An Autodidact in London

“Alexis de Tocqueville is in the ANB. He was a French critic who wrote about America, but he was only here for a couple of years. Einstein is in the ANB, not because of his work as a physicist, but mostly because he became a figure in American public life. Pancho Villa, the Mexican rebel….” general editor John A. Garraty

American National BiographyNever mind that grease on Robert Frost’s entry. I dropped my croissant while admiring his attempts to woo the fair Elinor White.

The high school sweethearts, having secretly pledged their hearts to one another, went separate ways to college. This was the 1890s, mind, and not every girl took such steps to enrich her conversation, but pretty young Robert thought she might shun the opportunity to marry him. She did not, but he indeed dropped out of Dartmouth to pursue the career of a lamp trimmer. (How’s that for heartbroken?) It was not long, however, before Robert convinced himself that there were worse ways to spend his time than replacing spent filaments in light bulbs, and turned to making poems.

After publishing a quiet number in the New York Independent, the professional poet (as he now fancied himself) returned to Elinor’s window and met with — how to put this — a frosty reception. Feverish, he called in the cavalry and had produced a collection of five poems —  his, incredibly — calf-bound with gilt lettering. Only two were made. One he kept, and the other he presented nobly to his coy mistress: Twilight, he called it. Little did he know the same title would later set to racing the hearts of a million young girls. Not Elinor’s. And so, taking the lead on what might be considered a service to American literature, Robert Frost destroyed his edition of Frost — and my throat catching at such a happy thought, I deposited my baked item onto the pages of that well-thumbed volume of American National Biography.

What fond memories I’ll have next I peruse the later Fs and early Gs. Did you say something about Wikipedia? Ah yes, nails and coffins — you’re coming round. Another riddle:

As a young man, this Bostonian autodidact saved money for books by flirting with vegetarianism. But having soon made a confounded nuisance of himself, he fled to a place far from anyone who knew him, set up shop, and made a comfortable living. Later, despite repeated attempts to settle in London, he ended up joining the American rebellion at the age of seventy.

I mean the “Revolution” of course, or the “War of American Independence”, or — as our shelves prefer to style it, curiously but accurately — the “Civil War”. (There is a separate shelf for the American Civil War. Think not in binaries, and worlds will open to you.)

The answer, as you might have expected, will find its way to these electric climes in two complete swings of the hour hand.

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Filed under American Culture, Books

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