Lesley Lee Francis: A Journey with Lesley Frost

indexThis is a book I was very eager to read. However, and tempting though it is to judge a book by its title, Lesley Lee Francis’s book isn’t so much about her journey with Robert Frost (her grandfather) but her journey with her mother, Lesley Frost.

In fact, one gets the feeling that Robert Frost isn’t who Francis really wants to write about. Fully a third of the book, Pages 61-122, are a biography of Lesley Frost (her mother), while Robert Frost remains a distant correspondent. Her mother led a full, brave, adventurous and admirable life; and she did so when a woman’s independence was far from easy or encouraged. But why title the book My Life with Robert Frost? Maybe because, rightly and wrongly, there’d be less interest in it. When Francis does discuss Robert Frost, she often pivots to Lesley Frost within the same paragraph. One gets the sense that she never really knew Robert Frost. I had hoped for a more intimate portrait, the feeling of having been in the same room with him, of hearing him breathe, seeing him yawn or hearing a joke, but when Francis discusses Frost she does so with the academic distance of any other biographer.

Her exposure to her grandparent was apparently limited. She does dispute the claims of other biographers (which is the whole reason I picked up the book) but those nuggets of familial insight are rare and second-hand. For instance, she asserts that Frost’s great sonnet, She is as in a field a silken tent, was not for Kay Morrison but for Elinor. How does she know? Her mother told her and claimed to have copied out the poem before Elinor’s death. She also disputes Thompson’s (and Vendler’s) characterization of Frost as a monster, but does so, oddly, with less persuasiveness than other biographers. Most interestingly, she defuses that notion that Frost set out to mythologize his public image :

“I am puzzled every time a I hear academics interpret RF’s life a mythmaking, as a deliberate attempt to go to England and “infiltrate” the English scene of poetry, publish his books, and return to America a famous poet… ¶ In fact, before leaving the States, my grandfather was very close to submitting his poems for possible publication as collections rather than individual poems in scattered journals…” [p. 19]

Whereas all of the biographies I’ve read (and I confess I haven’t read them all) give Pound credit for “discovering” Frost and giving his early career the boost it needed, Francis argues that Pound’s friendship was brief and his contribution negligible.

I’m inclined to believe her portrait of Frost, as far as it goes, but she could have made a more persuasive case if she’d done so from the inside, as a family member. As it is, to use an adjective applied to her grandfather, Francis is cagey. Despite the intimate invitation implied by You Come Too, don’t expect her to invite you past the front door. You will remain seated on the front porch and a harmless glass of lemonade will be served. The stories she tells are, by in large, the same as those told by other biographers. When her grandfather does appear, he does so as a somewhat infrequent and avuncular visitor. Despite that, you will read blurbs from other writers like these:

“The journey that Lesley Lee Francis took with her grandfather (literally and figuratively) was deeply personal.” ~ Jay Parini (who wrote the Forward)

“As the poet’s granddaughter, Francis has special insight and access to the humanity of this great writer.” ~ Dana Gioia

“This is the nearest we can come to being in the same room as the Frost family at key moments, as well as in everyday living.” ~ Seán Street

“It is something altogether extraordinary, an insider’s view…” ~ Booklist

All true if you’re interested in being in the same room as Lesley Frost, but not Robert Frost. Ask Francis about the women in Frost’s life, for instance, and she’ll light up: Elinor Frost, Lesley Frost, Elinor Miriam White Frost, Kathleen Morrison, Susan Hayes Ward, Harriet Monroe, Amy Lowell, and others are given their due with a determination and attentiveness that all but excludes the men in Frost’s life, including Robert Frost. One might be forgiven for thinking that Francis writes with an agenda. The biography doesn’t suffer for it (in some ways its refreshing and welcome) but it’s not the biography most readers will expect.

All in all, I don’t regret buying or reading the book. Before reading the book, for instance, I wasn’t as aware of Robert Frost’s fascination with native American culture. I also didn’t appreciate his love of archeology, making his lines in Directive all the more poignant and meaningful:

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.

Surely a feeling shared by archaeologists who have held shards of a bowl precious to a vanished life.

Along those lines, Francis’s book could be said to remember not only Robert Frost’s life, and the shards of poetry left behind, but also a wife, daughters and the many women who shared his table.

☙ upinVermont | March 14 2017

March 18th 2017: Having just written a review of the book at Amazon, it occurs to me to add here what I mentioned there. The best biography written by someone who really knew Frost (and perhaps intimately), is by Kathleen Morrison, Robert Frost: A Pictorial Chronicle. Morrison’s observations are much more personal in tone than Francis’s and if you read Morrison’s book, you might be apt to wonder if Francis didn’t borrow from it. Some of Francis’s observations and descriptions are strikingly like Morrison’s.