How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter

How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter

by Jonathan N. Barron


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Robert Frost stood at the intersection of nineteenth-century romanticism and twentieth-century modernism and made both his own. Frost adapted the genteel values and techniques of nineteenth-century poetry, but Barron argues that it was his commitment to realism that gave him popular as well as scholarly appeal and created his enduring legacy. This highly researched consideration of Frost investigates early innovative poetry that was published in popular magazines from 1894 to 1915 and reveals a voice of dissent that anticipated “The New Poetry” – a voice that would come to dominate American poetry as few others have.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826220578
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 12/15/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jonathan N. Barron is director of the Robert Frost Society and edits its scholarly journal, The Robert Frost Review. He is also the author of Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, and is an associate professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

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How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter

By Jonathan N. Barron

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2015 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7351-2


The World That Made Robert Frost

The Genteels, Their Values, and Their Publications

ON A TYPICALLY COLD New Hampshire day, the young Robert Frost, miserable in his first year at Dartmouth, walked to the college library and picked up the Independent for November 17, 1892. On the first page he read a poem by Richard Hovey titled "Seaward: An Elegy on the Death of Thomas William Parsons." Did he pick up the magazine because someone told him that Hovey was a near contemporary, a graduate of Dartmouth's class of 1885? Could that someone have been the Dartmouth professor who had once taught Hovey? Or did Frost find that out later? Regardless, the poem had a powerful impact on his future as a poet. As Frost later said, "This experience gave me my very first revelation that a publication existed, anywhere in my native land, that was a vehicle for the publication of poetry."

Finding Hovey's poem on the front page of a national magazine meant that someone like Frost, a boy who had even gone to the same college, could make his thoughts widely known. That was the point, was it not? Wasn't literature, especially poetry, supposed to address the fundamental issues at stake at any given moment? For Frost, even in 1894, the answer to these rhetorical questions had to be yes. He was twenty years old and had spent his life immersed in genteel culture — a term that would, about a decade later, be made familiar by George Santayana, but that I mean to associate with a particular cultural elite. Made up of a specific cohort of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant families — a cohort that I will call the genteels — this cultural elite created what I take to be (following but modifying Santayana) a way of life, a system, an ideology that deeply shaped Robert Frost. Born in 1874 to William Prescott Frost and a Scottish immigrant, Belle Moodie Frost, Robert Frost belonged to family steeped in a New England Protestant tradition that went back to 1634, when the first Frost progenitor, Nicholas Frost, arrived in New Hampshire.

Who were the genteels that created the tradition that takes their name? In his study of the American urban social and political establishment, Frederic Cople Jaher writes that "those who exercise authority, accumulate wealth, and command respect may be called elites, upper classes, or aristocracies. Conventional usage designates as elite all groups that wield power or possess fortunes or high status." In the United States the initial Puritans soon gave way, beginning in the 1690s, to merchants and manufacturers from the same demographic group, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Between 1690 and Frost's birth, that social cohort, with family roots in New England, dominated the institutions of American power. As Puritan New England gave way to a more bourgeois Anglo-Saxon population, what I am calling the genteel social and cultural code became all the more entrenched. That code depends on the Calvinism that lies at the heart of Puritan heritage, though in many respects it departs from seventeenth-century Puritan theology and ideology. Making this precise point in his famous essay, "The Genteel Tradition," Santayana added with his typical wry cynicism, "Calvinism, essentially, asserts three things: that sin exists, that sin is punished, and that it is beautiful that sin should exist to be punished. ... To be a Calvinist philosophically is to feel a fierce pleasure in the existence of misery, especially of one's own, in that this misery seems to manifest the fact that the Absolute is irresponsible or infinite or holy." For all his sarcasm Santayana was serious in his claim that the genteel tradition reflected a belief in an unknowable, unfathomable God who will nonetheless ensure that sin will not triumph. To be a human, according to this mind-set, is to do the good work of Jesus in the world. That is, Calvinism begot an ideal of social duty predicated on a specifically Christian understanding of God, sin, grace, and redemption. With the Puritans this theological premise became fundamental to New England life — and after them it became fundamental to a set of genteel ideals. But what, then, is the connection between Calvinism and gentility?

Historians believe that, beginning in the 1690s, what had been an elite consisting of a unique Puritan establishment became, after a century of immigration, a new elite first of merchants and later of manufacturers. For all their differences from the initial Puritans, however, these more commercially minded elites nonetheless kept the essential Calvinist moral tenets that Santayana describes. Onto those tenets these new elites grafted gentility, a European aristocratic code associated with refinement.

According to Richard L. Bushman, gentility, a code developed in Renaissance Europe, was first adopted by the English aristocracy in the late seventeenth century and then mimicked by eighteenth-century American elites. Gentility governed "modes of speech, dress, body carriage, and manners" and gave "a new cast to the conduct and appearance of the American gentry," who developed what he calls a "vernacular gentility." Although Bushman finds that gentility came to all of Anglo America in the eighteenth century, in New England gentility developed a decidedly Calvinist habit of mind, or system, and this grafting of the Calvinist to the Renaissance ideal of refinement is what characterizes "the genteel tradition."

The genteel tradition, then, is an odd combination of European refinement on the one hand and Calvinist Puritan moral severity on the other. In 1911 Santayana summed up the tradition with a single image, "the colonial mansion." Comparing that mansion to the newly invented skyscraper, Santayana wrote, "The one is all aggressive enterprise, the other is all genteel tradition." According to Bushman, the colonial mansions were first built in America in the 1720s. The importation of gentility that had begun in the 1690s bore its first tangible fruit, Bushman suggests, in such everyday items as tea services and forks. By the 1720s, however, members of the elite were attempting to distinguish themselves from other groups by constructing what we now recognize as colonial mansions. Today these homes are associated with Georgian style, but Bushman explains that, compared to their predecessors, "no listing of architectural details does justice to the contrasting experience in entering the two houses. Seventeenth-century houses feel low, closed, shadowy; the decoration is invariably simple and severe. The eighteenth-century houses, even those in the middle range, because of their larger windows and higher ceilings, seem open and light." Bushman's larger point — an extension of Santayana's — is that by the 1720s, "the ideal of a cultivated and refined inward life" had become fundamental to the American elite and had begun to shape American cultural institutions, from habitations and household decor to clothing and social interaction.

As Bushman reminds us, "Gentility was worldly not godly, it was hierarchical not egalitarian, and it favored leisure and consumption over work and thrift." In contrast Calvinism was decidedly godly and egalitarian, and it valued above all both work and thrift. But in New England, as it happened, an entire society had found a way to mix the two.

By the 1880s genteel families of Anglo-Saxon Protestants controlled the dominant institutions not only of New England life but also of American national life. In the long period from the American Revolution through the Civil War, as the historian Howard Mumford Jones argues, families that could trace their roots to the New England elite "controlled most of the professions [doctors, lawyers, college professors in all disciplines], the world of finance, real estate, education ... the public school systems, and the arts." And, Jaher notes, the elite exercised profound cultural influence: "When commercial elites evolved into upper classes, the dynastic principle and family loyalty embraced the entire range of group functions. Tribal and kinship ties influenced public office holding, preparatory and college entry, admission to social clubs, militia units, and charity and cultural societies." In this shaping function we find the roots of the genteel tradition, a cultural system that originated among the genteels themselves but subsequently took on a life of its own: it became a way of life, not just for the New England Protestant elite that I have been describing but for mainstream Americans more generally.

That the genteel tradition can be understood as a way of life — or a code, a system — suggests that it has an elusive character. This elusiveness makes it prone to assumptions and misinterpretation. Even Santayana assumed an easy familiarity with the notion of gentility rather than define its parameters for his readers. Much later the historian T. J. Jackson Lears argued that "by the 1880s, whether sanctioned by secular or religious authority, an internalized ethic of self-control had become the unquestioned norm for the middle and upper classes as well as for much of the rest of society." It is here that New England's Calvinist heritage exerted its decisive influence. For while elites who shared similar Anglo-Saxon roots with those in New England dominated Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago (among other cities), they also gave far more license to European ideas of gentility than did their New England cousins. In New England alone the elite insisted on what the literary historian Andrew Lawson refers to as "all that is homely, provincial and modest, as opposed to the sophisticated, pretentious, and superficial." That is, one exhibited one's modesty in order to prove that one had self-control over one's depraved inner nature (the Calvinist element).

In what follows I isolate three particular characteristics of the genteel tradition: virtue, character, and duty. By the 1880s these three ideals had become associated with American success generally and not just with New England. American life and culture increasingly became defined as comprising both refinement and modesty, virtue and conspicuous consumption. The means by which a particular set of values emerging from one region — indeed one group in that region — became associated with American culture more generally has generated more than a century of historical inquiry. For my purposes it is enough to know that, while there was little reason to predict that American culture — especially as reflected in the public sphere's books, magazines, newspapers, and central institutions — would become associated with New England's distinctive brand of gentility, it nonetheless was.

In the later nineteenth century, changing demographics began to put pressure on the genteel tradition, and the tradition would eventually lose its prominent place. In the 1880s, for example, after forty years of Irish, predominantly Catholic, immigration and newer immigration from Ashkenazi Jews and Italian Catholics to New England, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants no longer constituted the overwhelming majority population. By then they had been joined by nearly a million foreign-born residents, and some demographers estimate that another two million were first-generation Americans. In fact, in the 1880s, when the young Robert Frost came to Massachusetts with his family, Boston was already dominated by Irish Catholics: "The foreign-born and their children comprised three-fifths of the 362,839 populace [of Boston]." In 1885 Boston elected an Irish Catholic mayor, Hugh O'Brien. Nor was Boston unique. Similar demographics applied as well to other New England towns — including the mill town of Lawrence, where the Frost family had settled in 1850.

Nor were demographics the only change to what had long been a predominantly village culture of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Even before the Civil War the United States had seen a persistent internal migration from village and farm to newly industrialized cities. In fact, Frost's own grandfather had been part of just such a migration when he left rural Kingston, New Hampshire, for the new mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1850. Meanwhile, others had decided that New England itself, whether town or city, had little to offer; a steady migration out of the region and to the American West continued the overall depopulation.

Despite all these demographic changes, however, middle-class American life was still broadly associated with the genteel tradition's weird mix of Calvinism and courtier culture–refinement. In fact, just as generations of New Englanders since the late seventeenth century had adopted that genteel tradition as their heritage so, too, by the 1880s did many of the newly arrived immigrants and first-generation Americans. But why and how did this adoption occur? Bushman asserts that "gentility bestowed concrete social power on its practitioners." I agree with that claim, but I press it a bit further in order to understand how the power of gentility came to pass. My answer concerns the publications over which the genteels had long exerted complete control.

Even amid the demographic changes of the 1880s, the genteels still controlled most nationally distributed magazines. Further they still dominated the book trade through such publishers as George Brett (Macmillan), Frank Scott (the Century), Charles Scribner, and Henry Holt — who would become Robert Frost's publisher. Editors like Horace Scudder of Houghton, Mifflin and Edward Burlingame at Scribner's also wielded powerful influence on the public sphere. It took little effort to use their power to promote genteel values and to insist that the genteel tradition was the foundation of American civilization itself. As the historian Ronald Zboray puts it, "All the institutions promoting literacy operated under a system of values maintaining that knowledge must be useful first and entertaining second or not at all." Using the publications they controlled, in the 1880s the genteels pushed back against a rampant secularism and materialism to promote in their place virtue, character, and duty. In an era when the traditional bastions of genteel tradition, the church and the economic marketplace, had begun to fall under nongenteel influences, the genteels used their publications to make a case for their way of life as the American way of life.

In effect, they argued that the Calvinist element peculiar to New England's genteel tradition was also the American tradition that defined American political, economic, and cultural institutions. They made this claim to counter a rival claim that had appeared by the 1880s. That claim came from the "other America," people who did not belong to the genteel milieu I have been describing. New York and Boston symbolically represent the distinction of this other America from the genteels. New York stood for a mostly European concept of gentility almost bereft of Calvinism, while Boston seemingly had made Calvin an honorary saint. To be less symbolic and more concrete, in the waning years of the nineteenth century a new elite had come to social, economic, and political power within the other America. It did not depend on merchants or manufacturers, as did the genteels, but rather on a new economy of massive corporate industry and finance. This group belonged to a new social cohort of industrial capitalists, barons of finance, department store titans, and other economic industrial magnates. Associated with New York, where their industry was located, and where the most powerful American stock exchange was also located, they had little in common ethnically, religiously, or culturally with the genteels. More to the point, they rejected the genteel tradition. As one historian puts it, "After 1880, money was entering into the American economy and culture in a way it had never done before." Money more than goods produced now held a new "position of eminence in the lives of Americans." As a result "pecuniary values (or market values) would constitute for many people the base measure for all other values." Money, not real property and objects that bespoke genteel values, began to exert a new influence, challenging the Calvinist refinement of the New England genteels. By the 1880s, in short, a ruthless competitive marketplace familiar to all students of the Gilded Age increasingly made a mockery of the genteel tradition: "The older commercial families of the seaboard cities were thrust into the background by new industrial, financial, and utilities magnates, many of them from cities of the interior, who did not share the cultural interests of the older mercantile elite." Howard Mumford Jones renders this conflict well: "The doctrine that the gentleman does not soil his hand with retail trade is old, just as the parvenu is a social type inciting ridicule as far back as Horace and Aristophanes." By the 1880s the difference in American life, however, was that the gentlemen of this equation perceived themselves as morally superior to their parvenu enemies and blasted them with attacks reminiscent of the most severe Puritan jeremiads against depraved heathens. In fact, Oliver Wendell Holmes, recognizing the genteels' sense of themselves as akin to the highest caste in India, went so far as to dub his crowd of white Anglo-Saxon New England Protestants the "Boston Brahmins."


Excerpted from How Robert Frost Made Realism Matter by Jonathan N. Barron. Copyright © 2015 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One The World That Made Robert Frost The Genteels, Their Values, and Their Publications,
Chapter Two Realism and Genteel Publishing,
Chapter Three An Intellectual Finds His Way Robert Frost Goes to School,
Chapter Four Robert Frost, Realism, Poetry, and American Publishing of the 1890s "My Butterfly: An Elegy," "The Birds Do Thus",
Chapter Five Discovering Realism: Frost, 1897–99,
Chapter Six Robert Frost's Poetry of Ideas, 1906–8 "Trial by Existence," "The Lost Faith," "A Line-Storm Song," and "Across the Atlantic",
Chapter Seven Robert Frost's New Poetic Realism, 1909–10 "Into Mine Own," "The Flower Boat",
Chapter Eight Coming into His Own Robert Frost, 1910–12: "Reluctance",
Chapter Nine Robert Frost in England: A Boy's Will,
Chapter Ten Robert Frost: Public Poet at Last "The Death of the Hired Man",
Chapter Eleven Inventing a New Poetry "A Hundred Collars," "The Fear",
Chapter Twelve Robert Frost, a Realist in the Magazines of Modernism "The Housekeeper" and "The Code",
Chapter Thirteen Poet of the New American Poetry North of Boston, "Putting in the Seed",
Chapter Fourteen The American Magazines of 1915 and the Making of Robert Frost,

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