Samuel Williston Professor of English and class of 1937
Interviewed on June 21, 1979
Subject: Reminiscences of Robert Frost
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]
G. Armour Craig
June 21, 1979
Horace W. Hewlett
FOR: Amherst College
This is Horace Hewlett in the office of Dean G. Armour Craig in Converse Hall on Thursday, June 21, 1979.
HWH: Crack, you were a student of Robert Frost’s as an undergraduate. Do you recall what year you had him as a teacher?
CRAIG: I knew Frost when I was a student. He didn’t really have any students in any formal sense. I came as a freshman in 1933 and by that time he had really stopped teaching any formal course. He had taught courses in composition. He originally taught, he was hired, in fact, to teach Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama when George Bosworth Churchill was elected to the General Court and a replacement was needed for him during the spring semester while he was doing his legislative duties. That’s how Frost came to Amherst. He’d been here originally in 1915, I think it was.
HWH: I jotted down his dates. He came in ‘17 and stayed for three years until ‘20; then he came again in ‘25 for two years; then as Simpson Lecturer ‘25 and ‘26; again from ‘26 to ‘38; and finally when Charlie Cole brought him back in ‘49 until ‘63. But you knew him when he was a professor from ‘26 to ‘38.
CRAIG: Right. In those days his most famous course — and the course that he gave the longest — was a course in which he examined various acts of judgment in philosophy and in literature and in art. It was a course in what is the nature of judgment, what do we do when we judge something? It was really a kind of a history of philosophy, of this faculty of the mind or faculty of the character, really, that he taught by the case method. He also, of course, taught regularly; he had a small course in composition. But by about 1930 — I’ve never ascertained the exact dates of this — he really had pretty much stopped teaching entirely. And he wasn’t here all the time. He regularly went south for the winter and he spent a lot of time at one of his many Vermont farms, as well. So he was really around Amherst in the middle fall and in the early spring, although his residence was longer when he was living down on Sunset Avenue when I was an undergraduate. But when he came back as Simpson Lecturer under Charlie (Cole), he came, as you know, for a month in the fall and a month in the spring, and those were always the times that he would surely be here. But, as I say, in 1933, when I was a freshman, he was no longer actually teaching courses.
I first met him at George Whicher’s house, George and Steve, whom you of course knew very well. It was Steve who really arranged it, I guess. He invited Stuart Hughes and Fair Cowan and me and Walter Hoyt, too, to come to tea at his father’s and mother’s house and there was Robert Frost. I was very, very impressed. And he was just marvelous. He talked, he loved to talk to young people. He needed to talk to young people, really. And we had a very exhilarating time. On that occasion as he was leaving, I spoke to him semi-privately and asked if I might come and see him sometime. This was in the spring of 1934 and beginning then and for all the time I was an undergraduate, I used to go to see him when he was here-- oh perhaps twice in the fall and twice in the spring.
HWH: Would you go to his house?
CRAIG: Yes. Usually it was late afternoon and sometimes we’d have a cup of tea, sometimes not, sometimes Mrs. Frost would be there and join us, sometimes not. One interesting thing that happened when I was a senior: Peggy, my wife, whom you know, who was then a student at Connecticut College for Women, as it was then called, in New London, was up here and I took her to the Frosts’ to tea. Mrs. Frost was very much in evidence that day and she couldn’t have been sweeter to the pair of us. We were planning to be married then; we weren’t officially engaged or anything like that, but we were obviously a “pair.” One of the things that happened as a result of this was that the poetry, Frost’s poetry, for my then not-wife, now-wife, Peggy, took on all kinds of new meanings. Having met Mrs. Frost and seen them together for an hour — and it was just general, social conversation — Mrs. Frost asked her about herself and about her family and so on — but it wasn’t particularly literary, we certainly didn’t talk about his poetry. It was just a sort of personal acquaintanceship. Anyway, seeing them together and then going back and reading the poetry afresh, Peggy said that she heard all kinds of things that she hadn’t heard before — particularly in a poem like “West Running Brook,” which is a dialogue between man and wife. But even in the poems that are not dramatic, in which there isn’t a dialogue, there were features of the poem, tones of love, that she hadn’t heard before, wasn’t aware of. And this was true of my experience with him, also, that she was very, very much in his imaginations, and very, very much in the poems in all kinds of ways. She was very protective of him. I didn’t see him an awful lot, as I said; nobody did. I think I was the only person in my class who went to see him regularly. As I say, it couldn’t have been more than four times a year, maybe five, maybe six some years. Of course, there would be other encounters, but these were hours of one-on-one, as they say now. She was very protective of him. Ted Baird tells that she always let him sleep in the morning — and he loved to sleep in the morning, he never wanted to go to bed and he never wanted to get up-- but she did wake him up one morning when the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional...
HWH: That was the chicken case?
CRAIG: Right. She was much more conservative than he and she was much more interested in politics. She read the Herald Tribune every morning and was somewhere to the right of that conservative editorial page always. She was very sharp about the New Deal and she had no use for it at all.
HWH: Were they active among other members of the faculty at all? Were they socially active?
CRAIG: Well, I suppose-- yes. They didn’t give big parties, they didn’t go to big parties. They had a circle of friends that they saw regularly — the Zorns, Otto and Ethel Manthey-Zorn, George and Harriet Whicher, and Roy and Alma Elliott. They were very close. They were particularly close, Mrs. Frost especially, to the Elliotts because their children were of similar ages. And there were many, many times when Leslie would have the measles, and I can’t say the names now of the Elliott girls...
HWH: I never knew them.
CRAIG: One of them married Steve Kleene, the mathematician. At any rate, they were mothers together, worrying especially over their daughters. But no, Amherst wasn’t, in the days I’m talking about, wasn’t as social a place I think as it now has become. The Frosts didn’t drink at home. While she was alive I never had, was never offered any sherry or anything-- nothing at all. I never was there to a meal, in fact, and-- well, cocktail parties were unknown and dinner parties-- yes, I suppose, but not on a big scale.
HWH: There was considerable tragedy in the Frost household. Were children other than Leslie living at home at that time?
CRAIG: They must have, but I never saw them. They must have been. No, she’s the only child I knew, I never knew the others at all, never knew the son.
HWH: Robert and Eleanor were, I’m told, very devoted to one another and he was completely dependent on her.
CRAIG: Oh very, very much. They really lived in each other’s minds and it was a profound intimacy, no question about that. I just don’t know what to say about the account of her death that Larry Thompson gives in his “Life.” If she would not see him at all at the end, she was either very out of her mind, or else it was some very, very deep resistance to letting him see her suffering. It may have been that. I wouldn’t know, but I do know that they knew each other very, very well. I mean more than that-- it was, as I say, it was a profound intimacy and she knew what he could stand and what he couldn’t and she dedicated her life to him.
HWH: It had to be Meiklejohn who brought him here. Did Frost ever say how it came about?
CRAIG: Well he came here in his first “barding” round, just after he’d come back from England. Roy Elliott was aware of him and Stark Yotmg was aware of him and they had him come for a reading. It was up in Williston, and W.R. Brown was there, Zorn was there, I guess George Whicher was there, as a matter of fact I think George may even have been an undergraduate, no, I guess not.
HWH: No, he was the Class of ‘10.
CRAIG: Right. But he was back here; he was back by then, that’s right, he was. I once looked it up and knew all the names of people who were there-- in fact I have that written down, I’ll give it to you sometime-- some of that specific history. This was in the spring, and the next year there was this vacancy, temporary vacancy, when Churchill went to Boston, so Frost came to fill in and one thing led to another and he was made a permanent member of the faculty.
HWH: Well when he came initially, I expect he had regular courses.
CRAIG: Yes he did. He taught Churchill’s Elizabethan drama course and his course in Shakespeare, and I guess taught freshmen as well. He did a regular professor’s job. And then they made a place for him.
HWH: You hear many stories of how he conducted his classes. Do you have any information on that, from him, or others?
CRAIG: There are a lot of apocryphal stories, the most famous of which is, of course, that he has this pile of papers that the class has handed in, and he asks them, “Is any of this any good? Is any of this of any interest?,” and they all said, “Oh no, oh no,” so he threw it in the wastebasket. And he might have done it. I’m sure he did. He would do things like that from time to time. But his classes must have been — well, as I say, he wasn’t giving them by the time I knew him, but they must have been what his conversations were. He could start from anywhere.
HWH: So the topic of the course was merely a framework rather than the substance itself.
CRAIG: Oh yes, yes, especially the composition course. He never was very organized. He says that he used to speak about how he let knowledge that WOULD cling to him, cling to him, like walking across a field and the burrs that stick to you, fine-- the others, don’t. As a matter of fact, that’s a figure that is an echo of — I don’t know if he ever knew this or not — of Wordsworth (who) says the same thing in the introduction to his first volume of poetry. He walked through a lot of fields and he collected a lot of burrs, but he was never very systematic about it. His reading was all catch-as-catch-can. He had a marvelous verbal memory, though. The things that he knew, by God he knew. He could say Milton’s “Lycidas” right up to the second to last year of his life. I heard him say it then. He could recite border ballads which he learned when he was a child. It was his first poetry love, I think. He knew a lot of those, a lot of those. You’d be talking to him about somebody like Coventry Pathmore, say, a late nineteenth century poet, or not so much his contemporaries, but Pope, almost any poet — if he would talk about that poet’s work at all, he would start quoting him. As he said himself, he really liked to have things by heart, not by head. And he was that way about what he knew and what he taught. Really what one did as a student of Frost was pretty much what he recommended people to do generally about their education, particularly in colleges-- hang around until you catch on; hang around and catch on-- and that’s what one’s sessions with him were. And the sessions that I had with him when I went to see him, as an undergraduate, were really no different from the many, many walks that I took with him later on when he came back and I was on the faculty under Charlie Cole in ‘49. The early encounters were just like the later ones, He had one mode, and only one, and it did very much depend on conversation in the root sense of that word, that is to say, a dramatic relationship in which one idea is converted into another idea. They’re shaped up, the shaping-up of ideas, of feelings, of impulses, the shaping of it up in dialogue.
HWH: Do you recall, as a student, his conducting any of those soirees such as Charlie used to have for him?
CRAIG: No. He didn’t. The nearest thing to it was occasionally, as I say, there were tea-parties like the one at which I first met him at George Whicher’s home. But he was not very much in evidence.
HWH: I barely recall seeing him and yet a classmate of mine was quite close to him. That was Charlie Foster.
CRAIG: Oh I know he was.
HWH: I think Charlie used to call on him quite frequently.
CRAIG: Yes I think he did, I know he did. There are a lot of letters...
HWH: Charlie was awarded the first Frost fellowship, I believe.
CRAIG: No, no, he went to graduate school. Jim Hayford was the (first).
HWH: Oh is that so?
CRAIG: Yes. Jim was the first and in fact, the only. Jim was ‘35, and that came about I’m told, well I was told by Frost, himself, at the Alumni lunch in June ‘34, when I was a student. Frost spoke to the Alumni at the old luncheon-- you know, down in the Cage with everybody sitting there full of chicken pie and coffee and roasting, and the women up in the balcony not allowed down there. Those were great affairs, I really miss them. I think the Alumni really came together there as they don’t now, I’m afraid. Well, anyway, Frost was particularly wonderfully eloquent on this occasion and Stanley King was terribly pleased and he said, “What would you like me to do? This was just superb! What would you like me to do for you?” And Frost said, “Well I would kinda like to have a little fellowship.” The terms of it were pretty stringent; in fact I think he had Hayford in mind when he made this, when he answered Stanley’s generous invitation to make him an offer. It was $1,000. You couldn’t get married and you couldn’t hang around a big university-- he didn’t want anybody going to Harvard and reading too many books-- he wanted people to read what they had to read, what they needed to read. He didn’t want you to be a graduate student and he didn’t want you hanging around the literary scene in New York. It wasn’t very much money, well a thousand dollars was a great deal more then than now, about five or six times what it now is, I guess, and one could live on it certainly. His idea was that you’d live in a small town and if you needed a little extra money, you’d go work in a store or something like that, part time. It worked very well for Hayford; it was precisely what he wanted and needed. Then the next year, it was your class.
CRAIG: ‘36. There was one person who was sort of in the running for it, but by mutual agreement nothing was done, so no award was made that year. The next year, an offer was made of the award, in fact it was offered to me, and I thought very hard about it, and I said, no. He agreed that my poetry was not very good poetry. It had a lot of ideas in it, but I really was interested in philosophy, so I said, “I think I’d better go to graduate school,” and did. I think it lapsed after that.
HWH: I think the one I’m speaking of, Crack, was the summer fellow at Breadloaf.
CRAIG: Oh, oh. Well I guess I didn’t know about that.
HWH: Charlie Foster would not have been eligible for the four-year fellowship because he was married already. Did Frost ever attend Department meetings, to your knowledge?
CRAIG: No. Not to my knowledge.
HWH: How did he get along with Ted Baird?
CRAIG: Oh very well. Enormously.
HWH: I would suspect so.
CRAIG: A very, very great respect. When I was an undergraduate, I spoke of something that Professor Baird said and he said, “Did he say that?” Then he paused a moment and said, “He’s a good one.” His relation to Ted was very different from his relation to Roy and to George (Roy Elliott and George Whicher) and to Manthey-Zorn. It was not as intimate, but I think he respected Ted more than the others. I mean it was a relationship in which respect was a very large ingredient. Nobody can kid around with Ted Baird, as you know, and Frost realized that, that he had to curb some of his more outrageous observations that Roy would take and sort of chuckle at and tell him, “All you have to do, Robert, is join the church and you’ll be all right.” Of course he talked with George; with George the relationship was of course very close and familial and intimate, the family and all, but it was also very literary. George had quite a range. He knew classics, he was interested in Mediaeval Latin poetry and Frost was fascinated by it.
HWH: He did translations.
CRAIG: Yes. Right.
HWH: A couple of books.
CRAIG: And George had a marvelously elegant range of literary lore and knowledge and taste and I think they had a lot of literary conversation.
HWH: Did Frost ever comment on Emily Dickinson?
CRAIG: Curiously, not. He never volunteered anything about her. I never pursued the subject with him very much. I never have been a strong-- Emily Dickinson is not one of my favorite poets. She never came up, her work never came up in conversations that I had with him, and I never heard him say very much. He likedGeorge Whicher’s book, I know that. He liked it very much. I never heard him quote her, though he must have been able to. I don’t know, I think that the style, her poetic modes were not, couldn’t in the nature of things, have been his
HWH: He was a very competitive man, too.
CRAIG: Extraordinarily sensitive and touchy, even when he was at the height of his fame. When he came back to be the Simpson lecturer in ‘49, as you know, he would give either in the fall or in the spring his big lecture and then there would be an account of a little session afterwards, which got to be not so little-- at the President’s House. There would be undergraduates, just a few select undergraduates, some faculty, and if anybody said, on one of those occasions later, anything that implied even, that he wasn’t quite up to the performance of last year-- something like that-- he would be depressed as hell. He had a room with a sitting-room at the Lord Jeff in the Ell at the back. It was on the second floor, that is the floor above the garden, and it was at the end — I should be able to remember the number but I don’t — but you could get into this by going up the backstairs there off Spring Street, and he could go in and out that way. And as I say, he had a little sitting-room. The students would go to see him, by appointment, not in great numbers and not very often singly, usually there’d be two or three together, but occasionally a student would say something to him that implied that he was...
HWH: That he might be slipping?
CRAIG: Well-- that such and such a poem isn’t so great, is it? Or something like that. Yes, he was unusually sensitive. He’s the only great man I’ve ever known, so that I’m in no position to make any kind of a comparative judgment. I don’t know whether T.S. Eliot was like this. I don’t know, apparently he was not. Of course, he ran a publishing company, as you know, he was a senior partner of Faber and Faber and was in the London literary scene all the time, editing that magazine and writing reviews and so on. Frost wasn’t that way at all. But those occasions when he came back as Simpson Lecturer were — well you know as well as I what they were like in the Chapel. When he’d give his big talk, his annual appearance, people would come from all over the Valley, you know; they’d come at 6:30 and they camped.
HWH: Our office used to make arrangements for that, you know. It eventually got to a point where you had to pick up tickets. You were allowed two and priorities were given, first to students, of course, but it was incredible the number of people who would flock.
I recall once going over to his room in the Lord Jeff to record his comments for a phonograph record that we were making at the time. I was amazed at how he backed away from a microphone. He actually seemed frightened of it. Perhaps a microphone with no audience was different from the podium.
CRAIG: Well, of course, in his youth there were no telephones. In fact, you and I are old enough to know the early days of the telephone. I can remember people being intimidated by the telephone; in fact I was for a while. Nowadays, of course, it really is an extension of one’s own senses for everybody — I mean the hours people spend on the phone! And so I think it was partly that. He did do a lot of filming, making video tapes for various causes; the U.S. Information Services, the State Department, and so on had him. I did several times round up students and get them usually at the Alumni House, once in the Rotherwas Room-- a very unlikely site for him-- but the students would sit around on the floor and on chairs near him and we would make a facsimile of a conversation with Robert Frost. I would do some of the feeding-- I got so I could get him started pretty easily. It took some doing. You’ve got to be very tactful about how you got him moving in this kind of situation, but if you got the right combination and got him moving, it could really be pretty wonderful and it didn’t matter whether it was being video-taped or not-- it was a session or it wasn’t. And he did a lot of that, so I guess what overcame the mike-fright there, was the fact that he forgot that he was on camera.
HWH: You mentioned earlier that students might drop by his room at the Lord Jeff. How were they selected?
CRAIG: Well they were self-selected, but they would as me-- I was sort of his secretary when he was here-- and some students would ask me for an appointment, to arrange an appointment, although not all did, and of course the faculty people, and other people around went to see him. He had friends in the town and many friends at the University, of course, and they would go in and out. What I did, mainly, was to make sure that he didn’t sign up to go to two fraternities, say, on the same evening, or something like that. He did a lot of that at first when he came back and he also visited classes. He took over Ted Baird’s Shakespeare class a couple of times and other people had him in. I never did that. I knew he wouldn’t refuse me, and I didn’t want to ask him-- it wasn’t his sort of thing, really.
HWH: He was very ready to accept invitations wasn’t he? It must have been a real problem of keeping his schedule straight.
CRAIG: Well, he lived this way all the time. It didn’t matter where he was, there were always people trying to see him. He wouldn’t see anybody, of course, in the morning before ten thirty or eleven o’clock. I used to go to see him. In those days I taught at nine and ten, I think-- you know the 7:50s were over by that time-- but I’d go down and see him after my ten o’clock class. You know: “What’s up for today? What do you want to do?”
HWH: Did you see him nearly daily?
CRAIG: Yes. I saw him every day. Sometimes we’d have lunch together, sometimes not. I suppose usually not. He was just not very alert until about eleven o’clock in the morning. He never, as I say, he never wanted to go to bed and he never wanted to get up. When he first came, we lived on College Street in the Cooper House, the big mansard-roofed place across the street from the Chem Lab; we lived in the west half of that house. George Funnell and Tony Scenna and Tuffy McGoun lived in the other half. Frost would come down for the evening quite often, and in fact, if you can believe this, one of my children once said, “Oh, is he coming to dinner again?” I’ll revert to that in a moment, but he’d come for the evening and sometimes there’d be just us, quite usually there’d be other people as well. You know, I had to get up and work the next day, teach the next day, and so did everybody else, so along about twelve o’clock or so he’d say, “Well, walk me home now.” And so I’d walk him up to the Jeff-- other people have had this experience many times, it’s very typical-- I’d walk him to the Jeff and then he’d say, “Well, I’ll walk you back a little ways.” So you’d go to and fro, the distance to be split getting smaller and smaller until finally you found yourself immobile in the middle of town at about half past two, and look up at that clock as it is in one of the poems, and the time was neither wrong nor right, but I knew I had to go to bed.
HWH: That happened to me.
CRAIG: I’m sure it did.
HWH: Crack, we’re nearly at the end of this side of the tape. Have you got a little more time?
[END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE. BEGINNING OF SIDE TWO]
HWH: I remember doing just the same thing when he was at our house on Amity Street several times. We made a terrible mistake once with having him for dinner along with Lord Amherst.
CRAIG: Oh I remember that, yes.
HWH: And the only other ones there were...
CRAIG: In fact I delivered him to your house, I think.
HWH: Yes you did. Toby and Janet Dakin. And he couldn’t stand Lord Jeff and Lord Jeff couldn’t stand him.
This must have taken over your life for a month every fall and spring.
CRAIG: Well it did. But there were wonderful things. In 1952 we moved to South East Street and he liked coming out there. He would usually walk out and we didn’t very often walk back, I’d drive him back usually.
HWH: You say he sometimes walked out?
CRAIG: Oh he usually walked out and it made a very nice walk for Ghillie, the border collie that he had for a long time — a beautiful dog and My God that dog was trained, beautifully trained! Oh exquisite, one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen. And you know they are dogs that can be trained to do all kinds of things. They’d be out for a walk and they’d come to an intersection and the dog would wait, wouldn’t cross. Oh, he would fetch he would do all kinds of things. He used to bring Ghillie out and they’d go down in the big meadow below our house there and he’d throw sticks for him.
HWH: I don’t recall that dog at all.
CRAIG: I think the dog died, I guess, in ‘54 maybe. I think we had two years at least of Ghillie out there, maybe more. The first time he walked into the house it was brand new and of course in those days, that much glass was unusual and it is a very nice New England prospect looking down the meadow...
HWH: And over at the Pelham Hills.
CRAIG: The Pelham hills and so on. He walked in and he looked around and he looked up and he said, “You’re over-privileged!” But I was speaking about the children earlier. He was really very good, he had a very natural relation with all the young, but with small children as well. He taught my kids something about the constellations, things that I had never tried to do and hadn’t done. He loved the night sky and he liked to step out on the terrace in the evening when it was dark and look up and he’d talk, I can remember him trying to show Sara where and how to see Cassiopeia, the Chair and so on.
HWH: I recall at our house we had a book our daughter Betsy would like to have him sign. And he said, “I’ll do it when you learn one of my poems.” So she did and he signed it, “To Betsy Hewlett for having learned one of my poems.”
CRAIG: He did the same thing for Sara once-- and he said “any poem,” he didn’t say “one of mine.” I’ve forgotten what it was she learned; it was not one of his. He then copied into the flyleaf, “Spring Pools.”
HWH: Is that so? That’s a lovely thing to have.
CRAIG: Yes. He wrote out for me a large chunk of “Kittyhawk,” a late, very late poem. It’s an interesting document because it varies from the finished version in certain interesting ways. That’s the only rare Frostiana I have.
HWH: I remember once getting a Modern Library edition of his Collected Poems and apologizing that this was what he should be signing. I said, “I’ll be satisfied with just your initials.” He said, “I’ll sign any book of mine.”
CRAIG: There was embossed on the 1949 Collected Poems his signature, and he gave me a copy of it. He gave one to Ben (Brower) and one to me; I guess he gave others, but we were together when he handed these to us. My inscription says, “Much more than departmentally.” I’ve forgotten what Ben’s said, but something like that. But he said about his signature on that occasion, “You know that my signature hasn’t changed since I was a boy.” We went down to a “do” at Harvard at the Houghton sometime in the early ‘fifties. It was the first time I’d seen any early manuscripts of Frost’s, and there was on display a letter he’d written to Harvard to be admitted, explaining why he was applying at this advanced age-- I guess he was pretty well along then, he must have been twenty-five or six-- trying to explain why the Dartmouth experience had not taken. It’s a charming letter. But it’s true: it was then and was at the end of his life a signature that was wrought — not manually, he didn’t sign things, he didn’t write things — it looks like a wrought thing. Very, very strong. A very strong hand. But it is true; his signature didn’t change. You look at this young, very youthful-- well there were other high school documents and you look at them and you say, “That’s Robert Frost’s hand.” A very, very strong sense of identity.
HWH: Do you recall why he left Amherst?
CRAIG: I think it is true that Stanley King did say that he wanted a little more out of Frost. He wasn’t doing much of anything then, and it really was a form of patronage-- Amherst College was his patron. And what did he do? I’m talking now of 1937-38. He really didn’t want to be held to a schedule, he didn’t want that. He had as much of “hanging ‘round” the young at Amherst as he needed, as he wanted. From the very beginning he was always going off giving readings here and there, and by 1938 it was a very, very large part of his time. He went all over the country, to the West Coast. He would be gone on rail journeys a month at a time-- pretty nearly a month anyway-- so there was a lot of that, and he was more interested in that than he was in trying to back to some kind of a regular informal, no matter how informal, course here. I guess there were also members of the faculty who, you know, said “My God! What does he do to earn his pay?” And his relation to the College had gradually taken this shape. As I say, when I was an undergraduate, there was no seminar, nothing-- and he didn’t even necessarily read at the College every year. Do you remember his reading, giving a reading when we were in college?
HWH: I don’t recall one.
CRAIG: So I think that Stanley did say that he wished he’d be a little more active. Well he said this to Robert at a time when he was very, very low. His wife had died, he was just out of his mind with grief and the combination of a real emotional revolution in his life with the loss of Eleanor, the combination of that and Stanley’s perhaps ill-timed but not unjustified observation made him decide to move on. I think he was ready to move on anyway in some ways. I think he was in a situation in which he wanted to be reminded as little as possible of the way of living with Eleanor. He couldn’t have gone on in that house anyway. He wasn’t very happy away from Amherst. As it turned out, I was at Harvard as a graduate student when he took up an association with them and lived in Louisburg Square and I used to go and see him there a lot. I saw him in the hospital a couple of times. He had an operation for prostate and he was pretty sick with it and he was AWFUL when he was in pain. He really was. He didn’t like pain and didn’t like illness. He was scared of being sick. He was a kind of valetudinarian-- he had this notion about his lungs, as you know; that’s why he went South all the time. And I guess that he did have some respiratory problems. But, God! The way he talked about himself and the particular parts of his anatomy that were giving him pain! I’ve never heard anything like it. I mean he could be very, very salty, and he loved obscenity as a matter of fact And God, could he curse! Really blasphemously. I never heard such verbal violence from him as on that occasion when he was in Peter Bent Brigham and I went in to see him.
HWH: I hadn’t realized this blasphemy and obscenity side of him. I was certainly aware of his sensitivity to unpleasantness or pain.
CRAIG: Ted Baird once said, “There are many ways Frost is a backwoodsman” and in many ways he was, you know. He was a tough guy and he loved-- I don’t mean that he liked sexual jokes, locker-room stories, or anything like that. God forbid! No, nothing like that. But by obscenity what I mean is that he was very alert to the grotesqueries of sex particularly. I remember once his talking about a foal that wouldn’t be weaned from its mother, and the way he talked — this was up at the Homer Noble Farm in Vermont in Breadloaf — and the way he talked about this, it was hilarious, it really was. One time we were taking a walk — this was after he was back — one afternoon in the fall. He had just been down in New York — I think I may have told you this story — but I think he’d been in New York just the night before, or the day before, to a meeting of the Grolier Society. He had met there a man who had impressed him very much-- a man of real distinction of mind, very, very, very elegant taste, and a person whose imaginative and intellectual qualities struck a chord in Frost and made a great impression on him. He was talking about him-- this man with a superb mind, really fastidious taste, real refinement of mind. And he said, “He started life as a gandy-dancer, this fellow had, on the Canadian National railroads.” A gandy-dancer is the fellow who walks a section of track to look for, keep an eye out for, loose bolts, to keep the track in repair. He was a track- walker, a gandy-dancer for the Canadian National Railways, than which there is no lower job, I suppose, at least in the railroads. And Frost said, “Where did he get this refinement, anyway? Somebody PISSED it out of a Pullman and he picked it up as he was walking along the tracks.” That’s a really marvelous figure of speech of his, there’s a real metaphor there, you know. That’s his kind of metaphor in every way-- a metaphor, it’s not just a link, but this is a real joining.
HWH: I’ve heard it said that despite his love of things rural, his devotion to farming, that he wasn’t much of a farmer himself.
CRAIG: Well, he always had a garden. He really was unhappy if he didn’t have one. And at the end of his life he had a... What was it called? A Merry somethingorother? He made ludicrous jokes about the name of this instrument. It was a rototiller. He’d go out and run that thing-- not a big one. But he always had corn. He loved fresh vegetables, really loved fresh corn, fruit, loved fresh produce of all kinds. No, I think a garden was just-- just the way we have an automobile, roughly you know, it was part of his life always. They had a garden down there on...
HWH: On Sunset?
HWH: Was there any difficulty getting him back to Amherst in 1949? He’d been away for eleven years.
CRAIG: I don’t think so. All I know is that when Charlie approached him, he, right away, was glad to come back. And he’d made up enough legend, enough myth, in his own head to say, “Yes, sure I can come back now because King is gone.’ Frost, like anybody else, except that his imagination was stronger than most people’s, was capable of mythologizing his own past, as we all are. And I do think that the fact that it was Charlie who did it... Would he have come for Stanley? I don’t know, I just don’t know. I don’t think Stanley would have asked him, probably, in any case.
HWH: Did he have the kind of arrangement he had with Amherst with other institutions? Ever?
CRAIG: No. Well, yes, he had one analogous to it. In fact it went on while he was here, and Charlie used to be sort of annoyed about that. He was a regular visitor to the — what was it called, at Dartmouth, that required course they used to have for seniors? Modern Issues or something like that? Great Issues.
HWH: Yes. This differed from our curriculum in that this was the climax of the course.
CRAIG: It was a required course, the seniors had to take it. They didn’t have to do much. They had to read the New York Times, I think, every day, and they had to go to one lecture a week. They’d bring in these people, Frost was one, and there were scientists and others. It was Great Issues and he was a regular visitor to that. I don’t think he ever actually had a title and was in their catalog. I guess he was once, and I think Charlie did complain about that in fact. When he was at Harvard, he was a Professor. I’ve forgotten now what it was, but his duties were minimal. He visited just one semester. Of course, he went everywhere. There were some places that he visited regularly every year.
HWH: I know Michigan was one. Another woman’s college down in...
CRAIG: Yes, Agnes Scott.
HWH: Agnes Scott.
CRAIG: He always went to Agnes Scott and he’d always go there going or coming from the South. He went to Bowdoin regularly.
HWH: Were you ever involved in driving him?
CRAIG: Well sometimes, not very often. One time when I was a senior, I drove him back from Connecticut College where Peggy was. I met him there. Walt Hoyt lent me his car and I drove down. He spoke late in the afternoon and you know the way he would give a reading. He would start by ruminating, meditating out loud, thinking about something, teasing some idea that had been provoked in him, perhaps only that day. This was in 1937. He was talking, making some allusions to politics, and Katherine Blunt, the then president of Connecticut College, a splendid woman who lived up to her name, exactly...
HWH: Is that how she spelled it?
CRAIG: Yes. No “o” in it. She actually interrupted the old boy and said, “Couldn’t we have a little poetry?” And he just went to pieces. I saw him. He was absolutely taken aback.
HWH: This had never happened to him.
CRAIG: It had never happened to him. And I don’t think it ever happened again. But he recovered and he read and then there was a dinner, I guess. No, I don’t know that there was a dinner. No, Peggy and I took him out. Well, it seems to me it was evening. We went to a place called the Lighthouse Inn, which had very good ice cream. He loved ice cream and we had an ice. This was before dinner-- that’s right. It was still late afternoon, and he said, “My mouth all went dry when she said that.” He was in shock about it for several days. Then the next day I drove him up from there. Oh, I used to fetch him some times from Boston. Often — it’s hard to believe — he would take the train to Springfield and I’d meet him there. He loved trains, of course.
HWH: Didn’t know that. How about airplanes?
CRAIG: The first time he flew was when he went to Brazil and then the Argentine for the State Department. It was the 300th anniversary of the University of Buenos Aires, I think — not that university but another one near there, the oldest university in the southern hemisphere. Faulkner was there, too, and that was the time he went to Peru, Frost did. He got some artifacts from Peru that pleased him enormously. He loved anything really ancient; no matter what culture it came from it interested him. Faulkner was there and Frost told me about him. He said he’d never seen anything like this before. Faulkner was an alcoholic and he was drunk all the time that he was in South America and just didn’t show up for much of anything. But that was the first time he flew. Oh he loved to have a compartment and get in it.
HWH: I can understand that.
CRAIG: People would occasionally talk to him about flying and try to persuade him to fly and he would say to them, “Well now, when you get off an airplane and you get on the ground again, do you feel a kind of a sense of relief?” And they’d say, “Oh, yes “ Frost would say, “I never do when I get off a train.” [Laughter]
HWH: Milton Smith used to drive Frost quite a bit and I think Frost enjoyed the relationship with Milt. Milt certainly did.
CRAIG: I did drive around with him one night in an episode that suddenly has come back to memory. In 1962, I guess. Anyway, I was on sabbatical and we were in Athens. We were there for about six weeks. I’d been stuck in a piece of writing that wasn’t going well and when we got there I got unstuck, and so we stayed and I got a lot of work done, got a lot of writing done. This was in March of ‘60. He had gone with Larry Thompson to Tel Aviv to the University and given talks there. Then he stopped in Athens. The first evening he got there, there was a dinner for him at the Embassy Residence to which we were invited. Then after dinner he came to our hotel. We had a corner room with two balconies, one looking out on the Parthenon and one looking out on Mount Lycabettus.
HWH: Sounds like the Grand Bretagne.
CRAIG: Well, it was near there. It was not the Grand Bretagne; it was the Olympic Palace. It belonged to the airline, the Olympic Airways. And it was a very nice room. Anyway, there was the Parthenon all lit up and he stood there and he looked at it, and then he went around, and Lycabettus has a beacon on the top and it was a sufficiently moon light night so that you could pick things out, and he stood there, looking now this way and now that, and proceeded to describe the plan of Athens. When he was in high school, in his course in Ancient History, which he offered as college preparatory as part of his credits to get into whatever college he was going to, the final exam was on the geography of Greece and particularly of Athens. He could rattle off all these names, and he said that’s where the honey comes from, and that’s where the marble comes from, and so on, it was incredible. And then the next day we went to the Parthenon when it was open with him, climbing around, he was just entranced by it. That was a very, very happy experience. He just loved it. Anything, anything really ancient gripped him. He never had much to say about art, about the sculpture and so on, but the spread of it all was just worth seeing.
HWH: Well that would have been the only time he’d seen it.
Can you think of any episodes you haven’t mentioned so far that were particularly amusing? Or if not amusing, unusual.
CRAIG: It was always amusing, it was always fascinating to be with him. I never saw him involved in any particular social event where something untoward happened. The only unpleasant episode that I think, certainly, I ever witnessed, was the one involving Katie Blunt. He loved wit. In fact he said about Stevenson that he might even break down and vote Democratic this time because he’d vote for wit any day. Back in the very early days when we still lived on College Street, we had Elizabeth Bowen, the novelist, to lunch. She was giving a lecture here, and she came to lunch with Robert-- and incidentally, I never called him Robert; he was always Mr. Frost. Some people, whatshis name, Whitcomb, at the bank, called him Bob! To his astonishment. At any rate, Frost and Elizabeth Bowen came to lunch. It was a beautiful fall day. We had a nice lunch and a nice conversation and we took a little ride to see the fall colors, then we came back and had a cup of tea. It was a long afternoon. At the end, they got to talking about the market, the literary market, and he said, “I’ve never been able to write for money, but I don’t care. Once I’m published, I don’t care what they do-- it’s gone, it’s published.” And she was the same way. She said she couldn’t write on demand, but she wanted to be paid for what she did write and she liked being paid for it. They liked the idea that they had something to sell, that they got paid for. And he said, “All this going around the colleges, the thing I like about it best is when I leave, with the check pressed close to my heart.” And she laughed. That kind of expression, that kind of observation would come out when you least expected it and it happened almost every day.
HWH: He certainly got a lot of help from two people in his life besides you — Al Edwards and Kay Morrison. I don’t know how Kay, or even her husband, were able to conduct the kind of life she did.
CRAIG: She worked awfully hard. She put up with an awful lot, and so did everybody who was close to him. The fact is, that he could be a terrible burden; he could be very demanding and could ruin your schedule, ruin your day and all the rest of it, but he never was tiresome. He was not a tiresome person; he was a very tiring person, but he was always interesting and even to Kay Morrison-- I’m sure that what kept that going was the endless interestingness of his imagination. He was extraordinarily alive, you know; he was endlessly fascinating. Even at two thirty in the morning you’d think, My God how am I going to get up and get my papers done, get to that class? Then all of a sudden something would happen and you’d forget that it was two thirty in the morning.
HWH: Well Crack that may be a good point on which to rest this. It was a very nice final observation. I thank you very much and I hope I haven’t taken too much of your time.
[END OF SIDE TWO
Final draft completed 8/2/79]