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Joyce Carol Oates Maligns Robert Frost in Nov. Harper’s

By Harriet Staff

joyce carolo oates

“Poetry . . . not in the business of believing.” The New Republic’s Alice Robb gets real with Joyce Carol Oates, taking the novelist to task for her portrayal of Robert Frost in a story called “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in this month’s issue of Harper’s. Oates “imagines a meeting between an aspiring writer and an aging Frost, [and] paints the latter as an arrogant, sexist pig who gave up on his mentally ill children,” writes Robb. She did some digging:

…The story has outraged Frost’s fans, biographers, and especially his survivors. “I would like to see the record set straight before I die,” said Frost’s 86-year-old grandson, John Cone Jr., who was most upset by the insinuations about Frost’s family life. “My first reaction is wonderment that Harper’s has to stoop so low to fill its pages.” Frost’s granddaughter Lesley Lee Francis wrote me to say the story is “an ill-spirited and confused attack.”

Some people without a blood relation to the poet are furious, too. Last week, I got in touch with two prominent Frost scholars, Mark Richardson and Donald Sheehy, who promptly sent me a 14-page joint reply detailing the problems with Oates’s portrayal of Frost. Another of Frost’s biographers, William H. Pritchard, called the story “utterly preposterous and quite distasteful.” Sheehy, a professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania who has spent years studying Frost and coedited The Letters of Robert Frost (due next year from Harvard University Press), said, “Oates’s characterizations are so wrongheaded that they would be laughable were they not also malicious.”

Oates cites both [Frost biographer Lawrance] Thompson’s slurs and artistic license in her defense: “It’s totally a work of fiction,” she told me over email. “The portrait of Frost in [Lawrance] Thompson’s biography is ‘demonic’ in fact. But I’d drawn upon material in Jeffrey [Meyers’] more balanced biography.” (The New York Times called Meyers’ book “another Thompsonesque thumping”; Richardson called it “tabloid-esque.”) When I asked her what she would say to a historian calling her story malicious, she replied, “It is natural for commentators to come to imagine that they ‘own’ an individual, as some biographers feel of their subjects. But this is erroneous.”

But does that give Oates the right to play fast and loose with the facts? She notes in a postscript to the story that it’s “a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research.” Although the narrator, Evangeline Fife, may be a figment of Oates’s imagination, Robert Frost is not, and neither are the other “characters” in the story—including Frost’s wife, Elinor, his sister, Jeanie, and his children Irma, Lesley, Marjorie and Carol. “The lady”—Oates—“has an ulterior motive and is being very self-serving,” said Cone. “There are so many people trying to cash in on Grandfather’s memory.”

Read the rest of the article at The New Republic. More on the skewering can also be found at The Washington Post.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, October 31st, 2013 by Harriet Staff.