Mar. 7, 2004

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost


Poem: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Henry Holt and Co.).

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of literary critic and James Joyce scholar William York Tindall, born in Williamstown, Vermont (1903). He studied literature at Columbia University and soon after graduation he traveled to Europe. He had heard about the notorious book Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce, and he decided to buy a copy when he was in Paris. He said, "I went straight to Luxembourg Gardens and read the final chapters, and discovered that it wasn't a dirty book but a fascinating one." He also realized that by pure coincidence, he had purchased the book on June 16, which is the day on which the action takes place. He became obsessed with Joyce, and read all of his works. When he returned to the U.S. he started teaching a course in modern literature at New York University, and he was one of the first professors in the United States to assign Ulysses to his students. The book was still banned in the U.S. at the time, so his students had to read a bootlegged copy that was chained to a desk in the library. He went on to become president of the James Joyce Society, and he wrote four books about Joyce, including A Reader's Guide to James Joyce (1959) and A Reader's Guide to Finnegan's Wake (1969).

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Harris, born in Nottingham, England (1957). In 1987, he was working as an investigative journalist when he decided to take a vacation in Italy. He was lying on the beach, listening to the German tourists talking all around him, when he suddenly imagined that he was living in the victorious German empire. He got up and went swimming in the ocean, and by the time he came back to shore, he had an outline for a novel about what the world would be like if the Nazis had won World War II. That novel was Fatherland (1991), and it became an international bestseller. It takes place in an alternate 1964 as Germans are preparing to celebrate Hitler's seventy-fifth birthday, and it focuses on an S.S. investigator who stumbles upon suppressed evidence of the extermination of the Jewish people. Harris is also the author of Enigma (1995), about British code breakers during World War II, and Archangel (1998), about the search for a secret Stalin diary. His most recent book is Pompeii (2003), a historical novel about the Roman city buried by Mount Vesuvius.

Harris said, "It is perfectly legitimate to write novels which are essentially prose poems, but in the end, I think, a novel is like a car, and if you buy a car and grow flowers in it, you're forgetting that the car is designed to take you somewhere else."

It's the birthday of fiction and nature writer Rick Bass, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1958). His father was an oil geologist, and Rick spent much of his childhood exploring the Texas hill country on deer hunting trips with his grandfather. He studied geology in college and started working for an oil company in Mississippi, but he found himself thinking a lot about his childhood and those deer hunting trips. He started writing short essays on his lunch breaks at work, and those essays became his first book, The Deer Pasture (1985). Around the same time, he began writing short stories, and though he got a lot of rejections, he also got a lot of feedback from editors. He said, "It was like going to school through the mail. I'd focus for a week or two on one mysterious little line. 'Lacks depth', for instance." Then, one day, he read the novel Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison, and he later said, "It threw a mental switch, a big door just swung open." The next story he wrote was published in the Paris Review.

He continued working as a geologist, prospecting for oil, and he wrote a book about his job called Oil Notes (1988). But he and his girlfriend eventually decided that they wanted to get away from civilization, so they packed all their possessions into a pickup truck and drove to Montana. He said, "[We were looking for] a place of ultimate wildness, with the first yardstick of privacy: a place where you could walk around naked if you wanted to." They wound up in the Yaak Valley, and he published a memoir of his first winter there called Winter: Notes from Montana (1991). He wrote, "I can picture getting so addicted to this valley, so dependent on it for my peace, that I become hostage to it."

He's gone on to write many books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent novel is The Hermit's Story (2002).

It's the birthday of novelist Bret Easton Ellis, born in Los Angeles, California (1964). As he began to publish, he became associated with the "Brat Pack" of young, successful novelists of the 1980s. He became the target of protests by the National Organization of Women when he wrote his third novel, American Psycho (1991), about an investment banker named Patrick Bateman, who is obsessed with fashionable clothing, hip restaurants, pop music, and the color of his business card, but who also spends his free time murdering and mutilating men, women and children. Ellis's original publisher dropped the book one month before it was supposed to come out, after the chairman of the publisher decided it was too disturbing. When it was finally published, Ellis received anonymous death threats for having written it. His most recent novel is Glamorama (1999).

It was on this day in 1923 that Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening," was published in the New Republic. He'd written the poem after staying up all night working on a different poem called "New Hampshire" (1923). He said later, "I went outdoors, got out sideways and didn't disturb anybody in the house, and about nine or ten o'clock went back in and wrote ['Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening,'] as if I'd had an hallucination." He said that the first lines of the poem, "Whose woods these are, I think I know, / his house is in the village though," contained everything he knew about how to write.

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