Diary: Jamaica Kincaid, The Walk to Robert Frost‘s House

A rare lily to be found on the walk to the Frost house!


To Robert Woolmington of North Bennington, Vermont

Robert Frost lived in many places and didn’t live in them for very long, but the house he lived in for the longest time was a house in Shaftsbury, Vermont, a lovely old-fashioned modest house made from stone and wood, all of which must have come from the immediate vicinity. You can take a drive up Route 7A in southern Vermont and you will come to it, on the line that divides the city of Bennington from the town of Shaftsbury, if you stay within the speed limit. If not you will find yourself, well, not there.

Every summer, sometime between the last week in June and no later than the Fourth of July, I like to go for a walk through the woods to his old house, which has now been declared to be the official Robert Frost Stone House Museum. In it are all the sort of things you would expect in a shrine to a great poet: pictures on the walls, pictures of the especially great and much revered poem he wrote while living there, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—and annotated at that—and other such things.

Visitors are restricted to the downstairs, excluding the room in which Carol Frost, a son of the poet, killed himself with a gun. Frost’s two most prominent biographers, Lawrance Thompson and Jay Parini, disagree about the events that led up to this tragedy, Thompson being frank about Frost’s personality, for he knew him well; Frost had designated him his official biographer. The Parini version is meant to be a corrective: the great poet was a horrible husband and father. Robert Frost’s father tried to join the wrong side of the Civil War, and, when he was deterred from that, he moved to San Francisco, and when his child was born he named him after the traitor: Robert E. Lee. And so, Robert Lee Frost.

But what I wonder, as I set off from my house to walk the trail to his house/museum, if his father had named him Nat Turner Frost or Frederick Douglas Frost, would his epic, glorious poem “New Hampshire” begin this way?

I met a lady from the South who said
(You won’t believe she said it, but she said it):
“None of my family ever worked, or had
A thing to sell.” I don’t suppose the work
Much matters. You may work for all of me.
I’ve seen the time I’ve had to work myself.
The having anything to sell is what
Is the disgrace in man or state or nation.

I once saw Jay Parini and when I told him that I liked his biography a lot, for it was so instructive and far more easy to read than the Thompson, but I thought the Thompson was more accurate about Frost, he said that Thompson had a tin ear for Frost’s poetry. But Thompson’s account of Frost’s life isn’t only about the poetry, he seems to take it as a given, something we all know from the beginning: Frost was a great, very great poet, but he was not a nice man. Not being a nice man but a great poet is perfectly fine, as long such a person is not your husband.

The walk to Robert Frost’s house begins on the man-made sandy beach of the man-made lake called Lake Paran. Walking around the upper circumference of the lake I encounter many beautiful flowers—some clover, some silene, some centaurea, some achillea—but these hold no real interest for me and when I see them in my own human-made garden I go into a huge fret and rip them out without a thought, for in a garden, they are weeds, which only means I have not yet the intelligence to understand their place in my cultivated landscape, my garden.

The path then forks: the high meadow, which calls for a steep walk up, or the lower meadow, which follows the shoreline of the man-made lake. In the high meadow I have seen a family of bluebirds (there were eight of them, so they seemed like a family to me), and I have seen the outline of the Taconic range rising far away in New York. Onwards then, and the upper and lower meadow converge at a newly made wooden bridge that has two benches for resting, so necessary, for no matter how many times I have done this walk, I am always grateful for the bridge with its benches. Sitting there, I can see trout happily moving about in the stream, innocent of the thought that I might need them for dinner or just the pleasure of saying I caught them. Also on the opposite side of the river, still going towards the Frost house, are tall bundles of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), taller than any I have ever seen in a cultivated garden, and then beyond that a moist woodland of beeches shading colonies of ginger (Asarum canadense), maiden hair ferns (Adiantum), Actea (baneberry), and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Right around here suddenly is an outcropping of rock, a cliff all jagged and layered in brown and white stone that I was once told was in the middle of something geologist call uplift.

A short climb up and then on the right is the wetland meadow, then turning right from that is another glorious bit foresting but dry, and then after half a mile or so, a descent into a lower wet meadow, and there I have seen swarths of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) blooming so seductively that in my mind I have found a place for them in my own garden, though when I have tried to put this vision in front of me, a mere two and a half miles away, the result was a gradual diminishing of the plants and then one year they just did not turn up at all. And this has been true of so many plants I love: I see them in their natural habitat and I immediately imagine them in my own garden and put them there, and then they disappear. And this is why there is such a thing as a plant-order nursery, for many things that thrive happily in the wild will have to be slightly manipulated to thrive in the contrivance of a garden.

This path along the profusion of marsh marigolds is narrow and apparently Frost wandered along during his epic attempts to be a farmer. This farming business is thought to be a failure in his life, but it seems to me that it is one of the most important pieces of his greatness as a poet. A great writer always, mostly, needs to do something that has nothing to do with writing, or so it seems, but that thing they are involved with is the very place in which they write; while farming a poet is writing. Writers go to parties, great writers do something else.

After that walk among the marsh marigolds, a quarter of a mile or so are some younger woods and old apple trees, and apparently this is the source of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The funny thing is that no matter what time of day I pass through this particular path of the walk, it always seems like evening: the path here is tranquil in a way the other parts of the walk are not; here is where I want both to linger and to run at the same time and also wish the woods would tell me whatever memory they have of him.

I went into the house/museum once and then never again. My walk to the Frost house ends in an orchard of apple trees he is said to have planted. The apples are inedible as they should be for they were planted for some other reason than the pleasure to be found in eating them.

Notebook: Book thoughts in the age of shutdown

From Ann Kjellberg, editor

How does the current budget impasse affect the life of the book? President Trump’s first budget proposal, presented the February following his inauguration in 2017, called for the permanent elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment of the Humanities (approximately $145 million each), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) ($231 million), which provides nearly all federal library funding, and last February’s budget proposal repeated this call. These three programs represent 0.01% of the $4.4 trillion dollar budget, or a tenth of the $5 billion President Trump is requiring for this year’s installment of a border wall, prompting the current shutdown. Most proponents of eliminating the three agencies acknowledge that it would not realize a significant savings; they simply do not believe that government has a role in supporting the arts and ideas.

During the period of uncertainty following the President’s first announcement, the endowments continued to accept grant proposals, in the hope that their funding would in the end be approved. Right now, the endowments’ web sites declare them closed for business.

Fortunately for those who write and publish books and run libraries, Congress has not embraced Trump’s position. It approved the 2018 budget last March with a slight increase on 2017 funding levels for the two endowments (supported by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of a crucial Senate appropriations subcommittee). As of early December House leadership was refusing to bring a bill reauthorizing the IMLS through 2025 to the floor, but mobilization by thousands of librarians and library patrons turned its fortunes around and authorization passed both houses in mid-December with bipartisan support, strengthening libraries’ position for the coming budget negotiation for 2019. The 2018 budget not only funded the IMLS but provided significant increases in literacy programs, funding for school libraries, and electronic access to government documents through the Library of Congress.

Public libraries receive the bulk of their funding from state and local governments (making them vulnerable to austerity measures and budget crises at the local level, see below re Kansas), but loss of the IMLS funds would have been a significant blow. More than $150 million of IMLS funds goes directly to the states, which use the funds both to support statewide programs and to give individual grants for services like bookmobiles, summer reading programs, digitization, access to e-books and other technologies, making electronic databases available, and providing computer instruction, homework centers, and outreach programs to underserved readers. The IMLS is obliged by statute to address underserved communities and readers who have difficulty using a library, such as blind and disabled people. According to a letter drafted by the American Library Association, 73 percent of rural libraries report they serve as their community's only free Internet provider.

The struggle to create and preserve arts and humanities funding has some unusual allies. Reagan’s effort to cut arts funding during the “supply-side” austerity measures of the mid eighties were thwarted when a special task force, including his Hollywood colleague Charlton Heston, determined that arts funding performed a valuable service to the nation. Newt Gingrich, who led efforts to eliminate the endowments during the nineties by denouncing works of art by Andres Serrano and Robert Mappelthorpe, recently told The Washington Post that NEH funding enables important historical research and the NEA is valuable for exposing kids to the arts. Municipalities argue that culture drives business and tourism and that federal funding spurs private giving. Kansas provided a laboratory for extreme arts defunding in 2011 when Governor Sam Brownback eliminated the state’s arts funding at a blow with a line-item veto as part of his comprehensive state government scale-down, rendering the state ineligible for federal matching funds. A fraction of the funding was restored the following year, and arts programs hobble on in Kansas with private donations, but the President’s local supporters are divided on his call to eliminate arts funding, and limited-government Republicans lost the Kansas governor’s race in November.

The NEA and the NEH serve book culture mostly at its source, by providing direct grants to writers and scholars for individual projects. But since the culture wars of the nineties the emphasis in the endowments overall has been providing access to the arts and scholarship, particularly to people in underserved communities. Book-related projects funded in 2018 include digitizing archives, supporting library infrastructure, funding exhibitions, editing the papers of Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson, creating workshops and seminars for teachers, supporting conferences like the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) and the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) gatherings, as well as reading series’ and book festivals. The NEA includes among its goals “ensuring that literary presses and magazines, community-based centers, and national literary organizations complement the trade publishing sector in the shaping of contemporary literature,” but direct grants to publishers are few.

Compared to other countries of course American federal support for the arts is very thin. This approach is usually defended by pointing to the charitable tax deduction (whose effects were minimized in the 2018 tax law); the tax deduction nourishes private support for the arts at levels unseen in other countries. But writing arguably benefits less from arts philanthropy than, say, the visual and performing arts, which are dependent on large institutions. In Europe, by contrast, both at the level of the European Union and in the individual countries, government support for book culture is very robust and widely discussed. As Stephanie Kurschus, in European Book Cultures, observes, European states are committed to maintaining “publishing pluralism” as a bulwark against the threat of cultural conformity due to corporate concentration in the publishing industry. The book industry, they argue, is not simply a business but a guarantor of national and regional cultural identity. She quotes a Finnish report to the effect that maintaining access to ideas is “one of the responsibilities of the democratic state … access to cultural goods such as books is a form of democratic empowerment.” And the Swiss Book Lobby: “Without books, there is no historical memory in modern society, no tradition of cultural values, no systematic reappraisal of the present, no profound understanding of the future—no consciousness of community."

Researchers sited by Kurschus identify a broad range of threats to the book market that will sound familiar. Chains utilize their market power to negotiate favorable discounts, squeezing publishers and authors and undercutting their smaller competition. Concentration by large chains and internet business threatens independent booksellers who tend to be more open to trying out or advocating for new material and to representing a range of tastes. Due to a parallel concentration in journalism, fewer papers review fewer books and tend to focus on bestsellers, like the chains. Libraries, schools, and other institutions suffer from declining book-buying budgets. In consequence, publishers are less likely to take risks or experiment with unpopular or challenging ideas.

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