Last year, in the controversial short story "Lovely Dark Sleep" by Joyce Carol Oates, the poet Robert Frost made an appearance as a conceited, egotistical figure. This image of the poet has been widespread since his authorised biography, written by Lawrance Thompson and published while Frost was still alive. But the impending publication of his collected letters looks set to put paid to a misconception. The collection promises to "offer the most rounded, complete portrait to date", as Jennifer Schuessler puts it in the New York Times – uncovering a softer side to the poet and revealing Oates's presentation to be inaccurate and mean-spirited.
Frost, who died in 1963, is most famous for "The Road Not Taken", a poem exemplifying his knack for epigrammatic turns of phrase ("I took the one less traveled by"), and preference for straightforward structure. The technique led to immense popular success. Frost was certainly confident in his own abilities: in 1913 he wrote to one correspondent that "To be perfectly frank with you I am one of the master craftsmen of my time". But, as Clive James insists in the pages of the current edition of Prospect, he was not conceited. His London acquaintance Ezra Pound, armed with "infinite intellectual arrogance" of his own, highlights Frost's comparative humility: though the two ultimately fell out, Frost still felt able to describe his one-time champion as "the most generous of mortals".
James calls Lawrance Thompson's biography of Frost "dud scholarship". It is "relentlessly hostile" to its subject, he says. The popular image of Frost has been perpetuated by journalists, for whom it made "easy copy", creating a lasting image of the simple poet as “a manipulator without conscience". Both James and Schuessler argue that with the publication of the collected correspondence, this image looks set to be dramatically overturned.