Robert Frost, The question of a feather (Review)
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.”
“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.
“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