A year ego, when I interviewed Henry Hart, the J. B. Hickman Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary, a noted literary biographer and an award winning poet, his new book, "The Life of Robert Frost," was a work-in-progress. Now, it is in bookstores around the country.
An editorial review by the publisher, Wiley Blackwell, states: "'The Life of Robert Frost' presents a unique and rich approach to the poet that includes original genealogical research concerning Frost's ancestors, and a demonstration of how mental illness plagued the Frost family and heavily influenced Frost's poetry."
According to Jim Ducibella, who works for William and Mary's University Relations as a writer for all University publications, there have been at least 67 books written about Robert Frost. He asked Professor Hart whether a 68th book can really break new ground?
He quotes Hart saying, yes, and his publisher agreeing. "This book distinguishes itself from other biographies by focusing on the psychological aspects of Frost's life and on the importance of his family to his poetry."
He added, "I wrote about facets of Frost that weren't well known or touched on. You look at the poetry, there's a lot of darkness that comes out of Frost's depressions."
As the book's blurb notes. "Hart places great emphasis throughout the biography on Frost turbulent marriage and family life, revealing how they provided important inspiration and material for his poems. Since Frost periodically described himself as "a mystic," there is also essential discussion on the effect of his mother's Swedenborgian mysticism — mysticism in general — on Frost's writing. The result is a fascinating portrayal of a brilliant poet who persevered through repeated family tragedies to eventually achieve iconic status around the world."
Hart did a great job of dramatizing the precariousness of Frost's life as a young boy, his father's career disappointments in San Francisco and early death from consumption. The book includes fresh details about Frost's father, William. We learn that he tried to run away as a teenager to join General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. This may explain Frost's father's lifelong interest in and admiration for the Confederacy, and why he named his son Robert Lee Frost. In turn, this may have influenced his son to become a staunch conservative as an adult.
Hart, in his interview with the Gazette, described the dramatic effect Frost's father's personality, as an abusive alcoholic, had on his son. "I stress the way his death haunted both Robert Frost and his sister Jennie, who spent the later part of her life in a mental hospital. I discuss how mental illness, especially depression and schizophrenia plagued the Frost family and how it affected Robert Frost and his poetry."
Hart was also able to secure the help of Frost's grandson, John Cone. He told Hart that his mother, Irma, who was Frost's daughter, suffered from schizophrenia and had to be committed to a mental hospital. Frost's son, Carol, suffered from depression most of his life and committed suicide, when he was 38.
The letters Hart found in various libraries and from new sources combined, with a close reading of many of Frost's poems, to enable Hart to reveal Frost as a much more complicated person and poet than some critics and biographers believed.
Shatz, a Williamsburg resident, is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place,"a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and on Amazon.com.