Tuesday, March 17, 2015

This Ought To Be A Good Book


When Robert Frost met Sidney Cox in Plymouth, New Hampshire, in 1911, they were both teachers. The 22-year-old Cox was a recent graduate of Bates College and a newly minted high school teacher, while Frost, age 37, was a teacher at Plymouth Normal School (later Plymouth State College). Their first meeting was not amiable, with Frost teasing Cox about papers he was hurrying home to grade. However, the relationship improved over a common interest in literature and poetry and over the next forty years they kept up a lively correspondence with Cox developing a reverence for the poet very quickly. So when Cox decided to write a book about his friend, he decided not to write a standard biography but rather "a portrait of the wholeness of a man," he described as "the wisest man, and one of the two deepest and most honest thinkers, I know." Cox finished the manuscript before his death in 1952, and in 1954, it found its way to the offices of the New York University Press and its editor Wilson Follett who recognized the value of the book because he felt that Frost was "one of the remaining early moderns who merit rediscovery and re-examination."

After the book was vetted and accepted by the editorial committee of the New York University Press, Follett suggested that a preface by Robert Frost "in which he states the facts of his long association with Cox in as much detail as he can be got to supply," would be beneficial to the sale of "this little book." He believed that Frost and Cox's "association was such that I think he [Frost] cannot possibly refuse." On October 20, 1954, Follett sent a letter to Frost with a request for such a preface. He received no reply. On November 16, 1954, he sent a second request, this time to the University of Cincinnati, where he believed Frost to be. Again, there was no reply from Frost. Instead, in a letter addressed to Follett by William S. Clark in the English department at Cincinnati, he was assured that Clark had personally put Follett's letter into Robert Frost's hands. On May 10, 1955, Follett made another attempt to contact Frost directly.
Dear Mr. Frost
Is it not possible for you to take a moment to acknowledge a fairly long-standing invitation to contribute some word of your own to Sidney Cox's Swinger of Birches, a book written with great devotion to you and to truths as Cox saw it?
Seven days later he sent an additional letter addressed to Frost's assistant Kathleen Morrison asking her if she had had a chance to talk to Frost about the requests as the Press had been "holding up publication of the book," because they felt that it was "incomplete without a contribution from Frost." In June 1955, Follett received an answer from Kathleen Morrison telling him that Frost "feels strongly that he doesn’t want to break the habit of a lifetime and start writing anything in books that deal with him or his writing." In another letter addressed to Frost almost a year later, Follett was getting exasperated, reminding Frost that "You were important to Sidney Cox for four decades; there must have been senses in which he was and is important to you." On June 18, 1956, Follett finally received a response from Frost in which he grudgingly consented to and enclosed a "bookselling preface," in which he denied ever having read the manuscript, something Follett believed to be false, as he was told that Frost had read it while Cox was still alive. In the preface, Frost also reiterated the fact that he did not like to read anything about himself.
I find most attempts to describe me much to disturbing either for my pleasure or my discipline. I am assured and I assume from my knowledge of Sidney Cox that the book is one texture of honesty and as such I may concede it all the value you please, but be the responsibility of giving it to the world entirely on the heads of others.
Over the two years that Follett had been trying to get in touch with Frost, he was also regularly updating Alice Cox, Sidney's widow, about the progress of the publication. In regard to Frost's preface he told her that "it was a nasty little document, reflecting in every line the self-detestation with which he [Frost] supplied it." However, even though Follett felt that the preface was "astringent,'' he was "prepared to publish it exactly as it stood." Then, in September 1956, he received an additional letter from Frost.
Dear Mr. Follett
A letter from Alice Cox put our situation in an entirely different new light. She doesn't share my hesitation about the preface at all. She wants it and is sure that Sidney would want it too. That's all I ask and should have asked from the first. It doesn't matter to me now about this slight discomfort I may still feel in prefacing my own praises. If it is not too late I should like another chance at the preface to touch it up a little and perhaps make it sound a little less grudging.
A Swinger of Birches was published in 1957, by New York University Press. To read the entire correspondence ask for MS-1325.

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