Rauner exhibit offers insight into Robert Frost’s private life

by Michaela Ledoux | 10/1/14 1:48pm

On the mezzanine level of the Rauner Special Collections Library stand three unassuming wood cases. Lined with deep blue velvet, each case contains a different story weaved together by letters to and from the renowned poet Robert Frost. The letters, part of the exhibit “Corresponding Friendships: Robert Frost’s Letters,” give viewers a glimpse of the poet’s humanity.

The exhibit was carefully curated by English language and literature librarian Laura Braunstein and special collections librarian Jay Satterfield.

“This is a very tiny fraction of what we have,” Braunstein said of the letters featured in the exhibit, noting that Rauner has an astounding 27 boxes of letters and manuscripts related to Frost. “There was a challenge of finding a tiny bit that would represent the whole and not just finding interesting materials, but putting them together as a story.”

The exhibit coincided with a conference of Robert Frost scholars who visited campus last week. Organized by Lesley Lee Francis, Frost’s granddaughter, the event is held at a different, Frost-related location every year, Satterfield said.

“Most people experience poets through what’s being published in anthologies or what you read in a class,” Braunstein said. “To see a letter that one of them has written is actually fascinating.”

Calling the poet a part of “Dartmouth lore,” Satterfield said that Frost appeals to Dartmouth students.

The first case of letters illuminates Frost’s correspondence and close friendship with John F. Kennedy.

“They were sort of admirers of each other from a distance,” Braunstein said. “At Frost’s 85th birthday party in 1959, he was asked about politics and [gave] his prediction that the next president would be from Massachusetts — Kennedy hadn’t even decided to run yet.”

When Kennedy began his campaign, he used the line “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep” — a direct allusion to Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” — in many of his speeches. Exhibited are letters from Kennedy to Frost, an invitation to a White House dinner and even the typescript draft of “Dedication,” the poem Frost was supposed to read at Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

“My second favorite item in the whole exhibit [is] this letter where Kennedy says that he and Mrs. Kennedy were invited to [Frost’s] reading, but wouldn’t be able to make it because he was tied up with ‘the international situation,’” a reference to the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Braunstein said.

The center case tells the story Frost’s tumultuous friendship with Ezra Pound, the pioneer of modernist poetry. Many of the letters reference Pound’s imprisonment for treason. Frost, along with T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, wrote letters urging the release of Pound.

Finding the Ezra Pound files, Satterfield said, was “one of those moments” with the archives and was “an outrageous thrill.”

Satterfield’s and Braunstein’s favorite item is a map with directions to William Butler Yeats’s house in London, hastily drawn by Pound.

The third case relays Frost’s relationship with Cornelius Weygandt and Sidney Cox, both prominent literary scholars of their time. Cox was a professor at the College, a position Frost helped him obtain, Braunstein said. In one of the letters to Cox, Frost writes, “Dartmouth is one of my favorite colleges,” praising the College for its intellectually stimulating environment.

English and writing professor Nancy Crumbine will take her Writing 5 class, “Writing into the Wilderness,” to the exhibit this term.

Crumbine said she likes to have her students read Frost because he is a master of “concision, diction, saying exactly what [he] means and having the words do the work of multilayered meaning.”

“The exhibit really brings to life the human being, Robert Frost,” Crumbine said. “When they read the poems, it’s not just this abstraction, but it’s a real human being.”