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Once By the Pacific
Europe might sink and the wave of her sinking sweep
And spend itself on our shore and we would not weep
Our cities would not even turn in their sleep.
Our faces are not that way or should not be
Our future is in the West on the other Sea
-- Frost, Unpublished Fragment, 1892
"I know San Francisco like my own face," Robert Frost once told an audience in that city, late in his life. "It's where I came from, the first place I really knew. You always know where you come from, don't you?"
Because Frost is so intimately associated with rural New England, one tends to forget that the first landscape printed on his imagination was both urban and Californian. That he came to appreciate, and to see in the imaginative way a poet must see, the imagery of Vermont and New Hampshire has something to do with the anomaly of coming late to it. "It's as though he were dropped into the countryside north of Boston from outer space, and remained perpetually stunned by what he saw," Robert Penn Warren observed. "I don't think you can overemphasize that aspect of Frost. A native takes, or may take, a place for granted; if you have to earn your citizenship, your locality, it requires a special focus."
Frost certainly had that intensity of focus. The lush valleys and rocky
mountains of northern New England, with their dry stone walls meandering through dense
second-growth forests, their cellar holes and abandoned barns, acquire an almost
hallucinatory clarity in his poems. He was a poet who took nothing for granted, who could cast his thoughts upon the objects around him, as Emerson -- always a central figure in Frost's imagination -- urged poets to do.
And yet the urban surroundings of Frost's earliest years affected him permanently. "My father was a great walker," Frost said, recalling that he had hiked the streets of San Francisco countless times during the first decade of his life. "I used to trail him everywhere, in the way a boy does." And it was quite a city, as Rudyard Kipling noted on a brief visit there in the 1880s: "San Francisco is a mad city," he wrote, "inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.... Recklessness is in the air. I can't explain where it comes from, but there it is. The roaring winds off the Pacific make you drunk to begin with. The aggressive luxury on all sides helps out the intoxication, and you spin forever 'down the ringing grooves of change,' as long as the money lasts."
Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874, in a small apartment on Washington Street -- one of many similar, second-rate dwellings that the Frost family would occupy during their anxious decade in California. According to family legend, the poet's brash, talented father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., warned the doctor who delivered his
son that he would shoot him if anything went wrong. This was no idle threat. Will Frost
was well known among his colleagues on the Daily Evening Bulletin (and, later, on the
Daily Evening Post) as a slightly mad easterner who packed a Colt pistol in emulation of the Westerners around him. The pioneer mentality, with its wildness and bravura, suited him just fine.
Frost would occasionally accompany his father to the ramshackle offices of the Post. His father, who eventually became city editor, then business manager, of the paper, worked at a large oak desk piled high with books and papers. Bullets rolled around in the center drawer, where he kept his pistol during the day. There was a jar on the desk filled with pickled bull's testicles -- a suggestion to all comers that Will Frost was not someone they should treat lightly. Loose tobacco, for chewing, was kept in a tin in a lower left-hand drawer, and a brass spittoon was located behind the editor's chair. A small engraving of Robert E. Lee was propped on the desk, as if to symbolize Will Frost's independent nature. Indeed, he had been an aggressively free spirit throughout his life -- a character trait that he passed on to his son. His own father, who managed a mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, had tried his best to discipline the boy, but it never took. During the Civil War, Will ran away to fight under General Lee, his hero (and after whom he named his son), although he got only as far as Philadelphia before the police found him and packed him home to his angry parents.
Will's father had hoped his son might get into West Point, thinking that a military setting would be appropriate for a young man of Will's tendencies, but the boy was not admitted. He did, however, get into Harvard, and he found the freedom of college life exhilarating. In those days, education took second place to play on most campuses,
and Will Frost played hard; he gambled, drank heavily, and visited brothels in Boston,
while still managing to do well enough in his studies to graduate with honors in 1872. His goal was to enter politics after a period in journalism, and in preparation he had
spent his senior year working part-time for the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette. The idea of trying his hand at more literary work also attracted him, though his lack of self-discipline would foil him here, as elsewhere.
The puritanical mores of New England appalled him, and his relationship with his parents was, at best, strained. He hoped to move to the West Coast in due course, following in the adventurous footsteps of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Ambrose Bierce -- each of whom had recently found San Francisco a good place for a young man with literary ambitions. But Will needed money for the transcontinental journey, so he took a job as principal of Lewistown Academy, a private school in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, with the intention of quitting after one year.
He was temperamentally ill-suited for such a job, but he tried to give it his best. Only twenty-two, with lank dark hair, sideburns, and a flowing mustache, he was described by the school yearbook as "dashing and energetic." That fall term he met a young teacher (the only other teacher at this small school) who agreed to give him lessons in stenography -- a skill he rightly guessed would come in handy when he turned
his hand to journalism. Six years his senior, this teacher was Belle (Isabelle) Moodie, a pretty, ethereal woman born in Leith, near Edinburgh, on the North Sea; indeed, throughout her life she retained the slight rustle of a Scottish accent.
Her father, Thomas Moodie, was drowned at sea when she was eight; her mother, Mary, shipped Belle off at the age of eleven to a wealthy uncle and aunt in Ohio -- not a peculiar thing to have done in those days, when the New World beckoned to so many immigrants. Still, the rumor that Belle had been the child of an illegitimate relationship would persist in the Frost family.
At first, certain obvious differences between Isabelle and Will got in the way of their courtship. She was by nature a religious person, attracted to the mystical sides of Christianity, whereas Will was a rationalist with little taste for revealed religion. He was impetuous, reckless, and willful; she was demure, hesitant, and
cautious. Nevertheless, the young couple found themselves growing close: to a degree, both were mavericks, and they shared an interest in literature and ideas. In a note to her written in February, he put his feelings on paper:
It is now five months since I shook hands with you on your arrival here. To say that I liked you at the very outset of our acquaintance would be superfluous, -- for who could do otherwise? Yes, I liked you. That was all. I have always thought that that was the only feeling I could have towards any woman. And I little dreamed that this sentiment, -- if sentiment it can be called, -- was to be supplanted by a passion whose hold upon me, oh! how dear a hold! has now for some time been stronger than any other tie that connects me with the world, and which makes my heart beat faster, faster, faster, as I write these lines.
Belle had already turned down a proposal from a Presbyterian clergyman some years before, feeling herself unworthy of him (perhaps because of the nature of her parents' relationship). She told Will firmly that she would never marry him, nor anyone else. Her life would be dedicated to teaching, which was not unusual for young women in the nineteenth century. But Will's persistence impressed her, and in January she accepted his offer of marriage; the ceremony itself took place only two months later, on March 18, 1873. In early June, when the school year ended, they both said farewell to Lewistown Academy forever.
They traveled together by coach and train to Columbus, Ohio, where they stayed with Belle's uncle and aunt, who seemed quite pleased with Belle's choice of a Harvard man. The plan was for her to remain there, with her family, while he made his way to San Francisco. It was a scouting mission of sorts. He would look over the terrain, find an apartment, and try to secure an acceptable post on a newspaper.
Will arrived in Oakland in midsummer, then took the ferry across San Francisco Bay to his new home. He found a room in a boardinghouse, and immediately wrote six sample editorials, which he sent around to the most important papers in the city, including the Bulletin and the Chronicle. All six were accepted, much to his surprise and delight, and he was promised a regular position with the Bulletin. He wrote back proudly to his wife, telling her to come at once, as there seemed to be endless opportunities here for them both. "Home is now to me the sweetest thing in life," he wrote, with a lyric panache typical of his letters, "and home is anywhere in the wide world where you are."
Given Will Frost's romantic mind-set, San Francisco was just the place for him. The famous Gold Rush was long over, but a boom in silver mining that had lured millions of treasure hunters across the continent was at its peak in the 1870s. Eighty or more ships arrived each day, freighters and passenger vessels alike, bringing upwards of
sixty thousand immigrants each year to San Francisco, many of them from China. It was a
city on the boil, with vastly contradictory and potentially conflicting elements pouring into it daily. "The excitement of the place appealed to my father," said Frost. "He was part of it. There was gold dust in his eyes, you might say."
Indeed, Frost would register some of the atmosphere of that city by the sea in "A Peck of Gold," which opens:
Dust always blowing about the town,
Except when sea fog laid it down,
And I was one of the children told
Some of the blowing dust was gold.
Frost, like so many other children in San Francisco of that time, had been told that gold "was what they would eat, presumably instead of the plebeian dust mentioned to ordinary children in ordinary places."
Will Frost followed rigorously the original game plan of his career, setting out purposefully to befriend many of the best-known politicos of his day. He campaigned for Samuel Tilden, the unsuccessful presidential candidate, in 1876. Four years later he was picked as a delegate to the national Democratic convention in Cincinnati, where Winfield Scott Hancock (a hero of the Union during the Civil War) was chosen to run
against James A. Garfield, and one of Frost's keener memories was of seeing his father, in frock coat and top hat, depart for the East from the train station in Oakland. In 1882, Will tried without luck to win the Democratic candidacy for Congress in his district -- one in a string of defeats that seems to have worn him down.
Will Frost moved from the Bulletin to the Daily Evening Post in 1875, drawn to the latter by its crusading editor, Henry George, whose ideas on Christian socialism had proved attractive to a wide range of intellectuals around the world, including George Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy, both of whom corresponded with him. George developed the concept of a single tax in Progress and Poverty (1879), arguing that free enterprise did not mean private monopolies were morally justified. In this vein, Will's editorials called repeatedly for "a democracy uncorrupt and sensitive to the people's needs."
Unfortunately, Will also came under the influence of Christopher "Boss" Buckley, often referred to in the press as the "Blind White Devil." Buckley -- a prototype for the bloated political tyrant who dominates his party by bribing some people and bashing others -- found in the young newspaperman a gullible and eager lackey. Robert Frost later remarked, with disdain, that his father had let himself become "the willing slave of the blind boss, rushing to do his every bidding without question" in the hopes of being "named to some important post" that never materialized.
Perhaps the finest moment of Will Frost's life came when he chaired the Democratic committee for San Francisco in 1884, when Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York, won the presidency; young Robert -- called Robbie by his parents -- recalled "being carried through the streets" afterward "atop a fire engine, by torchlight." Inspired by this success, Will put himself forward again, this time for the post of city tax collector; he lost, resoundingly, and was so humiliated and angry that he went on a drunken binge lasting most of the week.
Will and Belle were, by this time, seriously at odds with each other. The original contrast of temperaments that had made them seem an unlikely couple had only grown more severe. He had begun to drink heavily the year after his son was born, finding any excuse to join his friends at the Bohemian Club, where writers and journalists, actors and musicians gathered, especially on the weekends, to drink whiskey and exchange lewd jokes. Belle increasingly took solace in the Swedenborgian Church, named after the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, whose elaborate system of beliefs had appealed to the likes of Emerson (who wrote about Swedenborg in Representative Men) and Henry James, Sr., the father of William, Alice, and Henry James. Her mentor in the Swedenborgian faith was the charismatic Reverend John Doughty, a black-bearded mystic who had been raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, and had graduated from Harvard.
Robert Frost was always a bit uncomfortable with his mother's religious predelictions, and would occasionally refer to her "incipient insanity," tracing many of his own mental crises and those of his children back to this source. Nevertheless, he later said, "I looked on at my mother's devoutness and thought it was beautiful." Indeed, one finds more than a trace of mysticism in his work. "Frost liked to play down his own religious sense of things," said Rabbi Victor Reichert, a good friend during the poet's last decades, "but it was there. And he always said he learned about those things from his mother, who could see right through the material world as if it didn't exist."
Doubtless Belle Frost was driven deeper into her religion as a means of escape from a life that was not going in the direction she had hoped. "She was unhappy," her son recalled, "and couldn't find a way around it." Will Frost, in the meanwhile, lost interest in trying to mend the relationship, which tumbled quickly from bad to worse. It seems little wonder that so many of Frost's early poems, especially the dramatic monologues of North of Boston, were crammed with grueling portraits of husbands and wives at odds, unable to communicate their feelings, unable to find common ground.
Footnotes not included. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 1999 Jay Parini.