Literary daybook, Nov. 6

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published November 6, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On Nov. 6, Count Dracula perishes under the knives of Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris.
-- "Dracula" (1897)
by Bram Stoker

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1894, 20-year-old Robert Frost departed for the Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border, with Dark Thoughts. He was poor, jobless, unpublished, expelled from Dartmouth College, and recently spurned by his high school sweetheart and chosen mate, Elinor White -- for all of the above reasons. He had just returned from a visit to White at Lawrence College, made unannounced but bearing gifts: the two home-made copies of his first, five-poem book of poetry, "Twilight." The Beloved barely opened her door far enough to receive her copy; the Poet tore his to pieces as he walked away. A small bag was packed for an undisclosed destination; a train was boarded in Boston, then a steamer in New York; a 10-mile walk past bear and bog and into the jungled heart of darkness was begun.

Frost liked to tell, or mythologize, his life, but his only account of what happened in the Dismal Swamp comes from the poem "Kitty Hawk," written when he was in his 80s and published in his last collection of poetry, "In The Clearing." As preamble to his take on the flight of the Wright brothers, Frost describes his own flight into the unknown, and his learning of a lesson:


"Getting too befriended,
As so often, ended
Any melancholy
That I might have sung"

Whatever his plans, he spent his time first with a convivial group of duck hunters -- "Each and every one/ Loaded with a gun/ Or a demijohn" -- and then "With a lone coast guard/ On midnight patrol,/ Who as of a sect/ Asked about my soul ..." Reclaimed from the Swamp, and bailed out by a train ticket sent by his mother, Frost returned home.

He arrived to discover that things had already brightened, poetically at least. On Nov. 8, just as he was taking his first boggy steps, his first "professional" poem was published in the New York newspaper, The Independent. Frost received $15 for "My Butterfly," one of the five poems Elinor had not cared much to read. And whether by publication or Swamp gesture, he got her too, as there was an immediate reconciliation, and then marriage a year later. Less impressed was Frost's grandfather, who had paid for Dartmouth and was now offering as a new deal his financial support for a year, at the end of which time, if Frost had not made a go of poetry, he would have to promise to give it up. Frost's response to the one-year offer had been that of the auctioneer: "Give me twenty, give me twenty, who'll give me twenty ... ?" Several years later, when his grandfather bought him a farm in New Hampshire, the deal was that Frost must work it for 10 years. This he did, and then sold it and sailed for England. There, 20 years almost to the month after "My Butterfly" appeared, his first book of poetry -- except for the limited edition, "Twilight" -- was published, just as the auctioneer asked.


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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