Did PR trump scholarship in Frost poem discovery?
Two weeks ago, the Hook dutifully reported on the discovery of an unknown Robert Frost poem by a UVA grad student (Eureka!: Grad student hits literary gold, October 5, 2006), as did over 100 newspapers and radio programs around the world in the followng days, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, and the UK’s Guardian Unlimited.
Universally, the articles lauded the discovery as something unique, and the discoverer as a “literary sleuth.” Rob Stilling, the UVA grad student who found the poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” inscribed in a copy of one of Frost’s books, even appeared on CBS News to discuss his find, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, with great fanfare, published the poem in its most recent issue.
However, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests this might have been a triumph of marketing and PR over literary scholarship. According to Frost scholars interviewed by Chronicle writer Jennifer Howard, the discovery isn’t unique.
"It was a very common thing for him to inscribe books," says Mark Richardson, a professor of English at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and a Frost scholar. "You'll find– in the flyleaves of books that he made gifts of to people– letters, quips, notes to remark a particular occasion, and, on somewhat rarer occasions, poems."
Richardson points out that the Amherst College Library has been issuing unpublished Frost writings for the past 30 years, and that a group associated with the library issued a pamphlet with two unpublished Frost poems this past spring. Like “War Thoughts at Home,” the two had been inscribed in books Frost had handed out.
“We were a bit caught off guard by the press coverage,” says UVA news editor Brendan Mathews, who says the poem was actually discovered a year ago. “Maybe we’re just better at PR than Amherst College.” Mathews admits UVA knew about the other Frost discoveries and scholarship (mention of which is nowhere to be found in UVA press releases), but he says this particular poem and the way it was found are unique.
“It was both unknown and unpublished,” says Mathews, “and its subject matter and the fact that it was found by a grad student, not a professional archivist, made it an interesting story.”
Interesting, yes. But a “staggering” literary find as VQR editor Ted Genoways characterized it in comments accompanying its publication?
“I don’t think we over-sold the poem,” says Genoways. “It is, everyone seems to agree, the first poem by Frost made available to the public since the poem I published in Meridian eight years ago. Several librarians and Frost scholars have been unhappy because they know of other unpublished poems. That's fine, but the fact that Frost scholars know of these poems hardly makes them available to a reading public.”
Genoways also says the Amherst College Library’s issuing of the Frost poems was not a “true” publication. “There's no ISBN, no copyright registration, and it was distributed privately to Friends of the library,” he says. “I, too, know of dozens of unpublished works by major authors, but that doesn't mean that anyone else does.”
Post media blitz, Genoways now emphasizes the poem itself and its wide reception.
“If the poem is eliciting these kinds of discussions, then I don't think we can overestimate its significance,” he says. “When was the last time a single poem had this kind of hold on the public imagination? It only seems good for poetry and good for the American psyche.”
Still, when the UVA press releases went out describing the “recently discovered”Šbig literary find” it led readers to believe it was something unprecedented. It wasn’t. Good PR? Absolutely. A significant poem? Perhaps. Breaking news? Just ask John Lancaster.
"Maybe we just don't have as good a PR operation," the Amherst Library curator told the Chronicle, helping to affirm Mathews’ boast. Lancaster was the one who discovered Frost’s poems "The Inscription in the Desert" and "Gone Astray" earlier this year. “I thought, 'Hey, this is neat,'" he recalled. "I wasn't jumping out of my chair."