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Robert Frost in Ann Arbor

Rhyme and reason

Robert Frost BookOn Oct. 10, 1921, the editors of Michigan’s student literary magazine, Whimsies, each carrying his or her own poems, stepped gingerly into Professor Roy Cowden’s house on Olivia Street. Then, one by one, the young writers were introduced to their critic for the evening. He was a New England farmer in his mid-40s — “a not-at-all-trim man of medium stature, in a not-too-well-pressed grey suit, with fair, not-too-tidy hair,” recalled one student, Stella Brunt. He was also the most distinguished American poet of his generation, soon to win the first of four Pulitzer Prizes —Robert Frost.

“We had a splendid evening,” Stella wrote her mother, “and shall have them hereafter every three weeks … Robert Frost talked to me about fifteen minutes all alone, in a corner. It is genuine joy to be with him: one feels at once hopeless and determined …”

It was the beginning of a year-long friendship between Frost and the student writers of Michigan.

The poet was spending the year in Ann Arbor thanks to Marion LeRoy Burton, the charismatic pastor who had just become U-M’s sixth president. Burton endorsed the view of Raymond Hughes, president of Miami of Ohio, who recently had told fellow educators that “nothing would do more to leaven the increasing materialism of the American university than to have a great creative artist working on the campus.”

First Fellow in Creative Arts

Burton approached Frost with the offer of an eight-month stipend of $5,000 (donated by the U-M Regent and former Michigan governor Chase Osborn) to become Michigan’s first Fellow in Creative Arts. The poet agreed immediately, telling Burton: “I am somewhat surprised when men of your executive authority … see it as a part of their duty to the state to encourage the arts … ” Frost and Burton had agreed he would teach no regular classes—an arrangement that irritated some off-campus skeptics, including an anonymous writer in the Washtenaw Post, who asked if the University ought to pay Frost $5,000 without asking him “to do anything, not even to twirl his thumbs, if he does not so desire.”

Frost hoped to write a good deal. But to keep the skeptics at bay, and to justify Burton’s trust, he embarked on strenuous rounds of public events and meetings with faculty and students. The editors of Whimsies were the prime beneficiaries. At the Cowdens’ home, Frost would avoid the big chair set out for him and instead find an “unpretentious, dim corner.”

According to Frances Swain, another of the Whimsies, “he speaks lightly enough,” but “there is a lasting significance in [his comments]. The conversation of Frost sparkles … and is at its best in the pauses — when it is in his eyes, between words. He is humorous and ruthless …  He is so very comfortable that he induces all the Whimsies in their private talk of him familiarly to call him plain ‘Robert’ or ‘Frost.'”

He was also “an excellent gossip,” she said.

A “harrowing experience”

Robert Frost on frontispiece of “Whimsies,” November 1921. Image courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.

Robert Frost on frontispiece of ‘Whimsies,’ Nov. 1921. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

His remarks on students’ readings were “gentle” but exacting. After one unfortunate performance thudded to a close, he diplomatically broke the silence by saying, “You know, there is a difference between fetching and far-fetching … ” But even a kindly critique from Robert Frost could wreck a student’s spirits, as Stella Brunt could attest after reading four verses aloud one night.

“It was a harrowing experience,” she wrote, “especially when Robert Frost kept scolding at me over the same old faults — not making my meaning clear, and using old phrases. My nerves were all on edge to begin with, and that about unsettled me. I didn’t sleep all night.”

With the Whimsies, most of them women, Frost was a gentleman. But one of them, Ruth Lechlitner, glimpsed another side when she and a friend knocked on the door of the Frosts’ rented house at 1523 Washtenaw.

“Robert, in a well-worn grey sweater, opened it to us,” Lechlitner recalled long afterward. “He greeted me cordially, but his interest was obviously in Dee, an unusually pretty girl, and one of the first to have her hair cut in a short, curled ‘bob.’ Moreover, she had fastened her knickers well above the knee, displaying a pair of very shapely legs. I saw Frost’s swift downward glance, and an elfish glint in his eye. At this, I think I liked him better than I had at any time before.”

Stopping by woods …

The poet was such a hit that President Burton said he didn’t know who was more admired — Fielding Yost or Robert Frost. With realistic humility, Frost said he would schedule the next poetry reading during a Michigan football game and see which drew the larger crowd.

Frost bent to pressure to return for another year, though bad health made that stay less successful. (He wrote his most famous work, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” during the summer between his first and second Ann Arbor sojourns.) Burton brought Frost back for a third fellowship in 1925-26 and sealed an arrangement to make the appointment permanent. But when Burton died soon after of a heart attack, Frost decided his ties to New England were stronger than his commitment to U-M, and he changed his mind — though “I like Michigan people and I like Michigan.”

He later told a friend that he had “got to be a good deal more Ann Arboreal than I should suppose I could have at my age. A few people and streets and a lot of the outlying landscape are pretty well incorporated in me.”

Sources included Robert M. Warner, “Frost-Bite and Frost-Bark: Robert Frost at Michigan” (Bentley Historical Library, 1999); Lawrance Thompson, “Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938” (1970); and Lawrance Thompson, ed., “Selected Letters of Robert Frost” (1964).

Top image: Robert Frost at the house on Pontiac Trail where he and his family lived during one of his fellowships at U-M. The house was later relocated to Greenfield Village in Dearborn. Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.

Comments

  1. Bruce Cadwallender - staff

    I dearly love Frost; he is my favorite American poet. Thanks to Dr. Tobin for this gem of fascinating history about his Michigan connection.

    Reply

  2. Elaine Arnold - 1976

    I too consider Robert Frost to be my favorite poet. I thoroughly enjoyed learning of his ties to U of M. Next time I drive along Washtenaw I’ll look for the his former address and think of him. Thanks Dr. Tobin, nicely done.

    Reply

  3. Richard Morris - 1968

    My Grandfather Amos Morris was a Professor of Rhetoric at U of M (1919 to 1950). My father Harry (39 BA Economics / 41 MBA) used to talk about Robert Frost being invited to dinner around the family table numerous times. From your article, I now assume that this must have been during 1925 – 26 when my Dad was 9 or 10 years old.
    My grandfathers passion was poetic meter. His dissertation is titled “The Orchestration of the Metric Line”. He also believed that prose should also have meter. In his later years he as frustrated that no one else within the U of M English department shared this passion. His close colleague and collaborator on several collection of prose was Carlton Wells. They shared an office in Angel Hall for many years.

    Reply

  4. Lynn Swanson - 1976

    Thank you, J. Tobin for this wonderfully written article. My aunt and uncle were students at UM at the time Frost was there, and my aunt (Elsa Hilma Swanson)was assistant to Burton. I have a book on my shelf of Frost poems given to my aunt and signed by Burton. I will print out the article and place it inside the book.

    Reply

  5. Lynn Swanson - 1976

    I just remembered: My aunt, Elsa Hilma Swanson, was assistant to Dean Bursley (not Burton), and that is who gave her the Frost book. My apologies for the error. (I am a poet, and not an historian!)

    Reply

  6. Liz Elling - 1968

    Glad to see a story about Frost, but it doesn’t begin to tell the rest of the story. He was a great friend of Jean Paul Slusser and lived in two houses near by Slusser on Pontiac Road. What would be good to add to the story is also the amazement of the two fellows. I lived near Slusser and know that his history was written for the US. I was with him when he told his story.

    Reply

  7. Vaughan Parker - 1949

    As a child I lived with my parents in that house on Pontiac! And I recognized the outside of the house, shown in your picture. (My dad was DeWitt Parker, head of the Philosophy Dept.)

    Reply

  8. Liz Chamberlain Wohl - 1991

    I was fortunate to have taken my 1990 English Lit “Senior Seminar” as an entire semester devoted to Frost. I remember learning of his years in Ann Arbor, though not with this degree of first-person experience. Thank you for such an engaging account of his years at Michigan.

    Reply

  9. Lori Lippitz - 1979

    I came to Michigan in order to study Russian poetry with the late great Joseph Brodsky in 1975. Imagine my surprise when his class focused not on Achmatova or Pushkin or his own works but on Robert Frost! Because of him, we learned by heart the poem in which Frost references the U. of M. clocktower (“One luminary clock against the sky/declares the time is neither wrong nor right/I have been one acquainted with the night.”)

    Reply

  10. Jack Falker - 1962

    I read recently that few college graduates, years later, remember their graduation speaker. How could we of the Class of 1962 forget Robert Frost reading to us at our graduation in Michigan Stadium in June 1962. (No one called it the “Big House” in those days)
    For those of us of LS&A, especially those, like myself, who concentrated in English, the experience was unforgetable. What is more, he also read his poetry to us in Hill Auditorium the previous winter and stuck around afterward to meet us and shake our trembling hands.
    Hearing and meeting Robert Frost is, by far, my most treasured Michigan memory.
    Go Blue!

    Reply

  11. Mark Gascoigne - 1966

    For me, the U of M, Robert Frost and professor Carlton Wells make a trinity. I met Professor Wells in August 1965. I was returing to the U of M as a Senior after being dismissed (flunking out) in the Spring of 1964.
    My paternal grandfather graduated from the U of M in 1883 (sic). My maternal grandfather graduated from the U of M in 1903. Both of my parents attended and I believe graduated from the U of M as well in the mid 1930\’s
    I had changed my major to English and needed to take some basic classes (speech). Professor Wells was registering students or at least interviewing students like me. We hit it off right away.
    Later that day we went for a walk in \”some wash\” and I had dinner at his home. It was like the U of M was a small school and like my grandfathers remembered it.
    I took his speech class and was assigned (surprise. surprise) to give a five minute speech on \”Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening\”
    Robert Frost was, I believe, idolized by Carlton Wells. Professor Wells could have done a lot worse.

    Reply

    • luana russell - 1966

      I, too idolize Carlton Wells. I took a summer class from him in which we read Frost and Dickinson. It was a joy. Months later he saw me on campus and told me to stop by his office to pick up something. It was a biography of a Danish man with my last name, Jensen. He did indeed make U of M a small school. I used that story so many times as a teacher to get students to see that communities exist in the largest of places. Of course, I still have the book and the note Mr. Wells had included.

      Reply

  12. Mark Gascoigne - 1966

    I submitted another comment a fe hours ago. It dawned on me that I had called my paternal grandfather my \”fraternal\” grandfather. No wonder it took me six years to graduate.
    I you decide to publish my previous comment, please correct what I believe to be a clear error.

    Reply

  13. Gerry Ahronhrim - LS&A '62, Med.'66

    Thanks to Jack Falker ’62 for reviving the unforgettable experience of Robert Frost reading at our commencement exercises. As a science (biophysics) major with no interest in poetry, I was surprised and delighted to be so entranced that day, and the memory has never faded.

    Reply

  14. Jean McSweeny - 1957

    My father, Ray Alexander BA 26, 29 Law, Was one of the Whimsies writers and was fascinated and inspired by his meetings with Robert Frost. He wrote this poem, published in Whimsies, after one of the meetings:
    THE POLE-VAULTER
    I saw a sudden upward flash,
    When horizontal to the bar
    He hurled the bamboo back and fell – tarantula like,
    All arms and legs,
    Into the ginger colored pit.
    I can see today the quick parabola
    That he had drawn
    With white flesh and white cloth,
    Upon the cold, drab sky.

    Reply

  15. Robert Campbell - 1965

    I was a new student in Ann Arbor in the Autumn of 1962, having transferred in as a junior after two years of community college in Bay City, Michigan. The campus itself and the newness of living away from home was overwhelming to me. A younger cousin of mine from Linwood, Michigan was a student in the School of Nursing then and pulled some strings and arranged for me to come to Inglis House, the University\’s home for short term special visitors to campus, for an evening get-together with Robert Frost. I believe he was staying in Ann Arbor for a guest lecture or perhaps a short series of lectures. Our hostess, Mrs. Gertrude Leidy, who managed Inglis House, was my cousin\\\’s aunt and had previously been housemother at one of the sororities on Washtenaw Avenue. She was very kind to invite me, a shy, homesick new student, to share an evening with one of America\\\’s most renowned men of letters. Mr Frost could not have been more charming to the mesmerized students surrounding him that evening. Within a few months he passed away, so this had to have been his last visit to the University he loved and favored with his time. In August of 1964 my wife and I on our honeymoon to New England came upon his grave in Bennington, Vermont quite by accident as we were touring the sights of that beautiful old town. James Tobin\\\’s story about Mr. Frost brings back many memories of that evening at Inglis House nearly 50 years ago.
    Bob Campbell
    Bay City, Michigan

    Reply

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