Robert Frost, firebug (1938)

Archibald MacLeish and Robert FrostRobert Frost was one unhappy poet at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Five months ago, his wife, Elinor, suddenly died from a series of heart attacks while they were avoiding the New England winter in Florida. She had married him when he was a penniless, obscure poet, gave birth to their six children and helped bury three of them. They had been married 43 years, and as the end neared, the doctors, worried about how Frost’s emotions would affect Elinor, refused to let him see her. Now, as Hervey Allen said, Frost was without “a great and powerful engine without the control of its flywheel.”

And one of the things that needed control was Frost’s massive ego.”All his friends knew that he had much of his father’s brutality in him,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “that he tolerated rivals badly, that he was a prima donna who was never content to share the center of the stage.” In light of his recent loss, many wondered how he would behave.

At first, just fine. He gave lectures in the fields around Middlebury, Vt., signed copies of his books and dispensed wisdom with people at his feet in the parlor of the Bread Loaf Inn. But there was a reason some called him privately Jahweh. He was a jealous god.

On this night, Archibald MacLeish visited to read his poems and radio plays. The gathering was held at Treman Cottage, and Frost was among the attendees, sitting in the back. It was a time when Hitler was on the ascendant, and the United States was divided between warning against the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy, and those who didn’t want to intervene in another European war. MacLeish was anti-Fascist, and Frost despised MacLeish’s support of Roosevelt.

That night, as MacLeish read from his poetry, Frost began heckling him. “Archie’s poems all have the same tune,” he said in a whisper that could be heard. When MacLeish read the single-sentence poem, “You, Andrew Marvell,” smoke could be smelled. Frost had accidentally, on purpose, set fire to some papers and was beating them out and waving away the smoke.

Most people accepted the story of the accident, and the reading eventually concluded. MacLeish was still the center of attention, and he was asked to read from one of his plays. But Frost was not done with him. As Stegner wrote:

His comments from the floor, at first friendly and wisecracking, became steadily harsher and more barbed. He interrupted, he commented, he took exception. What began as the ordinary give and take of literary conversation turned into a clear intention of frustrating and humiliating Archie MacLeish, and the situation became increasingly painful to those who comprehended it.

Even Bernard DeVoto, a scholar and friend of Frost, had enough, calling out, “For God’s sake, Robert, let him read!” Frost ignored him, but shortly thereafter, on some pretext, “said something savage,” and left.

Afterwards, Frost’s defenders tried to kick sand over the events. One friend wrote only of “unfounded allusions” and “behavior not proven by fact.” There were people there who didn’t even notice what Stegner saw that night. But baiting MacLeish had caused a permanent rift between DeVoto and Frost. At the end of the conference, when they met and shook hands, DeVoto told him, “You’re a good poet, Robert, but you’re a bad man.”

Born: Barthold Niebuhr, biographer, historian, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1776; Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, novelist, County Cork, Ireland, 1850; Theodore Dreiser, novelist, short-story writer, Terre
Haute, Ind., 1871; C.S. Forester, novelist, Cairo, Egypt, 1899; Ira Levin, novelist, screenwriter, New York City, 1929; Antonia Fraser, historian, novelist, editor, London, 1932; William Least Heat-Moon, author, Kansas City, Mo., 1939.
Died: James Thomson, poet, Richmond, Va., 1748; Cesare Pavese, poet, critic, Turin, Italy, 1950; W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) Du Bois, sociologist, Accra, Ghana, 1963; Bennett Cerf, publisher, journalist, Mount Kisco, N.Y., 1971; Sam Levenson, humorist, New York City, 1980.