In Robert Frost: A Life, Jay Parini is a man with a mission, namely to restore the poet's reputation. His new biography is a corrective to the works of earlier biographers who, Parini feels, unfairly besmirched Frost's image.
Robert Frost was arguably the last American poet whose name was known to nonliterary people. Prior to his death in January 1963, his poetry had long been included in school textbooks. Many people knew Mending Wall and The Road Not Taken. The stature of the man and the poetry were both enhanced by Frost's participation in the Kennedy inauguration in 1961 and by JFK's making it known that he often recited Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening in almost prayer-like fashion after a rough day. While Frost never won a Nobel Prize, being awarded the Pulitzer an unprecedented four times helped institutionalize him and his verse.
Then came the iconoclasts. The public perception of Frost was altered most by his official biographer Lawrance Thompson, who in 1966 published the first volume of what Parini calls his three-volume biography where he never lost an opportunity to discover and underline faults in Frost. Thompson's view was that Frost was generally a misanthrope in his private life and was an especially captious parent.
Parini tells us Thompson wasted no opportunity to present Frost as a monster . . ., even though Parini does allow that there is no doubt that on occasion [Frost] behaved badly. Luckily, this corrective element detracts only a little from Parini's excellent scholarly work. He writes well, indeed at times poetically, as when he tells us that Frost pulled a poem together, lacing the rhymes as tightly as a boot. As one would expect from such a major biography, there is a wealth of information how Frost conceived and built upon his public persona, how he created the role of writer-in-residence and the public literary reading. He often drew huge crowds and was handsomely paid even during the depths of the depression.
We remember Frost and read his poetry today in part because he realized the importance of fame. But as Jay Parini's solid biography reminds us, it is the artistic achievement that the famous reputation relies on most.