Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Robert Frost and Friends*


Not very long after Robert Frost died in 1963, a friend of mine suggested to an editor at Harper's to approach me about writing some recollections of my friendship with the poet. I was very flattered and thought about it seriously, perhaps as a kind of expiation, as his death was a momentous loss for me; the death of my friend, my mentor, a companion, my informal teacher and that of the one person to whom I could confide anything. At the time, I knew that I could not write about him. It was simply too personal, would be too anecdotal, and besides that, it was a friendship that was essentially non-literary, and Frost was, above all else, a literary man.

I have those same reservations in this essay, reinforced by time and a recent experience. Jeffrey Meyers came to see me last winter 'to talk about Frost.'[1] After we had talked for several hours and he and his wife had left, I realized that I really had not been at all helpful to him. I knew no special facts, had no extraordinary literary insights, and had no gossip that I was willing to share. In short, I had wasted his time and I hope that I do not waste yours.

Robert was a man of essential friendships. By that I mean that he was not casual in his caring (or not caring) for specific persons. His friendships were opinionated. He knew what and why he thought about individuals and was intensely loyal to his particular feelings; whether it was toward the guard who always welcomed him, and whom he warmly greeted in return, at the YMHA in New York, or whether it was Joe Blumenthal, his long-time friend and printer. Each person fitted into his world in a specific way. I think that in part explains why he went, time and again over the years, to certain colleges and places such as Agnes Scott outside Atlanta, the New School in New York, or Chapel Hill, or Michigan. In many of the places where he spoke there was one special person who was a friend. And, in recollection, I really believe that Frost needed his friends and used them in a very personal way. And by that I don't mean for purposes of flattery or ego support, though they may have been by-products. He thrived on one-to-one encounters, especially when no holds were barred and opinions could be freely exchanged. I could see ideas, begun in personal conversations, eventually make their way into his asides at readings. He'd obviously been mulling the ideas over.

Much to my surprise, in the autumn of 1951, when I was a freshman at Amherst College, I was invited midweek to the President's House for dinner. I did not know the President, Charles Cole, nor he me. Anyway, I was invited and being the callow and innocent lad that I was I readily accepted. It was, after all, an invitation from the President, and that was almost certainly a command, and it was the opportunity to have a good meal in pleasant surroundings. As I recall the event, there were about ten people present, faculty with wives and another student or two, with Robert Frost as the guest of honor. At that time in Robert's life, he was re-associated with Amherst as the Simpson Lecturer in Literature and spent about a month or six weeks in the spring and autumn based in Amherst. I certainly knew who Robert Frost was, and probably could recite a few lines from 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,' but no more. It was a pleasant evening and Robert was in great form, holding forth from his perch on the sofa.

Time passed, gradually people began to leave, but not Robert and not I. As it turned out, Charles Cole asked me if I would walk with Robert back to the 'Jeff,' the Lord Jeffery Inn where he always stayed, and always in the same room at the end of the lower hall. It had a fine view of the garden, was quiet, and had an exit at the end of the corridor that would allow him to go out without having to go through the lobby. Walk we did! When we got to the Jeff, he was not at all ready to call it quits and we walked around Amherst until nearly two in the morning. When we got back to the Jeff, he said something like, 'Why don't you come around and see me tomorrow morning around 10 o'clock?' I can well remember my reaction to all of this. It was not one of overwhelming awe, but more of what a fun evening and how much I had enjoyed just being with this nice man, important poet notwithstanding.

Before I went to see Robert the following morning, I took myself to the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop to buy a copy of the Complete Poems to ask him to sign for me.[2] The date was 25 October 1951, so inscribed in my worn, rebound book. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of my interest in collecting books nor that it was the beginning of a friendship that would be the most important influence in my life.

As a freshman, I had to take a course called English 1-2. As luck would have it, my instructor was Newton McKeon, who was in the English Department as well as being College Librarian. Newt, as I came to know him, was an Amherst graduate, quiet, unassuming but learned and forceful, and was also interested in the book per se as well as it contents. After class one day, soon after meeting Frost, I relayed my enthusiasm for my chance encounter, my morning with the poet, and my concern as to how to proceed or not. He was totally supportive and encouraged me to pursue what seemed to be a mutually enjoyable meeting. I should and must add that my goals at Amherst were to be centered primarily in the Biology Department, having spent the two summers preceding Amherst at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Despite my leanings toward biology, I was an omnivorous reader and almost nothing did not excite my curiosity. I never had any ambition to write creatively.

Talking about poetry, poets, literature, politics, science, or religion with Robert added a whole new dimension to my life. I think that I, for the first time in my life, started to think about things in depth and with consequence. If Amherst opened the door, Robert gave me the confidence to walk through it without fright or hesitation. Newt McKeon, pretty much at the same time, took me in hand and shared his enthusiasm for fine printing, notably the Cummington Press, the lovely limited editions of Frost, printers as artists, and a book as a work of art in and of itself. It was an extraordinarily exciting time for me, and to be honest, it has never faltered.

Since I did not keep a journal at Amherst, the four years from 1951 to 1955 meld into a set of impressions and memories. The friendship with Robert flourished and became more and more important. I can only assume that it was mutual by one memorable act on his part that moved me greatly. In the spring of 1954, he went off to Cambridge for the weekend and when he returned to Amherst he had a print of one of the Clara Sipprell photographs glued to a card and written beneath, 'Robert Frost to his friend Jack Hagstrom April 26, 1954.'

Very much encouraged by Newt McKeon, I began to collect Frost material in earnest; books, magazine appearances, broadsides, programs, nothing was too small or insignificant. And, as probably the youngest of the serious Frost collectors at the time, I was encouraged, aided, and abetted by people who had been at it for decades. Early on, Robert put in a word on my behalf with Charles R. Green, who was the Librarian at The Jones Library in the town of Amherst. Robert always used to say that Charles was his first collector and indeed I am sure he was. Charles, born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, was a small man of stature, quiet, strong, and a very private piece of New England granite. He was proud and cautious and almost secretive about the Frost collection he was amassing at The Jones Library. Charles and Shubrick Clymer published a very good bibliography of Frost's work in 1936.[3] Thinking about it, that was quite an honor for Frost at the time in that few bibliographies of a writer's work were published when they were still actively writing.

With Robert's encouragement I went to see Mr. Green and was politely but not terribly enthusiastically received. He showed me what turned out to be the 'high spots' of The Jones collection. Thinking that I would go away satisfied and feeling that he had fulfilled his obligation to the poet, I left only more resolved to get to know Charles Green better and see more. After a couple of more 'goes' at Charles and bringing him some duplicate bits of ephemera, he steadily thawed and, with time, we became good and loyal friends, exchanging tips about new Frost 'finds' until he retired in, I think, 1964. Much too little recognition has been given to Charles Green and his devotion to Frost. There was a curious relationship between Newt McKeon, representing the College, and Charles Green, representing the Town. No wonder, really; both were proud New Englanders with different commitments and different constituencies. I don't believe that there was any sense of mistrust or envy, just a real sense of territory. I became sort of an R. F. gossip-go-between, but they rarely met and never talked Frost collecting.

In what I think was about 1954, Robert agreed to a biography by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant. She had written an article for The New Republic titled 'Robert Frost, a Good Greek Out of New England' that was published in 1925 and collected in her book Fire Under the Andes in 1927.[4] Frost admired this article and the collected essays. During one of his visits to Amherst, he told me about the proposed biography and asked if I would 'smooth the way' for Miss Sergeant with Charles Green, i.e., get him to help her. I was only too pleased to be asked to be of assistance but not at all certain that I could be useful, Charles Green being who he was and Elsie being a) a woman and b) wonderfully determined and assured. It worked. Charles was graciously welcoming and extraordinarily helpful in every way until her book Robert Frost: the Trial by Existence was published in 1960.[5]

Naive as I was, little did I realize that I was inadvertently putting myself in the middle of what became an unpleasant experience that never really changed. I knew of Larry Thompson because of his 1942 book Fire and Ice about Frost, but I am sure that I did not know that he was to be Frost's official biographer.[6] As time went on, first in Amherst, later in New York, usually at the Cosmopolitan Club, and at her lovely little stone house right on the bank of the Hudson in Piermont, New York, Elizabeth and I became fast friends. As she pursued her work on the biography, contacting and engaging more and more of Frost's friends and scholars, she came closer and closer to Larry's bone. It was only much later, discussing this with Ann and Joe Blumenthal, who also became very good friends with Elsie, that we realized that we had inadvertently cast our lot with Elsie and thereby against Larry. Her biography, now unfortunately totally eclipsed by Larry's three-volume work,[7] has enormous sensitivity and deals with the darker, awesome nature of Frost's mind but does not celebrate the poet's weaknesses or failures.

In retrospect, I think that Elizabeth Sergeant was the first modern-day woman whom I came to know well. For me, she has always epitomized the elegance, the professionalism, the self-confidence, and the urbanity that goes along with a learned woman. It is not surprising that she and her sister, Katherine Sergeant White, Mrs. E. B. White, enjoyed an active sibling rivalry until Elsie died. She was a small lady and a great deal more determined than her omnipresent silk neck scarf let on.

I had a car at Amherst and, during his spring and autumn visits, Robert would use Amherst as home base for some readings in New England. Kay Morrison, his secretary, would ask me to drive him to this or that reading. I think we made six or seven such excursions, to say nothing of the backs and forths to Cambridge. Three outings are memorable for very different reasons. We had gone to Keene, New Hampshire, where Robert was giving a reading at the local state college. For his reading, various bits of ephemera had been laid out on a hall table. I took a set for myself and, catching this, Robert said something to the effect of, 'Pick up some extras so Mrs. Cohn can hand them out.' He was, of course, referring to Margie Cohn, the formidable proprietress of The House of Books, Ltd. This brings to mind a question that Jeffrey Meyers posed to me. He had the impression that Frost really detested collectors. Quite the contrary, I believe that Robert was honestly flattered by the attention, and, as for me, went out of his way to be helpful to collectors and to introduce one collector to another. One only needs to think of his efforts to see to it that complete sets of the Christmas card imprints were sent, usually with an inscription, to collectors whom he liked.[8] And, as we all know, he certainly was willing to sign and inscribe books for people. Some of these inscriptions, playful and otherwise, provide delightful insights into the terms of the friendship.

On another occasion, on a warm Sunday morning returning from where I can't recall, we went past a Congregational Church with its front doors open to the world. Robert suggested we stop, go in, and sit in the back pew for a few minutes. We did, stayed for about fifteen minutes, then crept out and went on our way. His only comment was, 'Nice, wasn't it?'

Yet another time, having driven from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Cambridge in October 1954, we deposited our things at 35 Brewster Street, washed up, and went on to the Commander Hotel, just around the corner, for some supper. On returning to Brewster Street, he took a book off the shelf in the front sitting room and said, 'You should have this.' It was the copy of Francis Thompson's Poems to which Robert made frequent reference over the years in his readings and lectures.[9]

My own Frost collecting was in no way unique apart from one aspect. From the beginning I suppose that I always had Amherst in mind as the ultimate home for the collection. As a result of this and pretty much knowing what Amherst had already and not having much cash I was rather selective when it came to buying Frost books. I tried to avoid the obvious high spots, e.g., I never owned a copy of the bronze cloth first impression of A Boy's Will.10 I concentrated more on variant issues of the books and association copies. I was omnivorous when it came to magazine appearances and ephemera. Clymer and Green was my bible, even though the bibliography only went through 1936. With my bent toward completeness and a serious beginning interest in bibliography, I was able to ferret out first magazine and book appearances, translations, and separate printings. For some unknown reason, perhaps because of sheer doggedness, I became a sort of clearing house for Frost appearances in items other than his own books. At that time, there was a unique camaraderie amongst Frost collectors and sharing 'finds' was a given. I've known no other similar instance in collecting modern authors when such cooperation existed. When Robert was alive, he was of enormous help, and Alfred Edwards, president of Henry Holt and Company and Frost's literary executor, was ever generous, ever friendly, and ever helpful, responding to the most petty of inquiries.

In 1963 when Amherst dedicated a new Robert Frost Library and Robert had died,I decided that their small but choice collection needed to be enhanced and gave my collection to the College. I have tried to add to it in a modest way since then.

Very early, as I listened to one of Frost's readings after another, I was taken by his asides, his grace notes that he would intersperse between the poems that he read. They very much reflected not only his thoughts about the individual poems, but also what were his own current personal concerns, and opinions on anything from politics to religion to science. I discussed the idea of trying to collect recordings of his readings, current and past, with Robert, Alfred Edwards, and Newt McKeon. All were enthusiastic. Robert wrote an endorsement for me that was dated 23 October 1959:

Dear Jack Hagstrom,
This is to give you the authority to collect for me and for
Amherst College any tape recordings and phonograph
records you can of my talks and recitations. Someday a letter
more personal than this but no more friendly.

The earliest non-commercial recording found was on wire and as I recall it was of a commencement address that Robert gave at Amherst in 1948. Nowadays, we take any and all recordings for granted, but I can tell you that in the 1960s it was not easy to find a machine that would play a wire recording so that it could be re-recorded on to the [now obsolete] tape. The undertaking was enormously successful and in the end I was able to acquire over 150 separate recordings. Professor John Ridland of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has already published one article based on these recordings and more are likely to come.[11] They still are a treasure of pure, unmined Frost.

After leaving Amherst in 1955 and moving to New York City to go to medical school at Cornell, our friendship continued to grow. When in New York, Robert usually stayed at the Westbury Hotel at Madison Avenue and 69th Street. I had (and still have) a small walk-up tenement apartment at 69th Street and First Avenue. Many were the occasions when I would pick him up for a reading or reception and afterwards take him home to the Westbury. There were several recurring themes for evenings in New York. Often after a reading, Ann and Joe Blumenthal would invite people to their flat on West 21st Street for a drink. I would usually bring Robert down in a cab and, before greeting anybody, he would go into the kitchen where Ann had a soft boiled egg and some warm milk waiting. They had their own ritual to which others were not invited. These gatherings were great fun, totally informal, and one never knew who would be there. Regulars included Fred Adams, Fred Melcher, sometimes Larry Thompson, more often Elsie Sergeant. Marianne Moore came a couple of times and an old poet friend of Robert's turned up one night, John Cournos. Frost and I were usually the last to leave and 'cab it' back to the Westbury, then only to walk back and forth up and down 69th Street until usually I begged off to go to sleep. I will never forget how generous Robert always was in tipping cab drivers. He was so generous, in fact, that one year this particular deduction on his tax return was queried by the IRS. Kay called me and asked if I would be willing to vouch for his excessive generosity which, of course, I did and ultimately the deduction was allowed.

Kay, in her book Robert Frost ;a Pictorial Chronicle, tells part of the story of our last rendezvous in New York:

On Thursday, the twenty-ninth [of November 1962], I traveled with him to New York, where he was to speak at a benefit dinner for the National Cultural Center, which had its headquarters in Washington. Signs that all was not well with him appeared during this New York journey. As we rode the escalator to the upper level in Grand Central Station, where we were to be met by a former Amherst student who had become a doctor, Robert turned to me as I stood one step below him and said: 'Brace yourself. I feel faint.' But he regained his balance, and when we reached the top he greeted his friend as if nothing had occurred to disturb him. They carried on a conversation that seemed to have been only briefly interrupted since their earlier years at Amherst. I alerted the doctor to Robert's possibly unstable condition, asked him to keep watch in case his services might be called for, and then perhaps to join Robert for dinner at the Carlyle Hotel. Meanwhile I went to the Cosmopolitan Club and waited by the telephone. An hour or so later I received a call reporting that although Robert seemed tired and not at his best, it would be unnecessary and unkind to cancel his talk, to which so many had looked forward.[12]

We did go to the Carlyle, he washed up, got into a black tie somewhat slowly and we had a light supper. He said little, was apprehensive, and said that we had to talk after his talk. He suggested that at a certain agreed hour after the formal ceremony I appear and collect him. When I did appear, he said to, I think it was Adlai Stevenson who was seated next to him on the couch, 'There's my doctor, I have to go.' We went back to the Carlyle, he got out of his tuxedo, and we talked for a long time. He was very concerned about his fears of ill health and the impending meeting with his real doctors the following Monday. We made kind of a deal that seemed to put his mind at ease. I said that I would go up to Boston for his talk at the Ford Hall Forum on Sunday, 2 December, my birthday, if it would be of some reassurance. Apparently it was as the mood of the evening changed dramatically and when we talked the next morning he was reassuring and said he felt much better. I did go up to the talk and, because the hall was jammed, I had a seat on the stage. At one point in the reading, in an aside, he made a reference to not feeling 100% but dismissed by saying something to the effect of, 'Not to worry, my doctor is here.' The rest is history; he very reluctantly went to the hospital quite a sick man.

Subsequent to the all-important friendship with Frost himself, the many and lasting friendships with such a wide variety of people have had a continuing influence on my life. Booksellers were not only extraordinarily helpful and knowledgeable but also became good friends, notably John Kohn at the Seven Gables Bookshop on West 46th Street, Margie Cohn at the House of Books, Ltd., and the incredible I. R. (Ike) Brussel, who was really the last of a breed of professional book scouts. We would meet at the 57th Street Automat on Saturday mornings for coffee. He would always show up with a stack of the most unusual items, mostly previously unrecognized as having a Frost connection. Fellow collectors shared duplicates and knowledge and one of the persons to whom I became the closest was Professor John Holmes of Tufts University. It was for John Holmes's book Address to the Living that Robert wrote what I think is his only dust jacket blurb in 1937.[13] The list of collector/friends is long and includes Clifton Waller Barrett, Howard Schmitt, H. Bacon Collamore, Corinne Tennyson Davids, and last but not least Roy Thornton, who owned Twilight, Robert's first book of which only one copy (of two) survived.[14] Roy and I had a special friendship and when he was going to sell his collection that he housed in a Chicago office tower, both Margie Cohn and John Kohn wanted to buy it, Margie for the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and John for Waller Barrett. Roy called me and asked me what I would do. I said that I very much favored John Kohn because I knew Waller and admired his knowledge of the books he was collecting. Frost also prevailed on Roy in favor of Barrett. It is ironic in that Waller and I later were Margie's proposer and seconder for her membership in the Grolier Club when they finally saw fit to admit women. Feisty though she was, she was a model member. I once overheard her admonish a fellow dealer not to discuss business in the Club. On the list could go with librarian friends such as Bill Jackson at the Houghton, Fred Adams at the Morgan, Edna Hanley Byers at Agnes Scott, to say nothing of Newt McKeon, Charles Green, and Dartmouth's own Edward Lathem.

While I was still at Amherst, Robert said there was a very old man in Boston whom I should meet. Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, then in his late eighties, had been the editor of the Youth's Companion when it published Frost's poems 'The Flower Boat,' 'October,' and 'Reluctance' in 1909 and 1912.[15] And meet we did and again we had fun. Mark Howe was graduated from Harvard in the Class of 1887. We visited in his Louisburg Square house regularly, corresponded regularly, and, in 1957, when I was about to go abroad, I wrote to tell him so and that he would not be hearing from me quite so often. To make a long story short and after six or eight letters, he asked me if I would look up a Harvard classmate of his in Florence and pass on his good wishes. As I was about to check into the Baglioni Palace Hotel in Florence, the concierge handed me a note from Nicki Mariani asking me to call her upon arrival. I did and she suggested that, if I would like to, I should stay in the Fiesole hills as it would be much cooler at I Tatti. A week with Bernard Berenson is one that I shall never forget.

And on it went, and still goes on, hence our gathering this evening to talk about an extraordinary man of letters who was also my great friend.


* This essay is a revised version of a talk presented to the Friends of the Library on 23 September 1995.

[1] Jeffrey Meyers, currently engaged in a biography of Robert Frost, is the author of several biographies of twentieth-century American literary figures.

[2] Robert Frost, Complete Poems (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1949).

[3] Robert Frost, A Bibliography, by W. B. Shubrick Clymer and Charles R. Green; forward by David Lambuth, Publication No. 3 (Amherst: The Jones Library, Inc., 1937).

[4] Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, 'Robert Frost, a Good Greek Out of New England,' The New Republic44:565 (30 September 1925), 144-148; and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Fire Under the Andes, a Group of North American Portraits, with Camera Portraits by E. O. Hoppe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927).

[5] Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960).

[6] Lawrance Thompson, Fire and Ice, the Art and Thought of Robert Frost (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1942).

[7] Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966); Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970); Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976). The latter volume was completed by R. H. Winnick after Thompson's death.

[8] See Joan St. C. Crane, comp., Robert Frost: A Descriptive Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, University of Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Associates of the University of Virginia Library, 1974), 108-144, for the best description of the various Christmas cards.

[9] Francis Thompson, Poems (London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, and Boston: Copeland & Day, 1893). Editor's note: The volume was subsequently presented to Amherst College by Dr. Hagstrom with the following note laid in: 'Robert gave this book to me at 35, Brewster Street on October 14, 1954, after coming to Cambridge from Manchester, N.H.--He said that this is the copy which he walked to Boston to buy when he was living in Lawrence, Mass.'

10 Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (London: David Nutt, 1913). See Crane, Robert Frost, 5-14, for a bibliographical description of the several issues of this volume.

[11] John Ridland, 'Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Bad Man,' Southwest Review 71:3 (Spring, 1986), 222-242.

12 Kathleen Morrison, Robert Frost; a Pictorial Chronicle (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1974), 121.

[13] John Holmes, Address to the Living (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1937).

[14] See Crane, Robert Frost, 3-5, for a discussion of the publication of Twilight.

[15] 'The Flower-Boat,' Youth's Companion 83:20 (20 May 1909), 248; 'October,' Youth's Companion 86:40 (3 October 1912), 512; and 'Reluctance,' Youth's Companion 86:45 (7 November 1912), 612.