait of Frost in [Lawrance] Thompson's biography is 'demonic' in fact. But I'd drawn upon material in Jeffrey [Meyers'] more balanced biography." (The New York Times called Meyers' book "another Thompsonesque thumping"; Richardson called it "tabloid-esque.") When I asked her what she would say to a historian calling her story malicious, she replied, “It is natural for commentators to come to imagine that they ‘own’ an individual, as some biographers feel of their subjects. But this is erroneous.”

But does that give Oates the right to play fast and loose with the facts? She notes in a postscript to the story that it’s “a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research.” Although the narrator, Evangeline Fife, may be a figment of Oates’s imagination, Robert Frost is not, and neither are the other “characters” in the story—including Frost’s wife, Elinor, his sister, Jeanie, and his children Irma, Lesley, Marjorie and Carol. “The lady”—Oates—“has an ulterior motive and is being very self-serving,” said Cone. “There are so many people trying to cash in on Grandfather’s memory.”

Cone has good reason to take offense. Oates’s Frost is lascivious (“You came to Bread Loaf to interview the revered Mr. Frost with but a single pair of panties?” Frost asks Evangeline); racist (“You may put in your interview, Miss Fife, that Robert Frost believes in civilization—which is to say Caucasian civilization,” he tells her); arrogant (“Mr. Frost seemed to bask in the familiarity like a religious mystic who never tires of being worshipped”); insulting (“You are nothing,” he says to Evangeline, “you’ve never won a single Pulitzer Prize, let alone several Pulitzer Prizes”); scornful of his contemporaries (he calls T.S. Eliot a “pretentious prig;” e.e. cummings is “infantile;" Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, Carl Sandburg and Wallace Stevens are all “fake”); callous (Evangeline accuses him of “giving up on” his mentally ill daughter, Irma, and sister, Jeanie) and even physically repulsive (“his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of a middle-aged woman”).

Some of Frost's biographers have taken offense, too. “The stuff about the ‘panties’ is really embarrassing (meant to be ‘juicy’ I guess),” Pritchard, author of Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, wrote in an email. “He was the last thing in the world from a philanderer, even after Elinor's death in 1938,” said Jay Parini, who spent 25 years researching his 1999 biography, Robert Frost: A Life (and who had not, when I emailed him, read Oates’s story). “Anyone who heard Frost talk or has listened to his tapes of interviews,” said Pritchard, who has done both, “will immediately detect the utter implausibility of his voice as rendered by Ms. Oates.”

Oates’s Frost is also a white supremacist, calling Native Americans “primitive” and “closer to the animal rung of the ladder than to our own.” But, as Richardson and Sheehy pointed out, we get a different idea from his notebooks, where he wrote that the pre-Columbian cities of the Americas “would compare in importance with any but even the best of the line in Europe such as London Paris and Madrid.”

“By billing her story as fiction, while hinting that it bears a peculiar relation to ‘historical research,’ Oates is letting herself off the hook,” said Richardson, a professor at Doshisha University in Japan who has edited and authored several books on Frost, including The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. “There can be no good excuse, under the guise of a quasi-gothic story with a chimerical narrator, for perpetuating (and compounding) unfounded, dubious charges against Frost of the kind trotted out for display here. Oates knows full well the history of  ‘the monster myth,’ and how it has haunted the poet for forty years. Dabbling in it, by whatever gothic, dreamy indirection, becomes no one.”

Thompson's book has much to do with that myth. “Frost and Thompson had become, by the end of Frost's life, rivals,” explained Parini. “Thompson created the myth of Frost as a monster—a jealous, small-minded man whose moral stature was deeply in question.”

One of the most damning anecdotes in Oates's story comes straight out of Thompson’s controversial biography. Evangeline accuses Frost:

“Do you remember when Lesley was six years old?…You woke your daughter with a loaded pistol in your hand and you forced the terrified child to come downstairs…You told the child Lesley that she must choose between her mother and her father—which of you was to live and which to die. ‘By morning, only one of us will be alive.’”

This episode was relayed by Thompson—and deemed “absurd” by Lesley’s daughter, who told Parini: “In all the years my mother and I talked about her father, there was never any mention of the scene. And, indeed, she was prone to nightmares, especially in childhood.”

Oates may insist her story is merely fiction, but her Twitter activity offers some insight into her opinion of Frost: In February, she tweeted, “What we know of Robert Frost's life suggests that a demon had somehow come to inhabit a brilliant poet; or, the reverse.”

Just as biographers are rushing to criticize Oates, she has found one likeminded supporter in Brian Hall, who wrote a novel based on Frost’s life. “It seems to me that questions of historical accuracy in a story like this are largely beside the point; it's not at all clear to me that ‘Evangeline Fife’ is a real person in this story; I'm sure you've noticed that she first disappears as a first-person narrator, and by the end has disappeared entirely. One could plausibly interpret the story as a dream of Frost's (he's asleep on the porch), in which one of his demons (of course he had a few) comes to him in the guise of an interviewer.”

Was Frost a deranged egomaniac? An avuncular apple picker? Something in between? And who gets to decide—his family and friends? The biographers who’ve spent decades combing through his papers and archives? Or is his life public property—rich material to be mined for fiction writers? The question of who “owns” an artist’s legacy is always complicated, and it’s especially so for Frost. And now his descendants, biographers, and detractors aren’t fighting only for ownership over his legacy, but for ownership of this very debate.