Between the years of 1912 and 1914 the entire temper of the American arts changed. America's cultural coming-of-age occurred and writing in the U.S. moved from a period entitled traditional to modernized. It seems as though everywhere, in that Year of 1913, barriers went down and People reached each other who had never been in touch before; there were all sorts of new ways to communicate as well as new communications. The new spirit was abroad and swept us all together. These changes engaged an America of rising intellectual opportunities and intensifying artistic preoccupation.
With the changing of the century, the old styles were considered increasingly obsolete, and the greatest impact was on American arts. The changes went deep, suggesting ending the narrowness that had seemed to limit the free development of American culture for so long. That mood was not to last. American entry into the war in April 1917 divided the radicals and weakened the progressive Spirit. For many American writers, the war marked a cutoff point from the past, an ultimate symbol for the dawn of modernity. "The major careers that dominated American writing into the 1950s started during this period, and so did the modern tradition. The prewar generation was largely founded in the poetry of Pound and Eliot, Frost and Doolittle, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters." (Ruland, R., & Bradbury, M.).
With the crash of October 1929 the whole remarkable episode abruptly disengaged, and the "Twenties" ended. However, what had emerged was a style that would convey an independent spirit that caught not only the artistic world, but encapsulated the spirit of America herself. Until the first scents of success were carried on the breezes of American individualism, and free enterprise, this country existed in the shadow, and shape of its former colonial master.
Our culture was largely European; our language was a reflection of England which we had also left behind. Our economy was a similar step child to that of England, Germany and France, mostly agrarian with small factories collecting themselves into cities. But the turn of the century signaled a close of a chapter in American history, and the beginning of a new one. The industrial revolution had bvegun, and America was home to a burgeoning automotive industry, and a distinctly American invention, the assembly line. Our universities were earning accolades right along side of the best that England and France had to offer. As American culture, industry and education shook off some of the last pieces of the European cocoon which had spawned it, the country was also ready for new expressions in poetry, and literature.
After the war, although the experience cast a dark shadow on the optimistic American evaluation of the world, America pulled herself out of the trenches of Germany and France, and decided it had come of age. America, the fledgling democracy which was just over a hundred years in age, entered the war and turned the tide of aggression that all of Europe could not contain. With this new courage, and a national semtiment that valued the traditions of its past, America went looking for herself, and found her portrait painted by the words of the modernist poet.
In the same way that the American culture is understood by the events which define it's history, the culture and personality of a man is defined by the events which mark that man's life. So to understand the writings of Robert Frost (RF) and William Carlos Williams (WCW) this paper will examine three aspects of each. First the man will be considered, then the man as a poet, and finally the poetry of the man. In the conclusion, we will draw from the similarities and differences between these two literary giants.
Robert Frost - The Man
In the early 1900's, Robert Frost, emerging from a troubled life of poverty, sought to reform and revive his life. His efforts were met with great success. Although Robert Frost is widely known as a New England poet, he was actually born in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1874 (American Writers 150). His father, William Prescott Frost, was a native of New England, and his mother, Isabelle Moodie Frost, was a Scottish emigrant from Edinburgh. They met while they were both teaching school in Lewiston, Pennsylvania, and moved west after their marriage (Robert Frost 5).
The relationship between Robert's father and mother was later a major influence on the subject of his poems in his collection, "North of Boston." In this collection, there were frequent appearances of instances where husbands and wives were at odds due to their inability to communicate their feelings and to find common ground.
These grueling portraits seemed to depict the Frost's failing marriage (Parini 10).
Many of the problems in the family were caused by William's overuse of alcohol. A few months after Robert's birth, William began to get an extrodinary fondness for whiskey. This once loving, caring, family man became an abusive husband while under the influence. William became so violent that Isabelle began to fear for her and her son's lives (Robert Frost: the Early Years 10).
Wanting an escape from her failing marriage, Isabelle turned to the Swedenborgian Church, whose elaborate system of beliefs kept her focused on religion rather than her unhappiness. Robert learned many things about this religion. The mysticism in his poems he accredited to his mother.
In the summer of 1876, Belle, pregnant with her second child, could no longer stand her husband's drinking and gambling (www.ketzle.com).She and Robert left Will, and having no money due to her husband's wasteful nature, Bell was forced to stay with her in-laws in Massachusetts. Her daughter, Jeanie, was born there on June 25, without the presence of her father (Robert Frost: the Early Years 13).
This sudden abandonment of his father had a lasting effect on Robert. Indeed, both the emotional isolation which an alcoholic tends to create within a family, and the abandonment which RF felt after his father was no longer present in the home is a theme which surfaces repeatedly in his writings. A tale similar to his own is told in frost's dialogue "The Hill Wife." Frost describes an isolated woman's fear, loneliness, and marital estrangement. Her husband doesn't understand her feelings and is surprised when she leaves without warning (American Writers 154).
After a few months of correspondence with her husband, Belle, Robert, and Jeanie returned to San Francisco. To their surprise, they found William sick in the hospital with the dreaded disease of the time, consumption. Although his condition improved, he never fully recovered (Parini 11). For the next nine years William continued to squander away the family's funds on whiskey, claiming that the alcohol eased his pain. He left his family penniless when he died in 1885 of tuberculosis (Robert Frost: the Early Years 45).
Even though Robert only knew his father for eleven years, he absorbed many of his traits. Like his father, Robert had a drive to make something of himself. He also had his father's disposition; his attitude swinging from times of self-confidence (" I expect to do something to the present state of literature in America") to times of self-doubt ("I have been bad and a bad artist"). Robert's view of religion also was affected by his father. His spiritual views lied between skepticism (from his father) and faith (from his mother.)
Robert and his family left for Lawrence, Massachusetts to fulfill their father's wish to be buried in New England and to start a new life (American Writers 151). Having only eight dollars after the burial, the Frosts were forced to live with their grandparents until Isabelle got a job. After a few months Belle began to teach the fourth and fifth grades in Salem Depot, New Hampshire and was able to get a home for family (www.ketzle.com).
Frost entered Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts in1888.
He succeeded the most during his senior year being head of his class, a star on the football team, chief editor of the school newspaper, a prominent member of the debating team, and had already passed the Harvard College entrance exams (Robert Frost: the Early Years 108). He also started to read and write poetry. Many of his works were published in the school newspaper. At that time some of his poems were based on poems he had read (Emily Dickinson's) or nature (Parini 25).
Although Frost was considered the leading scholar in his class by most of his teachers, Elinor Miriam White was close behind him. They didn't become friends until the height of their rivalry for class valedictorian during the winter of their senior year (Parini 27). Her shared love for poetry compelled Robert. They began to court each other- walking home together, attending school functions, and critiquing each others poems (Robert Frost: the Early Years 125).