Robert Faggen Receives NEH Grant For Multi-Volume Robert Frost Project

September 1, 2006

Robert Faggen, the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature, has been selected to receive a We the People grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the first comprehensive edition of the letters of Robert Frost. The grant is part of a special category by the NEH for model projects to advance the study, teaching, and understanding of American history and culture. Faggen received his first NEH grant in 2000.

The $150,000 grant will support the work of Faggen and his team of collaborators as they assemble a projected three volumes of letters to be published by Harvard University Press. The Frost Letters comprise the next stage in a multi-volume edition of the writings of Robert Frost, of which Faggen is the general editor. Faggen's 800-page edition of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, the first volume of the Harvard Frost, will appear this fall, and the The Paris Review will feature an article about them in its September issue.

"In the letters, Frost carried on some of his most interesting conversations about poetics, politics, history, and science," Faggen says. "Readers will also encounter Frost's complex give and take, his intricate sparring with others. The letters allow readers to get a very remarkable portrait of Frost in many different circumstances, revealing different aspects of his temperament."

This work on Frost's letters comes after Faggen spent five years wrestling with the difficult and often nearly illegible contents of Frost's notebooks writings that spanned 60 years and thousands of pages. Described by Harvard Press as "a major new addition to the canon of Robert Frost's writings," Notebooks will offer "unprecedented insight into Frost's complex and often highly contradictory thinking about poetics, politics, education, psychology, science, and religion his attitude toward Marxism, the New Deal, World Waras well as Yeats, Pound, Santayana, and William James."

During the time that Faggen worked on Frost's notebooks, he also edited a comprehensive volume of Herman Melville's poetry (Penguin Classics) and worked on a biography of Ken Kesey (forthcoming, Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

As editor of the notebooks, Faggen took care to preserve critical aspects of the original version, including strikethroughs, the oddities of Frost's spelling, and lack of punctuation. "I tried to interfere as little as possible with the idiosyncrasies of the notebooks," he says.

But there were times when the idiosyncrasies threatened to get the best of him: "Transcription was not always an altogether easy matter. Frost used fountain pens, which have thick lines and a tendency to bleed. Also, his handwriting is extremely difficult, and in the notebooks he didn't take the same care as he would when writing a letter."

The upcoming work on Frost's letters promises to be a bit easier, as the letters are generally neater and some are even typed. Previous publications of Frost's letters have been only "selected," and suffered from poor transcription and even expurgation. "Thousands of Frost's important letters held at Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, Michigan, Princeton, as well as dozens of private collections await collection, transcription, and annotation," says Faggen. The goal of this new edition is to search out and combine these disparate collections, giving readers a collection of Frost's letters that is as complete as possible, with helpful annotation and careful transcription.

To prepare for the publication of Frost's notebooks and the upcoming work on Frost's letters, Faggen spent a month this summer researching at Dartmouth College's Rauner Special Collections Library, which houses the Robert Frost Collection. (Frost was a student at Dartmouth in 1892, and returned throughout his life to teach and lecture. The Dartmouth Collection contains 45 of the 48 known surviving notebooks).

In his eulogy for Robert Frost at Amherst in October 1963, President Kennedy said, "If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because many preferred to ignore the poet's darker truths."

"I think the notebooks will reveal the accuracy and insight of Kennedy's remark," Faggen said. "They reveal the extent of his uncommon sense' -- complex, subtle, and profoundly contradictory."

Robert Faggen is the general editor of The Writings of Robert Frost (Harvard University Press), The Notebooks of Robert Frost (Harvard University Press, 2006), Selected Poems of Herman Melville (Penguin, 2006) The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost (2001), Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (FSG, 1997), Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Penguin, 1997), Early Poems of Robert Frost (Penguin, 1998). He is the author of Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin (University of Michigan Press, 1997).

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