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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

January 9, 2013: American Homes, Part Three

[This AmericanStudier is about to move into a new home, with all the possibility and uncertainty that that transition entails. So this week’s series will highlight some AmericanStudies connections to ideas and images, ideals and limitations, of home. Add your responses, suggestions, and home-ly ideas for the weekend post, please!]
On two dark, cynical, and crucially human portrayals of home in one of our most home-ly poets.
It’s not really accurate to say that Robert Frost spent his life in rural New England: he was born in San Francisco and spent his first eleven years there; when his family then moved east they lived in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Frost graduated from high school; and he spent significant later time in London, in Ann Arbor, and in Florida, among other places. But nonetheless, the popular and dominant association of Frost with that one region, and even more exactly with his home on a New Hampshire farm, remains, and with good reason: not only because it was his most consistent and stable locale, but also and even more significantly because so many of his best and most enduring poems utilize details and elements of that setting and world. Yet if those popular narratives, based perhaps on “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” categorize Frost’s rural world as a calm and peaceful one, they miss much of the complex darkness he also portrayed within that setting.
Interestingly, and importantly, two of the darkest such images are created in poems that are centrally concerned with the idea of home. “Home Burial” (1915), included in Frost’s early collection North of Boston, comprises a strained and difficult dialogue between two parents who have recently lost their young son (and whom the father, to the mother’s anger, buried himself on their property). “The Death of the Hired Man” (1915), from the same collection, focuses on a conversation between an elderly farm couple about the titular employee, who has spent many years working for them and has come back to their farm at the end of his life; discussing why he has done so, the couple offer one of the most famous passages about home in American poetry: “‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.’ / ‘I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’” While those two ideas differ in tone, they’re both more dark and cynical than stereotypes such as “Home is where the heart is.” And similarly, while the first poem’s association of death and home is a tragic and painful one, and the second’s more accepting and natural, the two are nonetheless united, from their titles on, by that sense of home as a place of inevitable and even defining loss.
So should we just conclude that Frost was a good deal more cynical and curmudgeonly than popular favorite “Stopping by Woods” would indicate? I don’t think that’d be a false conclusion—this is the poet who wrote “Good fences make good neighbors,” and while that’s the voice of a character within the poem you get the feeling that Frost didn’t disagree—but I also would argue that something else, something more universal, is going on in “Burial” and “Hired Man.” After all, it’s entirely true that home is where the heart is—but of course the heart contains, particularly as we get older, as much loss as it does love, as much sorrow as it does joy, as much death as it does life. And so too are homes not only full of those with whom we share them, amazing as those presences hopefully are; they’re also full of those with whom we don’t, for all the complicated and sad and tough and human reasons that lead to those absences. That Frost was able to recognize and put into poetic words those darker sides to home only cements his status as one of our most home-ly national voices.
Next home connections tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to these ideas? Other images and ideas of home in America you’d highlight?

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