Corresponding Friendships: Robert Frost's Letters
The Dartmouth College Library's Robert Frost Collection contains tens of thousands of letters to and from the poet. This exhibit looks at conversations among Frost and his correspondents -- his friends the literary scholars Sidney Cox and Cornelius Weygandt, poet and modernist impresario Ezra Pound, and President John F. Kennedy. The letters span two continents and fifty years of Frost's life -- from 1913, when he began publishing poetry in London, to 1963, just before his death in his beloved New England.
The exhibit was curated by Laura Braunstein and Jay Satterfield and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries September 10 - November 1, 2014.
Materials Included in the Exhibition
Case 1. Among Friends: Sidney Cox and Cornelius Weygandt
Robert Frost’s correspondence files, which make up the bulk of Dartmouth’s 27-box Robert Frost Collection [now 39 boxes, MS-11178], contain tens of thousands of Frost’s incoming letters. Because Frost was not one to keep copies of most of what he sent, the files have far fewer of his outgoing letters. But, with two personal relationships—those with Sidney Cox and Cornelius Weygandt—we are lucky enough to have both sides of the exchanges.
Frost was teaching at Plymouth Normal School when he first met Sidney Cox, a recent college graduate and high school teacher. The two struck up a friendship that would last forty years. Some of the richest letters in our collection, those that reveal Frost’s working and personal life, are ones he wrote when in England to Cox, then a graduate student at the University of Illinois.
Cox went on to the University of Montana, where he was fired from his position in 1926 for allowing students to include the phrase “son-of-a-bitch” in a college publication. With Frost’s ringing endorsement, Cox was immediately hired by Dartmouth, where he remained for the rest of his teaching career. Frost’s relationship with Cornelius Weygandt began professionally, but quickly grew into a deep friendship. The two shared a literary sensibility and admired many of the same writers. They also both appreciated and wrote about New Hampshire’s rural character.
- Cornelius Weygandt. New Hampshire Neighbors: Country Folks and Things in the White Hills. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1937. Rauner White Mountains F39 .W47 1937
- Robert Frost. Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1916. We have many copies: ask for Rauner Alumni F9296mo3 (Author's autograph presentation copy, inscribed to [Harold] Rugg. 7 pages of verse (on flyleaves) in Frost's handwriting. In dust jacket. c.3) or Rauner Frost PS3511.R94 M6 1916 (Gift of Harriet Barry in memory of her father, John L. Cooley. Author's autograph presentation copy, inscribed to Cooley, with lines from "The road not taken," on flyleaf. With dust jacket. c.4).
- Frost draws on local usage to justify his title: “The Interval, it may be of interest, is that of the South Branch of the Ammonoosuc River, just under the Franconia Notch.”
- Robert Frost, Franconia, to Cornelius Weygandt, Wonalancet, 26 August 1916.
- Frost bristled at their mutual friend George Browne’s suggestion that he had misused the word “Interval” in the title of his book. After a paragraph defense, he writes off the criticism with “But I guess it’s foolish to be bothered with him any further.”
- Cornelius Weygandt, Philadelphia, to Robert Frost, Franconia, 16 November 1916.
- Robert Frost, Amherst, to Cornelius Weygandt, Philadelphia, 29 April 1917.
- In one of the most moving letters in the collection, Frost tells Weygandt that fellow poet and close friend Edward Thomas had died that week in battle. The letter serves to introduce Weygandt to the poet he would never meet: “And he wasn’t in love with death. He went to death because he didn’t like going. I meant to have you know him.”
- Robert Frost, Key West, to Cornelius Weygandt, Philadelphia, 20 February 1935.
- In this reply to Weygandt’s request for the text of a lecture, Frost included a draft of the poem “Blue Ribbons at Amesbury,” originally published the next year in the Atlantic Monthly, then collected in A Further Range.
- Map of White Mountains. Boston: Geo. K. Snow & Bradlee, 1872.
- The “Interval” Frost refers is on the South Branch of the Ammonoosuc River just under Franconia Notch.
- Sidney Cox. Robert Frost: Original “Ordinary Man.” New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1929.
- Robert Frost, Ann Arbor, to Sidney Cox, Missoula, 18 May 1926.
- Frost took tremendous delight in Cox’s appointment at Dartmouth. “Dartmouth is one of my favorite colleges, though unfortunately I can’t say I have its yell at my tongue’s end for this great occasion. And that’s a large hearted lot you are going to find around you—all men and none of them an old woman—not one of them cursed with fastidiosity.”
- Robert Frost, Ann Arbor, to Sidney Cox, Hanover, 22 December 1926.
- “I can think of nothing but how glad I am you are at Hanover safely unhanged. You were too many hours ahead of your time out there on Rocky Mountain Time and there was always danger of its giving you an exaggerated sense of your own importance and so getting you into trouble with the Kew Clucks. Be at peace now and like your opportunities as much as in you lies to like anything human.”
- Robert Frost, Beaconsfield, England, to Sidney Cox, Urbana, 10 July 1913.
- “I get your story and I am sorry for you. The only thing I don’t understand is the philosophical not to say weak way in which you take your luck. You attribute it to your lack of self confidence. What that would mean I wonder. Are you any less sure of yourself than are others at your age?”
- Robert Frost, Leddinton, England, to Sidney Cox, Schenectady, 18 May 1914.
- “We are now in the country, the cider country, where we have to keep a barrel of cider for our visitors and our hired help or we will have no visitors nor hired help. So we are in the way of adding drink to cigarette smoking in the record of our sins. Even Elinor gets drawn in since the only kind of ladies we know over here are all smokers.”
Case 2. Strange Bedfellows
If politics makes strange bedfellows, poetry—when combined with politics—can foster even stranger relationships. Robert Frost met Ezra Pound at a bookstore party in London in 1913. Pound took Frost under his wing (somewhat reluctantly on Frost’s part), introducing him to other American poets living in England at the time, and to luminaries such as William Butler Yeats. While Frost benefitted from Pound’s patronage at first, later correspondence attests to a disintegrating relationship as the two went their separate ways, philosophically, stylistically, and politically.
After a period of estrangement, Frost joined—and later helped to lead—an effort to have Pound released from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, where Pound had been confined to avoid prosecution for treason. Despite Pound’s pro-fascist radio broadcasts from Italy during the Second World War, his poetry had long been admired in literary circles. In 1949, while still in Saint Elizabeths, he won the inaugural Bollingen Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress. In 1957, Frost joined with poet and former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish to tap into their literary network to persuade the Assistant Attorney General to drop the charges. Supporters included such writers and public figures as Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Their successful campaign resulted in Pound’s release to the care of his wife and daughter.
- Ezra Pound, Map showing location of William Butler Yeats’s residence, given to Robert Frost, 1913.
- Frost and Pound had dinner at Yeats’s London flat on March 31, 1913, shortly before the publication of Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will.
- Ezra Pound, Kensington, to Robert Frost, 1913.
- As Frost began working on the poems that would comprise his second book, North of Boston, he shared them with Pound. Here, Pound remarks, “I think the ‘Death [of the Hired Man]’ dam good. And the only things did [sic] alter are minutae—only one or two which escaped me—hardly more than a letter or so.”
- Ezra Pound to Robert Frost, 6 December 1915.
- Frost and his family returned to the United States after the outbreak of the First World War. Pound’s letter discusses wartime censorship and free verse, and suggests Frost “look up Bill [William Carlos] Williams” in New York.
- Ezra Pound, Rapallo, to Robert Frost, 1936.
- Pound’s “candid” and typo-filled letter is likely in reaction to hearing about a lecture on imagism given by Frost at Harvard: “When you dont know, kepp your trap shut, and when you do know, dont lie to the young. You always were dominated by envy, but you shdn’t let it get the better of you on the edge of the grave. I recognized your limitations [as] a writer, but had hitherto considered you a man, not a shit.”
- Ezra Pound.] Review of A Boy’s Will. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, May 1913.
- Photo of Robert Frost, The Eaton Studio, Littleton, NH, 1915.
- Ernest Hemingway, San Francisco de Paula, to Robert Frost, [Ripton], 28 June 1957.
- Hemingway clearly saw great artists as semi-independent of cultural mores. After he lists the transgressions of many poets and notes that “if Walt Whitman were alive today, Confidential would have been framing him,” he endorses Pound’s release with, “No one says poets are not to be punished like any other people, but great poets are very rare and they should be extended a measure of understanding and mercy.”
- T.S. Eliot, London, to Robert Frost, [Ripton], 8 July 1957.
- Somewhat less enthusiastic than Hemingway, the more guarded T. S. Eliot dismissed the charges against Pound with “Ezra Pound is not a politician or a political agitator by profession: he is a poet.”
- Archibald MacLeish, Conway, to Robert Frost, Ripton, 22 August 1957.
- Writing of Eliot, MacLeish commented, “He apparently thinks Ezra is nuttier than he is,” then remarked, “Does Eliot strike you as a bit timid?”
- James Laughlin, New York, to Robert Frost, Ripton, 24 September 1957.
- In a bizarre twist, Pound’s publisher, J. Laughlin, wrote to tell Frost that Frank Lloyd Wright might be willing to take Pound into his home. The move would have put two towering artistic egos under the same roof.
- Robert Frost, Ripton, to James Laughlin, New York, 8 October 1957. Retained copy.
- Frost’s response to Laughlin is priceless: “I can hardly resist the temptation of putting Ezra and Frank Lloyd Wright in the same gun turret but we must be serious where so much is at stake for poor Ezra.”
- Ezra Pound, Washington, to Robert Frost, Ripton, Easter 1958.
- Even as Frost worked to free him, Pound’s caustic personality continued to dominate: here his appreciation of Frost’s work on his behalf is undermined by his suggestion that Frost was no longer capable of serious conversation.
- Robert Frost. Statement, United States of America vs. Ezra Pound, Criminal no. 76028, 1957.
- Ezra Pound, Venice, to Robert Frost, Boston, January 1963.
- Just weeks before his death, Frost received this New Year’s greeting from Pound. Pound would live another nine years, dying in Venice in 1972.
Case 3. Inaugurating Kennedy
In the late 1950s, Frost had been appointed Honorary Consultant in the Humanities at the Library of Congress. By this time, Frost’s reputation as a poet and public intellectual was firmly established. Frost spoke publicly of his support for then-Senator John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election. According to several biographies, Kennedy had ended many campaign speeches alluding to Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—“miles to go before I sleep.” Given their relationship of mutual respect, it is no surprise that Kennedy chose Frost to speak at his Inauguration in 1961.
Frost planned to read his 1941 poem “The Gift Outright.” He intended to open with a few remarks on religious liberty to acknowledge Kennedy’s election as the nation’s first Catholic president. In subsequent drafts, he transformed his preface into a poem: “Dedication.” The morning of January 20, 1961, was cold and the sun burned brightly. Frost, then in his late eighties, was not able to see the page on which he had written “Dedication,” and so instead, to the nation’s delight, recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. He changed the last line from “Such as she was, such as she would become” to the more positive “such as she will become,” as Kennedy had earlier suggested.
- Photos of Robert Frost at the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy, 20 January 1961.
- John F. Kennedy, Washington, to Robert Frost, Washington, 11 April 1959.
- In March 1959, Frost’s publisher, Henry Holt & Co., gave a party to celebrate his 85th birthday. When asked about politics during a press conference after the event, Frost remarked that “the next President of the United States will be from Boston.” Then-Senator Kennedy’s letter responds to this predictive endorsement, at a time when he had not yet declared his candidacy.
- John F. Kennedy, Washington, to Robert Frost, Washington, 1 May 1961.
- From 1960 until his death in January 1963, Frost was the Honorary Consultant in the Humanities at the Library of Congress. In this letter, President Kennedy expresses his regret at not being able to attend a reception and reading in Frost’s honor, because of “meetings in connection with the international situation”: no doubt the failed CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs two weeks earlier.
- President and Mrs. Kennedy, Invitation to Robert Frost, 29 April 1962.
- Robert Frost, Cambridge, to John F. Kennedy, Washington 11 May 1961. Retained copy.
- In this letter of thanks, Frost mentions two current events: first, a lecture by physicist Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War and one of the inspirations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove; and second, the first orbital flight of Earth by an American, Alan Shepard, whose grandfather had been one of Frost’s students in Derry, New Hampshire.
- Robert Frost. Draft of inscription to John F. Kennedy to be included in In The Clearing, 1962.
- Robert Frost. Typescript of inscription to John F. Kennedy to be included in In The Clearing, 1962.
- Frost’s last book of poetry, In the Clearing, addressed themes of science and spirit in such poems as “Kitty Hawk” and “Accidentally on Purpose.” The copy he inscribed to President and Mrs. Kennedy was not a special edition, but “out of the common stock” from a bookstore.
- Robert Frost. Typescript draft of “Dedication,” .
- In this poem, intended as a preface to his recitation of “The Gift Outright,” Frost prophecied that the Kennedy administration would be “A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”
- Robert Frost. Manuscript copy to Robert Morrison of “The Gift Outright,” Christmas 1941.
- Frost wrote “The Gift Outright” in the mid-1930s, but didn’t publish it until after reading it for the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1941. This copy was written out as a gift to the eleven-year-old son of his friends and professional associates, Kay and Theodore Morrison.