Frost and Burton at Michigan, 1921-26, Then and Now

By Dimond, Paul R. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Frost and Burton at Michigan, 1921-26, Then and Now


Dimond, Paul R., Michigan Quarterly Review


Adapted from a presentation delivered as part of the U-M Bicentennial Poetry Symposium on April 7, 2017.

At President Marion Leroy Burtons invitation, Robert Frost arrived in the fall of 1921 to serve a one-year stint as the first Creative Fellow at Michigan. The two men were kindred spirits: Both forty-six, each had already achieved much, but had much higher ambitions-Burton to build Michigan into a great national university, Frost to become America's greatest poet if not also a national institution. And each believed the other would help realize these ambitions.

In Burton's too-brief tenure he built a dozen great buildings, most of which still bless this magnificent campus. He also raised Michigan's sights. As he wrote to the funder of Frosts fellowship, "A real university should be a patron of art, literature and creative activity. We ought to have on campus [creative artists] who are actually producing the results which influence the thought of nations." Burton also wanted students to leaven their academic studies by learning from doing, making, and creating.

Frost, although as widely read as any academic in literature, never graduated from college. Worse, the good reviews of his third book of poems did not generate sales sufficient to support his family of six; and his full load teaching at Amherst for three years hadn't gone well: it consumed way too much of his time, and he fell out with the college's president. Unemployed, Frost needed a professor's salary and the freedom to compose poems and campaign around the country reading his poetry for a good fee. Burton's offer of $5,000 without any teaching responsibilities was therefore a godsend. More than that, as Frost replied in his acceptance letter, the poet embraced the university president's vision "for keeping the creative and the erudite together in education where they belong; and [where the creative can also] make its demand on the young student."

And oh, did Frost make his mark at Michigan! He led the monthly meetings at Prof. Cowdens home on Olivia Avenue for the student writers of the literary magazine, Whimsies. Frost shared his poems, and the students shared theirs. He welcomed students into his bigger rental house on Washtenaw to recite their poems, and then Frost would encourage them "to keep it around for a while and deepen, deepen it." His favorite students were the women who wrote the better poems; he felt he could be toughest with them. When one young woman put highfalutin words in her verse, Frost tartly advised, "There is a difference between fetching and far-fetching."

Town and gown filled Hill Auditorium five times to hear Frost introduce and share the stage with five of his national poet peers. The Town also loved his round of civic talks and his celebrity; the favorite hang-out near campus sold an ice cream confection encased in chocolate called a "FrostBite." Not to be outdone, the bookstore next door advertised his books with a sign that read,"Frost-Bark: Very Little Worse than his Bite."

Burton often hosted Frost for dinner parties at the Presidents House. At one gathering, Burton remarked, "Robert Frost may be even more popular than Football Coach Fielding Yost." To which Frost replied, "Let's put that to the test: schedule a reading for me at the same time as a home football game. More than 30,000 will be cheering at Ferry Field, but Hill Auditorium will be empty since even I will be at the game."

The Whimsies honored Frost by dedicating the final issue of the magazine to him. The cover included the first verse from one of his earliest poems, "Revelation."

We make ourselves a place apart

Behind light words that tease and flout,

-But, oh, the agitated heart

Till some find us really out.

Revealed in this poem is the larger challenge that faced Frost and Burton. The English faculty was already divided, into two separate departments in two separate buildings. Many of the academics in Literature, housed on the main Quadrangle, objected to any creative writer being on the English faculty, particularly a college drop-out who taught no classes but got paid as much as they did and stole the show. …

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