Joyce Carol Oates attacked for 'distasteful' portrayal of Robert Frost

Short story 'Lovely, Dark, Deep' paints the much-garlanded poet as a racist, sexist boor

The author Joyce Carol Oates has angered friends and relatives of the acclaimed US poet Robert Frost by writing a short story that depicts him as a boorish and vainglorious, in what some have called a "preposterous" attack on a writer who died 50 years ago.

"Lovely, Dark, Deep" tells of young journalist Evangeline Fife who goes to interview Frost in the summer of 1951, when he would have been aged 77 and at the height of his public acclaim. As she arrives at his home, she discovers Frost asleep on his porch, "his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of a middle-aged woman". As the story develops, Evangeline's questions become more challenging as she begins to assert herself, provoking Frost into an aggressive outburst and revealing a malign character.

Oates's story, published in the November edition of Harper's Magazine, imagines Frost as racist, describing native Americans as "closer to the animal rung of the ladder than to our own", and leering, "You came to Bread Loaf to interview the revered Mr Frost with but a single pair of panties?", according to a dissection in New Republic. Frost's wife, Elinor, his sister, Jeanie, and his children Irma, Lesley, Marjorie, and Carol all feature in the fiction, with Oates making no attempt to disguise the identity of her subjects.

Frost is revered for his depictions of rural life in early 20th-century New England, and became a high-profile public figure during his lifetime, winning four Pulitzer prizes for poetry. His 86-year-old grandson, John Cone, accused Oates of "trying to cash in on grandfather's memory", and the biographer William Pritchard, author of Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, dubbed the work "utterly preposterous and quite distasteful", according to New Republic.

Oates attempts to deflect criticism of her story by describing it in a footnote as a "work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research".

Critical views about Frost's work and his personal life have changed over the years. In 1977, his former friend Lawrance Thompson created a portrait of the writer in a three-volume biography which suggested that he'd been far more unpleasant than most people realised.

This is not the first controversy to involve Oates. Earlier this year she sparked a social media storm with a series of tweets linking rape culture to Islam, which drew a stream of responses from other writers and users of the site.


Liz Bury

The GuardianTramp

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