Robert Frost

Interior deserts


“Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it - it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less -
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
WIth no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. ‘‘

-- “Desert Places,’’ by Robert Frost

A club that's no more a club

Cellar hole in Dana, Mass.

Cellar hole in Dana, Mass.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

'Ruminate on an article in The Stamford Advocate  about how nature is fast reclaiming the Twin Lakes Swim & Tennis Club, in Stamford, foreclosed and abandoned in 2008, with its “14 acres delivered back to the whims of nature.’’

The newspaper’s Francis  Carr Jr. reported:

“In the parking lot, dragonflies flit among clumps of wildflowers growing through cracks in the asphalt. Farther on, where the swimming pool used to be, broken piles of rebar-laced concrete and stacks of wooden debris rise from thickets of thigh-high grass. Here and there, an overturned deck chair or a rusty old grill evoke the site’s leisurely past. Someone has spray-painted ‘RIP Twin Lakes’ across the roof of a vine-covered outbuilding.’’

The description reminded me of the crumbling dairy-farm buildings in the town I grew up in the ‘50s --  buildings that had been abandoned only about 20 years before as these small farms became uneconomic. The roofs were sagging and vines were extending themselves through broken windows.

That in turn reminded me of the late and eerie Robert Frost poem called “Directive,’’ parts of which I’ve quoted before.  It starts:


“Back out of all this now too much for us,

Back in a time made simple by the loss

Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off

Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,

There is a house that is no more a house

Upon a farm that is no more a farm

And in a town that is no more a town.’’

To read  the whole poem, please hit this link.

Our structures will erode, decay and disappear sooner than we might think.

To read Mr. Carr’s piece, please hit this link:



'For what they are'


"By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.

Sought for much after that, it will be found

Either to have gone groping underground

(And taken with it all the Hyla breed

That shouted in the mist a month ago,        

Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—

Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,

Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent

Even against the way its waters went.

Its bed is left a faded paper sheet        

Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—

A brook to none but who remember long.

This as it will be seen is other far

Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.

We love the things we love for what they are. ''

-- ''Hyla Brook,''   by Robert Frost


Hyla Brook was near the farm on which Frost and his family lived in 1900-1911.


Chance and choice in a yellow wood

"Arch, North Carolina'' (photo), by Boston area photographer Russell  duPont.

"Arch, North Carolina'' (photo), by Boston area photographer Russell  duPont.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.''

--The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

Contrary to what many people think, this very famous poem doesn't mean that the "I'' took the road that worked out best, the one that took the narrator to a good place. Rather it's about chance and choice, about one damn thing coming after another. Frost called it a "tricky'' poem.

Disappearing souls to count


"I came an errand one cloud-blowing evening

To a slab-built, black-paper-covered house

Of one room and one window and one door,

The only dwelling in a waste cut over

A hundred square miles round it in the mountains:

And that not dwelt in now by men or women.

(It never had been dwelt in, though, by women,

So what is this I make a sorrow of?)

I came as census-taker to the waste

To count the people in it and found none,

None in the hundred miles, none in the house,

Where I came last with some hope, but not much,

After hours' overlooking from the cliffs

An emptiness flayed to the very stone.

I found no people that dared show themselves,

None not in hiding from the outward eye.

The time was autumn, but how anyone

could tell the time of year when every tree

That could have dropped a leaf was down itself

And nothing but the stump of it was left

Now bringing out its rings in sugar of pitch;

And every tree up stood a rotting trunk

Without a single leaf to spend on autumn,

Or branch to whistle after what was spent.

Perhaps the wind the more without the help

Of breathing trees said something of the time

Of year or day the way it swung a door

Forever off the latch, as if rude men

Passed in and slammed it shut each one behind him

For the next one to open for himself.

I counted nine I had no right to count

(But this was dreamy unofficial counting)

Before I made the tenth across the threshold.

Where was my supper? Where was anyone's?

No lamp was lit. Nothing was on the table.

The stove was cold—the stove was off the chimney—

And down by one side where it lacked a leg.

The people that had loudly passed the door

Were people to the ear but not the eye.

They were not on the table with their elbows.

They were not sleeping in the shelves of bunks.

I saw no men there and no bones of men there.

I armed myself against such bones as might be

With the pitch-blackened stub of an ax-handle

I picked up off the straw-dust-covered floor.

Not bones, but the ill-fitted window rattled.

The door was still because I held it shut

While I thought what to do that could be done—

About the house—about the people not there.

This house in one year fallen to decay

Filled me with no less sorrow than the houses

Fallen to ruin in ten thousand years

Where Asia wedges Africa from Europe.

Nothing was left to do that I could see

Unless to find that there was no one there

And declare to the cliffs too far for echo,

'The place is desert, and let whoso lurks

In silence, if in this he is aggrieved,

Break silence now or be forever silent.

Let him say why it should not be declared so.'

The melancholy of having to count souls

Where they grow fewer and fewer every year

Is extreme where they shrink to none at all.

It must be I want life to go on living.''


-- "The Census Taker,''  by Robert Frost, set in New Hampshire.

'Until the tree could bear no more'

"Birches" (encaustic painting), by Nickerson Miles.

"Birches" (encaustic painting), by Nickerson Miles.

When I see birches bend to left and right 

Across the lines of straighter darker trees, 

I like to think some boy's been swinging them. 

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay 

As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them 

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning 

After a rain. They click upon themselves 

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored 

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. 

Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells 

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— 

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away 

You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, 

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed 

So low for long, they never right themselves: 

You may see their trunks arching in the woods 

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground 

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair 

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. 

But I was going to say when Truth broke in 

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm 

I should prefer to have some boy bend them 

As he went out and in to fetch the cows— 

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, 

Whose only play was what he found himself, 

Summer or winter, and could play alone. 

One by one he subdued his father's trees 

By riding them down over and over again 

Until he took the stiffness out of them, 

And not one but hung limp, not one was left 

For him to conquer. He learned all there was 

To learn about not launching out too soon 

And so not carrying the tree away 

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise 

To the top branches, climbing carefully 

With the same pains you use to fill a cup 

Up to the brim, and even above the brim. 

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, 

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. 

So was I once myself a swinger of birches. 

And so I dream of going back to be. 

It's when I'm weary of considerations, 

And life is too much like a pathless wood 

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs 

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping 

From a twig's having lashed across it open. 

I'd like to get away from earth awhile 

And then come back to it and begin over. 

May no fate willfully misunderstand me 

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away 

Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: 

I don't know where it's likely to go better. 

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, 

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk 

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, 

But dipped its top and set me down again. 

That would be good both going and coming back. 

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. 

"Birches,'' by Robert Frost

'You talk like a professor'

Lancaster bore him—such a little town,

Such a great man. It doesn’t see him often

Of late years, though he keeps the old homestead

And sends the children down there with their mother

To run wild in the summer—a little wild.       

Sometimes he joins them for a day or two

And sees old friends he somehow can’t get near.

They meet him in the general store at night,

Pre-occupied with formidable mail,


They seem afraid. He wouldn’t have it so:

Though a great scholar, he’s a democrat,

If not at heart, at least on principle.

Lately when coming up to Lancaster

His train being late he missed another train        

And had four hours to wait at Woodsville Junction

After eleven o’clock at night. Too tired

To think of sitting such an ordeal out,

He turned to the hotel to find a bed.


“No room,” the night clerk said. “Unless——”        

Woodsville’s a place of shrieks and wandering lamps

And cars that shook and rattle—and one hotel.


“You say ‘unless.’“


“Unless you wouldn’t mind

Sharing a room with someone else.”       

“Who is it?”

“A man.”

“So I should hope. What kind of man?”

“I know him: he’s all right. A man’s a man.

Separate beds of course you understand.”       

The night clerk blinked his eyes and dared him on.


“Who’s that man sleeping in the office chair?

Has he had the refusal of my chance?”


“He was afraid of being robbed or murdered.

What do you say?”        


“I’ll have to have a bed.”


The night clerk led him up three flights of stairs

And down a narrow passage full of doors,

At the last one of which he knocked and entered.

“Lafe, here’s a fellow wants to share your room.”      


“Show him this way. I’m not afraid of him.

I’m not so drunk I can’t take care of myself.”


The night clerk clapped a bedstead on the foot.

“This will be yours. Good-night,” he said, and went.


“Lafe was the name, I think?”        


“Yes, Layfayette.

You got it the first time. And yours?”



Doctor Magoon.”

“A Doctor?”       

“Well, a teacher.”


“Professor Square-the-circle-till-you’re-tired?

Hold on, there’s something I don’t think of now

That I had on my mind to ask the first

Man that knew anything I happened in with.        

I’ll ask you later—don’t let me forget it.”


The Doctor looked at Lafe and looked away.

A man? A brute. Naked above the waist,

He sat there creased and shining in the light,

Fumbling the buttons in a well-starched shirt.        

“I’m moving into a size-larger shirt.

I’ve felt mean lately; mean’s no name for it.

I just found what the matter was to-night:

I’ve been a-choking like a nursery tree

When it outgrows the wire band of its name tag.        65

I blamed it on the hot spell we’ve been having.

’Twas nothing but my foolish hanging back,

Not liking to own up I’d grown a size.

Number eighteen this is. What size do you wear?”


The Doctor caught his throat convulsively.        



“Fourteen! You say so!

I can remember when I wore fourteen.

And come to think I must have back at home

More than a hundred collars, size fourteen.        

Too bad to waste them all. You ought to have them.

They’re yours and welcome; let me send them to you.

What makes you stand there on one leg like that?

You’re not much furtherer than where Kike left you.

You act as if you wished you hadn’t come.        80

Sit down or lie down, friend; you make me nervous.”


The Doctor made a subdued dash for it,

And propped himself at bay against a pillow.


“Not that way, with your shoes on Kike’s white bed.

You can’t rest that way. Let me pull your shoes off.”       


“Don’t touch me, please—I say, don’t touch me, please.

I’ll not be put to bed by you, my man.”


“Just as you say. Have it your own way then.

‘My man’ is it? You talk like a professor.

Speaking of who’s afraid of who, however,       

I’m thinking I have more to lose than you

If anything should happen to be wrong.

Who wants to cut your number fourteen throat!

Let’s have a show down as an evidence

Of good faith. There is ninety dollars.        

Come, if you’re not afraid.”


“I’m not afraid.

There’s five: that’s all I carry.”


“I can search you?

Where are you moving over to? Stay still.        

You’d better tuck your money under you

And sleep on it the way I always do

When I’m with people I don’t trust at night.”


“Will you believe me if I put it there

Right on the counterpane—that I do trust you?”        105


“You’d say so, Mister Man.—I’m a collector.

My ninety isn’t mine—you won’t think that.

I pick it up a dollar at a time

All round the country for the Weekly News,

Published in Bow. You know the Weekly News?”        110


“Known it since I was young.”


“Then you know me.

Now we are getting on together—talking.

I’m sort of Something for it at the front.

My business is to find what people want:       

They pay for it, and so they ought to have it.

Fairbanks, he says to me—he’s editor—

Feel out the public sentiment—he says.

A good deal comes on me when all is said.

The only trouble is we disagree        120

In politics: I’m Vermont Democrat—

You know what that is, sort of double-dyed;

The News has always been Republican.

Fairbanks, he says to me, ‘Help us this year,’

Meaning by us their ticket. ‘No,’ I says,        125

‘I can’t and won’t. You’ve been in long enough:

It’s time you turned around and boosted us.

You’ll have to pay me more than ten a week

If I’m expected to elect Bill Taft.

I doubt if I could do it anyway.’“        


“You seem to shape the paper’s policy.”


“You see I’m in with everybody, know ’em all.

I almost know their farms as well as they do.”


“You drive around? It must be pleasant work.”


“It’s business, but I can’t say it’s not fun.        

What I like best’s the lay of different farms,

Coming out on them from a stretch of woods,

Or over a hill or round a sudden corner.

I like to find folks getting out in spring,

Raking the dooryard, working near the house.     

Later they get out further in the fields.

Everything’s shut sometimes except the barn;

The family’s all away in some back meadow.

There’s a hay load a-coming—when it comes.

And later still they all get driven in:        

The fields are stripped to lawn, the garden patches

Stripped to bare ground, the apple trees

To whips and poles. There’s nobody about.

The chimney, though, keeps up a good brisk smoking.

And I lie back and ride. I take the reins        

Only when someone’s coming, and the mare

Stops when she likes: I tell her when to go.

I’ve spoiled Jemima in more ways than one.

She’s got so she turns in at every house

As if she had some sort of curvature,        

No matter if I have no errand there.

She thinks I’m sociable. I maybe am.

It’s seldom I get down except for meals, though.

Folks entertain me from the kitchen doorstep,

All in a family row down to the youngest.”        


“One would suppose they might not be as glad

To see you as you are to see them.”



Because I want their dollar. I don’t want

Anything they’ve not got. I never dun.        

I’m there, and they can pay me if they like.

I go nowhere on purpose: I happen by.

Sorry there is no cup to give you a drink.

I drink out of the bottle—not your style.

Mayn’t I offer you——?”       


“No, no, no, thank you.”


“Just as you say. Here’s looking at you then.—

And now I’m leaving you a little while.

You’ll rest easier when I’m gone, perhaps—

Lie down—let yourself go and get some sleep.     

But first—let’s see—what was I going to ask you?

Those collars—who shall I address them to,

Suppose you aren’t awake when I come back?”


“Really, friend, I can’t let you. You—may need them.”


“Not till I shrink, when they’ll be out of style.”        


“But really I—I have so many collars.”


“I don’t know who I rather would have have them.

They’re only turning yellow where they are.

But you’re the doctor as the saying is.

I’ll put the light out. Don’t you wait for me:       

I’ve just begun the night. You get some sleep.

I’ll knock so-fashion and peep round the door

When I come back so you’ll know who it is.

There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.

I don’t want you should shoot me in the head.        

What am I doing carrying off this bottle?

There now, you get some sleep.”


He shut the door.

The Doctor slid a little down the pillow.


-- "A Hundred Collars,'' by Robert Frost

'My avocation and my vocation'


Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard, 
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!" 
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way. 
I knew pretty well what he had in mind: 
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split, 
As large around as the chopping block; 
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock. 
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good, 
That day, giving a loose my soul, 
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill. 
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still, 
You're one month on in the middle of May. 
But if you so much as dare to speak, 
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch, 
A wind comes off a frozen peak, 
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume, 
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom. 
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum. 
Except in color he isn't blue, 
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand, 
In every wheelrut's now a brook, 
In every print of a hoof a pond. 
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask. 
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, 
The grip of earth on outspread feet, 
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night, 
But not long since in the lumber camps). 
They thought all chopping was theirs of right. 
Men of the woods and lumberjacks, 
The judged me by their appropriate tool. 
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said. 
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head: 
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain. 
My right might be love but theirs was need. 
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right -- agreed.

But yield who will to their separation, 
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight. 
Only where love and need are one, 
And the work is play for mortal stakes, 
Is the deed ever really done. 

-- Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time''


January thaw


Come with rain, O loud Southwester!

Bring the singer, bring the nester;

Give the buried flower a dream;

Make the settled snow-bank steam;

Find the brown beneath the white;


But whate’er you do to-night,

Bathe my window, make it flow,

Melt it as the ices go;

Melt the glass and leave the sticks

Like a hermit’s crucifix;


Burst into my narrow stall;

Swing the picture on the wall;

Run the rattling pages o’er;

Scatter poems on the floor;

Turn the poet out of door.

-- Robert Frost, "To the Thawing Wind''


'Rethinking Robert Frost'


1974 stamp.

1974 stamp.

From poet/farmer Mike O’Connell’s piece about the last years of the charming, terrifying and still usually misunderstood Robert Frost, “Rethinking Robert Frost: I’ll beat the drum/ till it cry sleep to death’’. To read it, hit this link.

“For all {Robert} Frost’s hide-and-seek, for all his escapes into and out of the underbrush, in the end you can’t miss him. He hogs the road, blocks our way, hectors us until we understand him wrong or right. ‘It hurts like everything,’ he once wrote, ‘not to bring my point out more sharply.’ After his own conflicted fashion, he was straining with agitated heart to do this until the end. And as we witness the new century’s continuing stream of director’s-cut editions of his writings, we begin to see, {many} years after his death, what Frost meant about a willful return to earth. His ‘lover’s quarrel with the world’ endures; his prickly conversation with his reader goes on.’’

'For what they are'

By June our brook's run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow) --
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed, 
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat --
A brook to no one but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Robert Frost, ''Hyla Brook''

Lovely, dark and deep

birches "Birches,'' by RUSSELL DUPONT, in his show "A Sense of Place: Photographs by Russell duPont,'' at the James Library and Center for the Arts, Norwell, Mass., Sept. 5-Sept. 30.

Norwell is  a Boston suburb, a community with a strong sense of being on a river (the  marshy North River) and the burial site of John Cheever, who, although he spent most of his life in New York City and Westchester County, wrote hauntingly about the South Shore towns where he grew up and whose physical  beauty he cited.


I'd guess that many people readers remember this closing of Robert Frost poem "Birches'':


I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
The photo above is beautiful  but also a bit ominous, as are many Frost poems.
Read his poem "Design''.







Baby Boomers as shut-ins; Gees' infernal groves of academe


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Will America soon get more realistic about the “Silver Tsunami” of Baby Boomers heading into old age? So far, the nation’s policymakers have mostly been in denial, though it’s probably the biggest fiscal and social challenge of the next few decades in America and Western Europe.

But then, most Boomers themselves have been in deep denial. Many have not saved nearly enough money. They might have been lulled into complacency by seeing how many of their parents, beneficiaries of historical luck, have lived comfortably on old-fashioned defined-benefit pensions (and Social Security), which many of them started enjoying upon remarkably early retirements.

Some of the oldest Boomers — those born in the late 1940s — have those traditional pensions; most of the younger ones will have to settle for, at the most, 401(k)s. Meanwhile, most Boomers underestimate how much ill health will beset them as they age.

But there are even bigger problems. Consider how dispersed America (capital of anomie) has become. As always, many families with children break up as couples divorce — though more and more the couples don’t get married in the first place — and people move far away from “home” to seek jobs or better weather, or are just restless. This leads to a sharp decline (accelerated by modern birth control) in the number of large but close-knit families. At the same time, there has been a huge increase in the number of younger families where only a very harried mother, who may well never have been married, is the sole parent in place, amidst a societal emphasis on “self-actualization” above family and civic duties. All these factors mean that a lot of old people won’t have the family supports enjoyed by previous generations of old people, even as they generally live longer, albeit with chronic illnesses.

There are, of course, retirement communities, with some of the high-end ones set up like country clubs. The better ones have gradations of care, from independence, within a rather tight if safe community, organized by for-profit or nonprofit organizations, to “assisted living,” which usually involves residing in an apartment and getting help with some daily tasks, and, last, the nursing-home wing for those who have slipped into full-scale dementia or are otherwise disabled.

But plenty of people can’t afford to live in a retirement community.

More realistic and pleasant for many folks are such organizations as the Beacon Hill Village model, in Boston. In this, for hundreds of dollars a year in dues you become part of a formal network of old people (and thus indirectly the networks of their families and friends) and get such services as easy access to transportation, shopping, some health-care connections and trips to cultural events. The central idea is to let people “age in place” — to stay in their homes as long as possible.

Of course, most old people eventually get very sick and end up in the hospital and/or nursing home. But the Beacon Hill approach is attractive — if you can afford the dues.

The fact is that most oldsters will have to create their own informal networks of family and friends to help look after each other as their mobility declines. And in the end, the majority must depend on family members, if they can find them. So often, obituaries report that the recent decedent was at the time of demise in some strange place with no seeming link to his or her past. It’s very often the community where a child — more often a daughter — has been living. As Robert Frost said: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” “They” generally means a relative, not a friend.

Until then, will you have enough loyal friends to look after you when you get really old? You’d better make sure that your pals include some folks too young to live in retirement communities.


Hurrah for “Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion,” Constance Bumgarner Gee’s well-written memoir. Most of the self-published book is about her time as the wife of the very driven, peripatetic and big-spending E. Gordon Gee, who has led the University of Colorado, West Virginia University (twice), Ohio State University (twice) and Brown University, where he had the tough luck to succeed the much-liked  and world-class hugger Vartan Gregorian, who had gone on to run the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There’s lots of, by turns, hilarious and sad personal stuff in the book — about her sometimes bizarre relationship with her immensely well-paid and workaholic husband, the silly controversy about her using marijuana to treat her Meniere’s disease, her love of her riverfront house in Westport, Mass., and her ambivalent attitude toward her native South. But best is her vivid portrayal of university boards and administrations these days.

It’s not a pretty picture. The social climbing, empire-building, brand obsession, backstabbing and money-grubbing don’t present many good civic models for today’s students. The  stuff at Brown was bad; it was much worse at Vanderbilt in Mrs. Gee's story. Big universities are starting to look like New York City hedge funds whose partners are driven to build ever bigger houses to show off to each other in East Hampton.

Now to reread Mary McCarthy's novel "The Groves of Academe''.

Robert Whitcomb (, a former editor of The Providence Journal's editorial pages,  is a Providence-based editor and writer. 

Third person rural


While driving through the Vermont hills a few weeks ago, I thought about two artists much associated with New England’s rural parts — Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost — and the relationship between their lucrative rural public personas and private lives. No surprise that there was quite a gap! For one thing, they were born outside New England — Frost in San Francisco and Rockwell in New York City — and grew up in cities. More importantly, their public images were, and are, at considerable variance from their personal lives.

Norman Rockwell has been much in the news again lately because of the new book “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” by Deborah Solomon. In it, she not only discusses Rockwell’s genius as an illustrator, but also a private life that was often quite tormented. (Like, I would guess, most lives.)

Ms. Solomon discusses Rockwell’s depression and anxiety. And she speculates (to the dismay of the artist’s family) that his life may have been complicated by homoerotic longings that may (or may not?) have expressed themselves in his many pictures of winsome, Tom Sawyer-like boys and handsome square-jawed men. He also had three troubled marriages and was a hypochondriac — and to the pleasure of his millions of fans, a workaholic.

Stockbridge, Mass., the Berkshires town whose scenes provided many of the ideas behind Rockwell’s famous illustrations, is also the site of the Austen Riggs Center, the mental hospital whose staff has treated many celebrities. Ms. Solomon says that Rockwell and his second wife, Mary Barstow, an alcoholic, moved there from Arlington, Vt., so that Mrs. Rockwell could be treated for depression. Rockwell himself used Austen Riggs’s services.

And yet the pictures that Norman Rockwell painted of the town are mostly upbeat — evoking a small-town communitarian paradise. “I paint life the way I want it to be,” he famously said.

Then there was the mating of modernist and 19th century poetry that is the great work of Robert Frost. Frost, like Rockwell, was a city boy whom the public came to primarily associate with rural New England themes, but innocent and Arcadian his poems are not. Many evoke a chilly or even malevolent universe. (My favorite is “Design.”) Far more Ethan Frome than Currier & Ives.

But as his fame spread in the English-speaking world (he first became well-known in England, where he lived in 1912-15), that he looked like Hollywood’s idea of a Yankee farmer, and his folksy genial manner (for public consumption, anyway) tended to overcome in the public mind the darkness of his poems. He could have been a character in a Rockwell painting. This was in part intentional: Being seen as a charming cracker-barrel philosopher/poet brought in the lecture and poet-in-residence fees. He became the most famous poet in America.

Thus we have the curious transformation of the deeply intellectual Frost (whose characters were mostly ordinary country people, whose speech patterns and emotions he was deeply familiar with) into an icon of popular culture.

Consider the revision in Norman Rockwell’s reputation from “merely” a “fine popular illustrator” to being seen as a kind of great artist, with aesthetic links to other masters going back to the Renaissance. It takes a long time for society to figure out what it really thinks of its artists and politicians.


Memoirs have been one of the comparatively strong parts of the book business in recent years. With aging Baby Boomers, expect a lot more. A few recent ones:

‘’Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House,” by Denis O’Neill, is a mildly fictionalized account of the 1969-1970 academic year at Dartmouth College. O’Neill is a journalist, screenwriter and musician. On Dec. 1, 1969, the Selective Service System held the first lottery since World War II for the draft, bringing great anxiety to some and relief to others, and “The Sixties,” as we know them, reached their crazy crescendo. (You could say that “The Sixties” as a cultural phenomenon didn’t really end until, say, 1972.)

Then there’s Rhode Island investment mogul Tom DePetrillo’s book about the downs (including personal bankrupty) but bigger ups of his career. He was one of 11 children and a school dropout before he made a fortune as an investor. The book provides chatty and colorful advice and observations on business, public policy, politics and life in general.

Finally there’s Ralph Barlow’s “Beneficent Church in Providence: A Church Engaged with an Emerging New World,” the Rev. Mr. Barlow’s memoir of running the church from 1964 to 1997, during which this downtown Congregational institution’s experience included many of the recent social upheavals of American society.

Robert Whitcomb (, a biweekly contributor, is a Providence-based writer and editor. He blogs at