- Frost Less “Executive” than Stevens
THE OFT-TOLD STORY of Robert Frost’s and Wallace Stevens’ repartees at the Casa Marina in Key West is quickly becoming iconic. Today almost every college sophomore knows the anecdote of the two masters blaming each other for being, respectively, “too academic” and “too executive” and then for writing “about—subjects” and “about— bric-a-brac” (qtd. in Thompson and Winnick 61).1 Frost himself fed his biographer Lawrance Thompson this incident, dating it to February 1940. Soon enough one realizes, however—as does Thompson himself, though vaguely (666)—that it could not have taken place then. If at all, some such event must have occurred in the spring of 1935, when they met for the first time (notwithstanding that they did meet again in 1940 all the same). That would explain why one finds Frost discussing the two epithets “academic” and “executive” as referring, respectively, to him and Stevens in a letter to Stevens of July 28, 1935 (qtd. in Parini 292); this date would add more credibility to the event given that the remark on Frost writing about “subjects,” attributed to Stevens, first appeared in a talk Frost gave in Miami on March 1, 1935. To be more precise, Stevens then was to accuse Frost of writing “on subjects that were assigned” (“Before”). That day, Frost reported the rest of their first conversation in a way strongly evocative of the famous swapping of repartees believed to have taken place in 1940: “But then I accused him [Stevens] of writing on subjects too. He would have it that there was no thought in his poetry, that it was without content. And I disagreed” (“Before”).2
Frost’s apparent difficulty dating the famed argument fuels the impression that it’s a mythic story, even if it is derived from an actual exchange between the two poets. If some such exchange did take place, it was an emblematic occurrence that in a way had long been anticipated, had been almost destined to take place, and that later with every recollection became more symmetrical, echoing, and anaphoric. The story has the air of myth because some of its terms had had long histories in Frost’s reflections; they may have cropped up in their conversation of 1935, and then again in 1940, but Frost had been turning them over in his mind long before their encounters and for years afterwards as well.
To elaborate on this, I will focus on the less famous and less frequently quoted taunts than that the two poets write about “subjects” and “bric-a-brac”—namely, [End Page 70] on the two epithets they exchanged first, “academic” and “executive.” There is, for instance, much more to Frost’s use of the word “executive” than meets the eye. We should salvage it from the not so uncommon misunderstanding that Frost simply taunted Stevens for his unpoetic position as an insurance executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. (Such an interpretation was encouraged by Frost himself, who suggested in the abovementioned letter that the epithets “academic” and “executive” meant that they both had real jobs, outside the world of books.) As a number of Frost’s notebook entries suggest, the adjective and the noun “executive” had long played a special role in Frost’s private and subjective lexicon by which he lived, wrote, and positioned himself among his contemporaries. One entry in one of Frost’s notebooks, which he used between 1909 and the 1950s, reads as follows: “Plato and the Executive. The Poet As Executive” (Notebooks 35). Robert Faggen immediately observes, in his annotations to the published Notebooks, that the line alludes to Stevens, which is plausible, especially given the fact that this entry is surrounded by others easily attributable to the late 1930s and early 1940s (Notebooks 696). But what did Frost mean by this line? He seems to suggest that now, without the ideal structures of meaning, Plato’s philosopher-kings (and queens) conceptualized in The Republic ought to be replaced with poet-kings (and queens).3 Poets, whom Plato so vilified, are in Frost’s view the only persons who can be trusted to rule well...