Race Theory and the Poetry of Robert Frost

While Frost’s poetry is not brimming with explicit representation of race or commentary on race, racial implications are present in several of his poems.  Frost wrote most of his poetry in the early 20th century, a time when identity politics was a major topic of discussion and study.  The Dictionary of Critical Theory defines identity politics as “a demand for the right to be different, and for that difference to be recognized as legitimate” and says it is based on “the contentions that collectivities and individuals defined by criteria of ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual have interests that are not or cannot be promoted or defended by broader agencies such as class or a constitutional state.”  Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which we read in class, deals directly with these ideas and can be found at this link:

http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html

It is a poem centered around the ideas of borders between people, and the inherent differences between the narrator and his neighbor.  The symbolism of the fence, and the two distinct plots of land it creates, is that of the separation of identity groups.  When put in to the context of the early 20th century, this separation of identity groups most likely revolves around race.  The early 20th century was a time of racial turmoil for the United States – heinous acts such as lynchings and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan were juxtaposed with one positive racial milestone: the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.  Society was on its way to tolerance, but was very far from the finish line.  Relating to this, describing a section of the border between the narrator and his neighbor that does not need the fence, Frost writes, “There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across.  And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him” (23-26.)  In these lines, Frost is exemplifying the 1920’s idea that racial difference is a legitimate difference, but that different identity groups may be able to live in “peace” (“peace” here would be a sort of separate but equal ideal that we have been working to get away from today) without harsh borders because of their inherent differences.

One of Frost’s most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which we read in class, is a poem one would never initially expect to have much to do with race. It can be found at this link:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621

However, when juxtaposed with a poem by Thylias Moss entitled “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,” both poems can be analyzed with an approach focused on racial theory.  The text of Moss’ poem can be found under this link:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177061

In terms of my own reading of Moss’s poem, my mind immediately went to the W.E.B. Du Bois chapter we read in class, and double-consciousness.  When Moss discusses the promises the child has to keep, such as “the promise that she bear Jim no bastards,” she is outlining this idea of double consciousness – the idea that this child must be aware of how other people are viewing her, along with the tasks at hand in her life and her own self-image.  The snow is the oppression that whites impose on blacks, and when the child shakes off the snow she is attempting to shake off that oppression.  But despite this effort, the poem ends with the sentiment that the child has miles to go before racial lines are successfully crossed.  In Frost’s poem, the snow is a potential threat to the man but is falling in a forest that belongs to a member of his own village, which is very different than the meaning of the snow in Moss’s poem.  Both poems follow a similar pattern, a weary traveler encounters a metaphoric snow in a metaphoric woods that does not belong to them and realizes he or she has miles and promises to go and keep before they can sleep or die.  However, Moss (an African-American)’s poem is racially charged, while Frosts (a white American)’s poem presents a universal journey-of-life struggle.  This brings up the question of whether or not the race of an author should matter – and if Moss’s poem is what Frost’s would look like if Frost were an African-American.  Could Frost’s poem and its universality work for both a majority and a minority audience, or does Moss’s poem bring something to the table that Frost’s cant?  I believe it does bring something more to the table…as it presents a struggle much more personal to a certain audience, and therefore much more meaningful.

Even though the Warren reading we discussed in class disagrees with this idea, black literature does still exist.  Moss, in the modern age, can write a meaningful poem about African-American struggle….made even more meaningful today than it could’ve back in the early 20th century by today’s modern critical racial theory and comparison to Frost.

7 thoughts on “Race Theory and the Poetry of Robert Frost

  1. This was a very interesting application of Race Theory. I have never read such a perspective on Frost’s poetry and I found its evidence compelling. I found the poem “Interpretations of a Poem by Frost” by Thylias Moss especially interesting. (not to mention this poem is a perfect example of literary postmodernism as well) I found this direct interpretation, communicated through Moss’ poem, to be both clever and socially important. This new meaning for Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” would have been lost if the New Critics were the only active literary interpreters. I think this new interpretation of Frost’s work is significant and should be considered as such. This was a very enjoyable post! Thanks.

  2. I too found this application of race theory to be very interesting. After reading Warren’s article, I struggled with the conclusion that African American literature no longer exists. Perspective, specifically those that are highly personal, seem to always lend even greater meaning and significance to a work, and cannot be discounted solely because of the shifting cultural and political circumstances. To me, it does seem that the comparison of Frost’s and Moss’s poetry speak to this idea of ongoing significance.

  3. I certainly would never have read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as a critique on the racial climate of the time but Moss’s version is definitely thought provoking. Frost’s brilliance really is the endless interpretations that can be made about any of his poems. I’m not sure that Moss’s poem really brings something new to the table; I would be more inclined to say that he is taking a literary track in aggressively communicating his interpretation of Frost’s poem. I certainly think his interpretation is interesting and valid, but I also think that Moss is highlighting a part of the argument rather than creating it.

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