Behind the Pogonias

In 1922 The Literary Digest asked selected American poets and novelists to name "the most important" living American writer: Joseph Hergesheimer finished first and Eugene O'Neill Second; Sherwood Anderson edged out Willa Cather for third. For fifth place James Branch Cabell tied Robert Frost, who first gained wide attention in 1915 with the American publication of A Boy's Will, his first book of poems.

In the decades that followed, Hergesheimer and Cabell plunged into obscurity, and Anderson—whose Winesburg, Ohio was described by Susan Sontag as "dogged and pretentious”—became, in some quarters, some thing of a joke. O'Neill and Cather remained widely respected, but neither came close to achieving the enormous popularity and acclaim of Robert Frost. By the late 1950's, Frost was America's unofficial poet laureate—the regular recipient of testimonial dinners, honorary degrees, and senatorial proclamations.

Frost deserved the accolades. He produced solid, often indisputably first-rate verse for close to five decades. Consider "The Gift Outright," "The Black Cottage," "Two Tramps in Mudtime," and "The Death of the Hired Man." As these poems remind us, Frost steered clear of self-pity and morbid introspection. Hee...

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