I am a man of principle. More specifically, I am a critic of principle. When I am asked—in fact begged—to write a regular column chastising the books and writers whose reputations have become inflated; when I choose to name my column “Books to Avoid”; then I consider myself duty-bound to stick to the original plan.
But I am also a fair man. When I review a good book or writer whose reputation has inexplicably waned, I consider myself duty-bound to fudge my principles. A prime example of an inexplicable dip in critical approval is Edward Arlington Robinson. He was born in 1869 and died in 1935. He won the Pulitzer Prize three times, in 1922, 1925, and 1928. He was acknowledged as New England’s finest poet. Then, as they say, the inevitable happened. Robert Frost (1874-1963) came along and won four Pulitzers (1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943) and replaced our man as New England’s finest, despite the facts that he was born in San Francisco and won his first critical acclaim while living in England.
A classic example of upstaging. What accounts for this change in “critical” taste?
Let me suggest several reasons.
(1) Frost’s longevity. Eighty-nine is hard to beat.
(2) The very names. “Robert Frost” is a perfect New England name, suggesting as it does the harsh winters of the region. “Edward Arlington Robinson,” though New England to its core, suggests the snobbery often associated, rightly or wrongly, with Boston. If he had dropped the “Arlington” from the get-go, he might still be read. What’s more, “Robert” has stood the test of time; nobody gives the honorable and perfectly good name “Edward” to a boy anymore.
(3) The contrast between their most-cited poems. “The Road Less Taken” does well because it’s about choices—which people make every day—and because people like to think they are unique (the narrator claims he made the minority choice) and therefore morally superior. “Richard Cory” is about a man who shoots himself—not a common occurrence; hard to identify with.
I speak here of the literary class. Those whose tastes are shaped by today’s cinema are another matter. Given a choice between a film based on Frost’s poem or one based on Robinson’s, every producer, director, or actor with half a brain would take the road most traveled by and go with “Richard Cory.”
If I had the time and inclination, for example, I’d write the screenplay as a whodunit. “Prominent citizen found dead. Coroner rules suicide, but Miss Marple has other ideas.”
The prominent citizen is the leading candidate for governor on the Republican ticket. His rival, of mixed ethnicity and suspected of harboring lesbian tendencies, is secretly in bed with the mob. After a televised debate between these two principals, Cory is gunned down in his bathtub. The coroner, a cousin of the Democratic candidate, rules suicide. Miss Marple flies in from Baghdad, notes inconsistencies in the coroner’s report, checks the exhumed body and finds a superficial scratch on the left ear lobe and 30 bullet holes, all of them in the back. She becomes suspicious. She checks the victim’s romantic history and comes up with five suspects. Cut to the finale. Miss Marple is explaining to a packed news conference how she was able to deduce that the five suspects were all in on the plot, their common motive being that Cory was a bore, that all he ever wanted to do in bed was reveal his inner feelings about being impotent.
I challenge my readers to come up with a treatment of “The Road Less Taken” that equals this.