Sunday, March 21, 2021

In the Home Stretch

Robert Frost (1874–1963)
From Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

Three of the pen-and-ink drawings by American illustrator John Wolcott Adams (1874–1925) for Robert Frost’s “In the Home Stretch” in the July 1916 issue of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. First panel: “Where will I put this walnut bureau, lady?” Second: “Come from that window where you see too much.” The third panel appears above the stanza that begins, “You’re tired. / I'm drunk-nonsensical tired out.” Three decades later, Frost inscribed an issue of the magazine to his friend and biographer Louis Mertins with the comment, “The places resemble neither the Derry nor the Franconia farm in any least detail.” Library of Congress.
When Edward J. O’Brien issued The Best Short Stories of 1916, he included his usual “honor roll” with individual summaries of the fifty best selections of the year. In the list are tales by such still-familiar names as Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser, but there are two surprising entries, “Snow” and “In the Home Stretch,” by a writer relatively new to the literary scene, Robert Frost. Those readers who know Frost’s oeuvre might be perplexed, since both of these pieces are, in fact, poems. In his commentary, however, O’Brien anticipates this objection and explains in his note for one of the “stories”:
“In the Home Stretch” by Robert Frost is truly a masterpiece of the short story regardless of the fact that it is also an admirable poem. It has passion, magic, and truth for its virtues as poetry; rich human characterization, finely conceived background, and quiet dramatic power for its virtues as a short story.
Both story-poems appeared in magazines in 1916 before they were collected late that year in Mountain Interval, Frost’s third book of poetry. The poems are the only two in the collection that resemble the blank verse dialogues, like “The Death of the Hired Man” and “The Housekeeper,” that had made him suddenly famous in America two years earlier, when North of Boston had become an unexpected best seller. In the new collection Frost largely eschewed longer story-like poems in favor of shorter meditations and vignettes, such as “The Road Not Taken” and “Out, Out—.” He later told Daniel Smythe, a poet and friend, that he was ultimately unhappy with the book, which he had reluctantly rushed into print under pressure from his publisher, who wanted a quick follow-up to capitalize on Frost’s popularity. “It was just a bunch of poems slapped together, not judged and weighed like the previous volumes,” Symthe recalled Frost saying during their conversation. “What was the result? The book was his least successful; it did not sell very much.”

“In the Home Stretch” is one of Frost’s most autobiographical poems, an evocation of the many times he and his wife uprooted their lives and moved to a new place. It was inspired by one such relocation, to the farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where they lived for the first decade of the twentieth century. In an interview published in April 1921 in Boston Traveler, Frost recalled:
We are patient people, my wife and I. We had to be. Affairs were not looking very well when one day Mrs. Frost went to Grandfather and asked him to buy me a little farm. Grandfather had no use for me whatever, but he bought the place on the ground that I had to die somewhere and it might as well be on some out-of-the-way farm.

It was a little two-thousand-dollar affair up in Derry, New Hampshire. I had to teach in the academy to make both ends meet, and then they did not meet. There came a time when our bread and butter was a serious affair.
The financial hardship, the work at the farm, and his duties at the school kept Frost from his writing. He eventually sold the farm and in 1912 moved his family to England with the half-baked idea of writing a novel. Instead, within a year he captured the attention of several prominent British poets and managed to find a publisher in London for his first book, A Boy’s Will.

“In the Home Stretch” is set on the day an older couple moves to a farm. Published during an era when Americans were rapidly migrating from country to city, the poem describes how, by moving in the other direction, the older husband and wife “puzzle” the movers, who are eager to get back to town and who leave the aging couple, in dusk, to their “pasture slope”—out to pasture, as it were. (“It’s not so bad in the country, settled down, / When people’re getting on in life,” one of the young men says to them.) The poem focuses on the “husband-wife relationship, evoking Elinor confronting her husband, who had himself initiated countless relocations and redefinitions of home,” writes Karen L. Kilcup in Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, a reappraisal of Frost’s poetics. “The poem’s central tension resides in the husband’s guilt that perhaps he has imposed the move on his wife, but, in spite of the ostensible disparity in their experiences and attitudes, their perspectives ultimately do not conflict but come together.” It is this coming together, as well as an almost nostalgic warmth and optimism, that makes it one of Frost’s “happier poems,” to borrow literary critic Warren T. Hope’s phrase.

Note: According to Robert Frost’s granddaughter Lesley Lee Francis, ten-step was “a game played with two lines of players; each line attempted to kick-catch the ball before it hit the ground, and thereby gain ten steps toward the opponent’s goal.”

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