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Robert Frost, The question of a feather (Review)

July 19, 2012

Well I never! Never knew, that is, that Robert Frost wrote prose as well as poetry. I suppose I didn’t know that he didn’t do it, either, but now I know that he did! And how do I know? Through the Library of America of course! This week’s story is “The question of a feather” by Robert Frost.

LOA’s notes, as usual, provide some interesting background. It appears that in 1899 Frost was chronically ill with, the doctor thought, tuberculosis which had caused his father’s death. The doctor’s advice? Go work outdoors, young man! And so Frost, “a born-and-bred city boy”, and his wife, decided to take up poultry farming, first on a rented farm and then on a farm bought for them by Frost’s grandfather. Robert and Elinor farmed for around nine years at the beginning of the 20th century.

Still wanting to write, Frost wrote poems which were, apparently, regularly rejected for publication so, LOA says, “he eventually lit upon the idea of writing pieces for the regional poultry-farming papers”. “The question of a feather” was one of these pieces. Frost scholar, Mark Richardson, amusingly wrote of these pieces:

In regards to Frost’s writing for poultry journals, it must be acknowledged first that they are certainly the best poultry-stories written by a modern American poet.

I bet they are!

Now, I have to be honest here and say that I really only know a couple of Frost’s famous poems – “the road not taken” and so on – so this is not going to be an analysis of how this sketch illuminates or represents his work. Rather I’m just going to introduce it a little, and hope you decide to read it yourselves using the link below. It’s a short piece. (LOA’s notes say that there are hints of this story in his poem “A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury”).

It is subtitled “How an editor got out of the frying pan and into the fire” and concerns the editor of the poultry journal, Hendom, who receives a letter from a reader stating that their poultry farm

is the result of following your instructions to the letter … You have been our only teacher, and we want you to be the judge whether it has been to our advantage.

Now, our editor is not thrilled about this. He tells his readers not to follow him exactly, but to “use judgment in keeping hens”. However, he’s been stuck in his office all day “and he was tired of it” so decides to visit the two sisters “though he did not feel he was to blame”. He fancies the result will be “bad” or “amusing”. He assumes he will be confronted by “a failure to make money in hens”. There’s a mock-heroic sense to all this, which I liked:

He considered himself as having one of the good times incident to his calling. He liked nothing better than visiting a farm, and visiting this one had a spice of real adventure.

Of course, what he finds is not what he – the superior male editor – assumes. And he is confronted with an ethical question regarding poultry showing:

“… you are just in time, Mr Fulton, to help us with that feather on the leg of, I think, our best pullet.”
“Pull it?”
“Yes, pullet.”
“Help you pull it, I mean.”
“Tell us whether it is right to pull it,” she answered, flushed and serious.

There is quite a bit of sly humour in the piece … and a lovely description of character. You know exactly what sort of man the editor is – pompous and patronising towards women, particularly spinsters, and yet his unwillingness to be definite about anything gives away a degree of wishy-washiness, a lack of confidence perhaps. And you know the sisters too, their conscientiousness, openness, and willingness to confront the difficult questions. It’s an odd little piece, really, but shows to me a Frost interested in the details of everyday life, in how people do or don’t communicate, and in describing character. It also provides a little picture of New England at the time.

Robert Frost
“The question of a feather”
First published: Farm-Poultry, July 15, 1903.
(Library of America’s text is from Mark Richardson, The Collected Prose of Robert Frost: A New Critical Edition, Rutgers University doctoral dissertation, 1993. Reprinted by permission)
Available: Online at the Library of America

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2012 2:10 pm

    I am intrigued! This sounds like rather a fun read and I will most certainly be bookmarking it for when I have a spare moment.
    (P.S. I finished “I Shall Not Hate” on Monday, I had to take my time with it because it was a bit too heavy in places for the after work train ride however it was a brilliant book and I am so glad I read your review and decided to give it a go.)

    • July 19, 2012 4:08 pm

      Oh thanks CheezyK for coming back to tell me. It IS a heavy read but so worthwhile isn’t it? Such a patient, thoughtful and admirable man. I’d like to think I’d be like that but have no idea how I’d be under such provocation.

      And, if you read the Frost, do let me know what you think too.

      • July 20, 2012 3:30 pm

        What a little bit of fun! Very poetic in its movement too I thought. If the Christmas one alluded to in the comments on the LoA site comes across your desk I would most appreciate it if you shared it!

        • July 20, 2012 6:24 pm

          I’m glad you liked it CheezyK … you can see the poet there can’t you? In the movement and in the economy. He doesn’t say anything he doesn’t need to. I will look out for more and share if any appear!

  2. July 19, 2012 3:17 pm

    The best poultry pieces? Well done Robert!

  3. debbierodgers permalink
    July 19, 2012 11:09 pm

    I had no idea, either, that Frost wrote prose. I’ve just printed out this story for bedtime reading tonight. Thanks!

  4. July 21, 2012 8:17 am

    Mark Twain once gave an address to a poultry raising society. He interpreted “raising” to mean what “lifting” means in “cattle lifting”, and enumerated the ways in which the boys of his town would acquire the neighbor’s chickens.

  5. July 21, 2012 3:18 pm

    See? Now you have made me want to take my Jay Parini biography of Robert Frost off my TBR shelf, and GET AT IT!
    What a great poet, this man was. I do want to get to know him better!

    • July 21, 2012 5:23 pm

      Many apologies Cipriano, I feel your pain, truly I do because this and the few poems I do know have inspired me to know more! An interesting man methinks!

  6. July 22, 2012 9:21 am

    Well, this has made the blogosphere worthwhile. I click on your blog, read a wonderful post about an eminent poet and his humble beginnnings, read one of his humble beginnings, and now get to comment like this – how fantastic! Slightly more seriously, I love Frost, and I love poultry, so this to me was perfect. Even more seriously, I’ve always considered short stories to be a close cousin of poetry, so it all makes sense. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Most enjoyable.

    • July 22, 2012 11:14 am

      Why thanks, Nigel, you’ve made my day with this comment. I agree with you re short stories being cousin to poetry. I love reading these offerings from LOA – though I don’t find time to read all that they offer – and am thrilled when others enjoy them too. I wish someone would do this in Australia … I know some of their funding comes from the sale of their books but am not sure whether they are totally self supporting.

  7. July 26, 2012 2:32 am

    I quite like Frost and while I can’t say I’ve read most of his poetry I have read a good deal of it but had no idea he wrote any prose and for a poultry magazine no less! For some reason I find this highly amusing as well as ingenious. If you have to write I guess you can find some really interesting places to publish!

    • July 26, 2012 8:27 am

      I like your point that it was ingenious, Stefanie … And shows that you can write about anything, and make it interesting, if you want to!

  8. August 1, 2012 9:52 pm

    I’m a huge Frost fan, a huge poetry fan (not so much of a short story fan) but I loved this story nonetheless. So very Frostlike to write so sparingly and with such pause so that even the simplest of acts becomes imbued with a sense of gravity. His magnitude is clear in this story and how gracefully he inserts those subtle comments about society and its people. Genius. (Both Frost and you for pointing this gem out to us all!)

    • August 1, 2012 10:55 pm

      Why thank you Justine … I love being mentioned in the same breath as Frost! I like your comment regarding his subtle comments about society and people. He does it well …

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