In 1958, by which time he was a great poet but better-known for his role as a folksy, homespun poet, Robert Frost contributed a list of “Five Favorite Books” to the Chicago Tribune “Magazine of Books.” Other contributors included Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Hemingway and Carl Sandburg (a real folksy, homespun poet). Frost said the “books that have meant to most to me in my lifetime” were:
The Old Testament, The Odyssey, The Poems of Catullus, Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John L. Stevens.
I take this information from the invaluable Collected Prose of Robert Frost (2007) edited by Mark Richardson. The proper title of the last book cited by Frost is Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and the author’s proper name is John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852). John L. Stevens (1820-1895) was the U.S. Department of State minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii who tried to overthrow that nation.
I cite Frost’s list not to gloat over his slips of the pen but to report something more intriguing in Richardson’s annotations. He quotes an account given by Lawrence Thompson, the poet’s official biographer, of a 1946 conversation they had on the subject of “great books” (which Richardson calls a “fetish of the 1940s”). Frost complains that such lists are composed mostly of books in translation, and who “wanted to soak in a `bath’ of translators for four [undergraduate] years.” Richardson quotes Thompson saying:
“He would give his students four books to buy – not to read now, but at their leisure: Emerson’s Poems, Thoreau’s Walden, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and St. Thomas’s Summa.”
A list, to be sure, both predictable and unexpected, admirable and curious. One is never certain with Frost what is self-revelation and what is performance. He’s a poet one would never bother with if so many of his poems weren’t so good. I trust I’m not alone in finding Emerson’s poems (like Thoreau’s) mostly unreadable. Even the essays are often compromised by Unitarian gassiness but in them reside some of the finest sentences ever crafted in English. Thoreau’s presence is no surprise, though one wishes Frost had chosen the journals. In a 1936 contribution to Books We Like, also collected by Richardson, Frost puts Walden third on his list of favorite books (Emerson’s Essays and Poems is tenth), and writes:
“Walden has something of the same fascination [as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, second on his list]. Crusoe was cast away; Thoreau was self-cast away. Both found themselves sufficient. No prose writer has ever been more fortunate in subject than these two. I prefer my essay in narrative form. In Walden I get it and always near the height of poetry.”
I love that: “I prefer my essay in narrative form,” as he preferred his own poems. Darwin’s volume corresponds to Stephens’ two-volume work on the other list. It’s also better written, though I haven’t read Incidents of Travel since 1976 when a friend and I got interested in the literature of New World exploration. It too is a sort of “essay in narrative form.”
The stunning inclusion, of course, is the Summa Theologica. It’s like learning that Kay Ryan prizes Kierkegaard. Perhaps Richardson or another Frost scholar can tell us: Did Frost actually read the Summa? When? Does it show up anywhere else in Frost’s work or life? Or is his mention just another Yankee put-on?