The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. By David Orr. Penguin Press (2015). 184 pp.
In his 1998 biography of Andrew Wyeth, Richard Meryman tells of a time when Robert Frost contacted the eminent painter. Frost wanted Wyeth to paint his portrait, because Frost thought the two seemed to “share something.” And indeed, a good many critics might agree that certain parallels of style, tone, and composition might be drawn between their respective works. Wyeth nonetheless had no inclination toward the project. He didn’t feel like spending much time with Frost, and remarked, Frost “looked like an old sweet potato that had been baked and found a week later in the cold oven.” The essence of Frost apparently was not susceptible of portraiture; Wyeth thought it was “all there in his poetry,” and painting wouldn’t add anything. This anecdote might serve as an epitome of David Orr’s new book on what is arguably Frost’s best-known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In fact, since Orr’s approach is gossipy and topical throughout, it’s rather odd that he missed including it.
Orr does a superb job of producing a portrait of Frost in words. He tracks the history of Frost criticism, both in professional academic circles and in American culture generally. Frost emerges as an iconic national treasure who, in the case of “The Road Not Taken,” fired a curveball that has stumped almost as many professional critics as it has high-school valedictorians. Like Wyeth, Orr accomplishes this by distinguishing Robert Frost the man from Robert Frost the poet. Frost the man had all the human failings that complement simple participation in humanity, while Frost the icon had at least a couple of slippery, homespun, “simple New England farmer” personae. In fact, while reading Orr, one waits in vain for a comparison to “the ploughman poet,” Robert Burns. Like Burns, Frost loved being seen as a rustic, and often did all he could to further the impression. This desire for plainness manifests itself in Frost’s poetic diction, which–even as it celebrates nature–relies more on syntax than on the mellifluous floridity of Swinburne or Tennyson. Not that sound was unimportant. Orr reports that Frost would never say, “I will read a poem”; instead, he always remarked that he would “say” one. If a certain work seemed to go badly at a Frost reading, he would ask the audience whether they would like to hear him say another poem. He worked in the oral tradition, a fact that differentiates him from, for example, T.S. Eliot, who might be accused of having written poems that were actually lengthy footnotes. Unsurprisingly, the two men seem to have despised one another. Frost thought Eliot was pretentious, and Eliot once observed that Frost “specialized in New England torpor.”
The crux of Orr’s treatment of his main subject, the text of “The Road Not Taken,” revolves around the well-known lines that describe the two famously diverging roads. Orr situates his skillful close reading within a tour de force of everything ever thought or written about the poem. He points out that there are two categories of interpretation: the one favored by graduation speakers, in which the reader is persuaded to agree that one should always take the less-travelled road, since it is presumably more challenging and more indicative of rugged American individualism. And then there are all the other readings. Orr examines every possible angle here. He looks at logical dilemma, political rhetoric, the psychology of “choice,” the history of free will, and even self-help books. His best point is that the high-school interpretation of the poem is clearly wrong, but that the other possibilities don’t seem quite right either. But here he balks, because he does not seem to want to essay a bit of basic literary theory.
To be sure, Orr is writing for that rara avis, the “general reader,” who may or may not still exist. A good many of the graduation speakers probably have never read the whole of “The Road Not Taken;” rather, they have merely looked around the Internet for a useful quotation and pounced on a couple of lines from an old standard. In that case they are not likely to see the poem’s other flow, a rhetorical line in which the narrator mentions that the two roads aren’t very different after all, and that the title isn’t “The Road I Took,” but “The Road Not Taken,” thus making the whole composition center on the road that is more travelled. In this latter reading, the binary logic that seems to create two strongly divided categories simply collapses. A certain irony then creeps in, a sense of postmodern relativism, in which Frost might been seen to mock the Romanticist notion of a lonely traveler making a momentous decision to journey alone through a sublimely naturalistic landscape. Orr reinvents the wheel here, inasmuch as he never defines the relationship of the two roads as what it is: a rudimentary example of Derridian aporia. Instead, he writes a fascinatingly detailed encounter with the text, an interpretation that depends not inconsiderably on his lyrical and energetic prose style as well as his wisdom. The putative General Reader will come to apprehend all of the poem’s ironic nuances, its parodic distance from the high-school interpretation, and the crumbling of its American Individualist façade. Anti-theorists, if such still prowl academia, will no doubt see this as a virtue. But one must demur, however gently, at Orr’s decision to ignore almost fifty years of literary-theoretical endeavor. That said, it would be rather churlish to find too much fault with a book that in its closing pages manages to juxtapose Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” and still make perfect sense.
Jeffrey P. Cain
Sacred Heart University