Robert Frost and the University of Michigan

Kathryn L. Beam

 
 

       

 obert Frostís interesting and long-standing association with the University of Michigan began in 1921, when he was invited to become the first recipient of the newly-established Fellowship in Creative Arts. Privately funded through the generosity of Chase S. Osborn, former governor of Michigan, Frostís position primarily included teaching and public readings, promising, of course, ample time for writing. The experiment of fostering the arts by providing an artist-in-residence proved to be quite successful, and Frost was invited to return for the following year. This second year did not have the impact of the first, largely because Frost had speaking engagements requiring his absence from campus, and then, when in Ann Arbor, he suffered from frequent illnesses.

Nevertheless, these two years established Frostís ties with the university, and several lasting friend-ships developed. The university, under the guidance of President Marion L. Burton, actively attempted to bring Frost to the campus on a permanent appointment. This finally materialized for the academic year of 1925/26, during which Frost taught a seminar for one semester working with a small group of selected students. He was generously given much free time, but was also expected to make himself readily accessible to students and to be active in cultural affairs on campus.

This plan for a lifetime commitment to Michigan faltered. An out-of-state autumn lecture tour led to another bout of sickness, while his children were also sick back East. He missed New England and his family, and, by the end of the year, he knew he would not be back to Michigan as a member of the faculty. Through-out the coming years, however, he gave scattered short courses and readings and made many appearances, culminating in a special convocation in April of 1962 and his receiving an honorary degree in June of that year.

Robert Frostís ultimate impact at Michigan was, therefore, not what had been hoped, although his long associations prompted the creation and acquisition of good archival collections. The first of these is a collection dating from 1915 to 1962, assembled by the Special Collections Library from various sources and consisting primarily of correspondence of Robert and his wife Elinor with Ann Arbor friends, manuscripts of poems, photographs, and publications by and about Frost. The correspondents include especially English professor Morris Tilley and his wife, and Mary Elizabeth Cooley, one of Frostís favorite students. Also included are musical settings for 20 Frost poems by composer Carl E. Gehring and an oil portrait of Frost painted from life in 1923 by Leon A. Makielski.

The second collection is the Robert Frost Family Collection, 1923-1988, given to the Special Collections Library in 1997 by Frostís great-grandson, Robert Lee Frost II. This collection, measuring about one and one-half linear feet, contains material passed down to the great-grandson from his parents, Phyllis (Gordon) and William Prescott Frost and to them from his grandparents, Lillian (LaBatt) and Carol Frost. The value of the collection centers on an excellent series of letters written by Robert Frost to his son Carol, his daughter-in-law Lillian, and his grandson William Prescott. The letters to Carol cover the years 1931 through 1938 and are full of family and farm news and arrangements for visits, particularly during the period when Carol and his family were living in California. There are also a few letters of encouragement regarding the samples of writings that Carol had apparently sent to his father. The greatest numbers of letters are those written by Frost to Lillian, beginning shortly after Carolís suicide in 1940. They offer his bereaved daughter-in-law sympathy, encouragement, and financial assistance. Later letters, written during the mid-1940s, offer advice on the development and education of William Prescott. Other correspondents include family members Harold Cone and Marjorie Frost, scholar Edward Lathem, Frostís secretary Kathleen Morrison, television producer Norman Lear, and author Sandra Katz.

Another important part in this collection is the photograph series, which consists of over 100 images of various members of the Frost family, beginning with Robert and Elinor and continuing on into the present generation with photographs of Robert Frost II and his sisters. The photos offer a candid glimpse into several generations of Frosts as well as a number of posed studio portraits. These two series, along with an interesting collection of chapbooks, Christmas cards, clippings, commemorative material, original artwork, and inscribed books, create an archive having great potential for Frost research. Although the letters appear to have been consulted by previous Frost biographers, their depths, it seems, may not have been fully plumbed.

The most recent addition to Frost material held by the Special Collections Library contains the collection developed by Kathleen Morrison, her husband Theodore, and their daughter Anne. Kathleen was Robert Frostís secretary and manager for 25 years, from 1938, after the death of Elinor, until his own death in 1963. She was a major beneficiary of his will, and the collection, therefore, at one time contained most of Frostís manuscripts and unpublished works. These were largely sold or given away before Kathleen died. What was left, however, is nevertheless very interesting and should fill gaps in the biographical record. Included are a few manuscripts, some with corrections or notations by Frost or Morrison; Kathleenís notations concerning certain poems written in the margins of published copies; documents and correspondence relating to Kathleenís handling of Frostís affairs during his later years and in the years following his death; photographs and slides; as well as an assortment of Frost family Christmas cards, and announcements and brochures for poetry readings and commemorative events.

These three collections are augmented by smaller, secondary collections, among them the papers of Dorothy L. Tyler and Mary E. Cooley, two of the three students at Michigan whom Frost identified as his "three graces." Both of these collections contain reminiscences, letters, and other materials about Frost.v

 

Editorís note: At the editorís invitation, Kathryn L. Beam, the Curator, Humanities Collections, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, wrote this illuminating article on the universityís Frost holdings. She was, as well, the gracious hostess for the Robert Frost colloquium at the university, September 1999.

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