‘The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1, 1886-1920,’ Harvard University Press
by Dick Loftin.
Letters can be tricky. They are written in private, intended for no other eyes except the recipient, and can reveal our most unguarded and possibly reckless moments. So many of us have uncountable things we have said that we wish we could pull back into our mouths, only to have it slip out. Imagine how one can cut loose in a letter. Some letters would be thought of as important to history only to have them burned and left to smoke. Bess Truman and Martha Washington burned their personal letters, much to the dismay of historians and family members, but it brings to account the depth of privacy often laid out in letters. They can be tricky, they can be difficult, they can be a little too truthful. Why on earth would one want to have them published?
For years of my reading life I thought it wouldn’t be very interesting to read someone else’s mail. Why would I want to? They weren’t written for me. But it wasn’t until I read some of the letters of Robert Lowell that I became interested in this common form of communication. I have been reading the Letters of William Styron, and now I have grown to appreciate what letters are to literature and what they can reveal about the writer and the people they have written to. I realized I would have liked to have known Styron. Very much.
Now, ‘The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1, 1886-1920,’ have been published. This is a big book of over 800 pages. In these two reviews, from the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker, the life of the poet takes shape in his struggle to get his writing career off the ground, while making his way around the people near him.
In the Journal review, Christian Wiman quotes a letter written by Frost from 1914. It discusses how important it is to write for the ear. How people, even while reading, are ‘listening’ at the same time. I have long held the view that we write for people to listen, and when I discuss writing with others, I always tell them to read their work out loud. By doing that, flow and structure will reveal itself, and you will find out quickly if what you have written makes any sense in the first place. Frost writes, “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.” This is as true a statement about the writing craft that I have found in some time.
Links for the Wall Street Journal review and the New Yorker are below. Enjoy.
Read the New Yorker review [February 10, 2014] by Dan Chaisson, Here.
Read the Wall Street Journal review [February 22-23, 2014] by Christian Wiman, Here.
Wikipedia profile of Robert Frost, Here.
Publishers page of ‘The Letters of Robert Frost,’ Harvard University Press, Here.