Joyce Carol Oates's Frost

The November edition of Harper’s included a story by Joye Carol Oates entitled “Lovely, Dark, Deep” that has had many in a bit of an uproar. If you’ve retained much of what you read in high school or college English, you’ll recognize the story title as a borrowing from a line of Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

The story grips you right away, bringing you in as a voyeur as you join an interviewer who comes across the venerated man himself asleep and in disarray, and very human (which is hard to imagine of the famous). Frost bloviates and insults the female interviewer, even makes sexual innuendoes. He says predictable, rehearsed things he’s said in a thousand interviews, shows no little degree of hubris, and winds up showing himself to be ruthless and un-self-aware.

Toward the end of the story, the first-person narrator, whose boldness has grown during the story to the point that she ultimately begins needling Frost aggressively, turns into a third-person narrator. By the very end, she has disappeared altogether, leaving Frost stumbling around the yard jabbering to himself about demons until he falls and is collected by others on the grounds of Breadloaf who find him there. Notably, he has by this time begun expressing some self-doubt; he’s not a changed man by any stretch of the imagination, and he continues to puff himself up a bit as well, but there is at least a sense of rue, an acknowledgment perhaps of fallibility that has so far been missing.

The story, offered as the fiction it clearly is but citing some controversial biographical work on Frost as source material, is about as far from a love song to Frost as you can get.

And of course many have jumped on Oates for writing the thing and on Harper’s for publishing it. I’ll confess that my own feelings when reading the piece ranged from a sort of voyeuristic and probably vulturish curiosity (maybe the author had had such an experience herself and had some dirt to dish on old Uncle Poet!) to indignation at his behavior, which seemed possibly at least partly based on facts, to pity. I’m not sure what to make of the story. I don’t think it’s strictly a revenge piece. If it were, why endow Frost with any humanity at all rather than making him a monster pretty much all the way through the piece? And why would Harper’s publish a revenge piece (unless it’s Lapham writing about a Republican or something)? But what to make of it?

For the moment, I’m giving Oates the benefit of the doubt. Consider the shift in point of view and the disappearance of the narrator by the end (I’m not left with the impression that she walked away so much as that she faded out of the story — that is to say that she didn’t in fact exist to begin with). Consider the fact that the story opens with Frost asleep and ends with him raving on the lawn, perhaps still waking from a tormented sleep. For me, the story works pretty well as a plumbing of the old subconscious. When alone with our thoughts, we think and give mental (if not physical) voice to things we would never say aloud. We may puff ourselves up a bit about our accomplishments or linger on dirty jokes or less than flattering or chaste thoughts. Sometimes we’ll think about our failings. As often as not, we’ll start with puffery and end in doubt and despair.

So maybe it makes sense to think of the story as a portrayal of a great and probably misunderstood man grappling in a troubled sleep toward the end of his life with his successes and his regrets, with how they fit together. It’s a topic worth writing about, however controversial it may be when presented in a way that’s reasonably interpreted as a sort of defamation. But maybe that’s part of the point too. Even the greatest among us, and so on.

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