Fellow: Awarded 2011
Field of Study: American Literature
Competition: US & Canada
An interest in the relationship between literature and science was the beginning of my studies in American literature. I enjoy viewing various aspects of this cultural conflict through the prism of particular authors. I began with a study of Robert Frost and his interest in nineteenth- and twentieth-century science in general and in Darwin in particular. My aim was to locate Frost's work within an intellectual and cultural context but also, of course, to underscore the subtlety and complexity of his work. I believe that there is much yet to learn about Frost, a poet whose skill and texture has been underestimated, misapprehended, or ignored because he stands far outside traditional critical frameworks. After my first book, Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin (1997), I decided that readers of Frost would benefit from some additional critical discussion from a variety of voices and also from publication of thousands of unpublished letters and journals. Accordingly, I convinced the Frost Estate and Harvard University Press to support me in publishing a multi-volume, definitive edition of The Writings of Robert Frost, for which I am serving as general editor. So far, the first volume, The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which I edited, has been published in hardcover and paperback; I received an NEH Research Grant in 2001 to begin that project. Mark Richardson's edition of The Collected Prose of Robert Frost has also been published as the second volume of the Harvard edition; Richardson and I, along with Donald Sheehy, are about to publish the first volume of three volumes of Frost's collected letters. The vast majority of the letters have never been published, and we have discovered hundreds in private hands. We received an NEH Scholarly Editions grant in 2006 for the Frost letters project.
In addition, I convinced Cambridge University Press to publish a Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost (2001) and, then, they invited me to write a monograph on Frost focusing on cultural and intellectual contexts entitled The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost (2008). There are many reasons why Frost is one of the very greatest of modern poets; I am particularly interested in the way he struggled with the conflict of science and faith. But his complexity and accomplishment as an artist far exceed my particular concern and, therefore, I thought it fitting to devote myself to helping to make Frost's work better available to readers.
The same interest in the challenge of science to faith in modernity attracted me to the poetry, essays, and novels of Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian-born Polish and American poet. His poetry is vastly different from Frost's, and it fascinated me. He balanced passionate, confessional lyrics, multi-vocal poetic tapestries, and detached, Buddhist meditations. Though he was known to many for The Captive Mind, an enduring study of the psychology of totalitarianism among intellectuals and artists, my reading of him focused on the way his youthful and romantic love of nature was spoiled by the uses of ideas of nature and history by totalitarian regimes in the mid-twentieth century. Further, he always found biology, which he called "the diabolical science," to be a Manichean challenge to Judeo-Christianity. In my converstations with Milosz, I learned that his dialogue with Thomas Merton was more about the meaning of nature than it was about politics or traditional theology. I decided, therefore, to pursue publishing what became Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz's work was certainly well regarded when I met him but I continued to learn much from his writing, and I have become a great advocate of his poetry and essays. I have founded, with the cooperation of the Milosz Estate, a Milosz Institute at Claremont McKenna College, devoted to the study of his work and broadly to poetry and questions related to his work. It is part of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, a research institute at the college for which I have served as director since 2007. In 1998, I organized an International Milosz Festival with participants from all over the world, including Milosz himself; the proceedings were published, in part, as an issue of Partisan Review (Winter 1999).
Milosz once described himself to me as "a hick." His attachment to rural Lithuania was, without question, a crucial part of his worldview. Both Robert Frost and Ken Kesey also imagined themselves as rural figures with cosmic preoccupations; they were both lousy farmers. From their vantage points in New England and Oregon, Frost and Kesey puzzled out larger ambiguities and shades of light and darkness. Kesey, whom I interviewd for The Paris Review, struck me as a writer eager to portray conflicts of good and evil but, like Melville before him, one who remained keenly aware of moral ambiguities. Though it would be difficult to put him on the same plane as Robert Frost, he did write two major American novels that work in the tradition of pastoral fascination with rustic, subversive figures. A fascinating figure in both American letters and culture, Kesey also helped define the moment when science, mysticism, and personal freedom reached a moment of crisis in the use and control over psychedelic drugs. My current project is a full-scale biography of Kesey (for Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a significant novelist and unsettler of modern America.