I adore Robert Frost. As salutatorian of my high school class, I chose “The Road Not Taken” as the jumping off point for my speech at graduation. I was scholarly and deep. And, according to David Orr, I was in a huge crowd of high school graduates who have used the poem for such an occasion and in a huge crowd of those who have misunderstood the poem. Frost, Orr happily tells us, may come across as a straighforward poet due to his plain everyman language, but that language masks the complexity of his poetry.
Orr gives an overview of Frost’s biography, which concludes with his biographers’ treatment of him as a person and a poet. Frost did not find success as a poet until middle age after he took a huge leap and moved to England, where he met Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost’s walks in the woods, and Thomas’ indecision about the path, led to “The Road Not Taken,” which even Thomas did not read as Frost intended. The narrator is not making a bold individualist’s choice. He is agonizing over two paths worn about the same.
Orr dives into the American psyche and our individualist culture. He examines “the choice” and uses philosophy and neuroscience to challenge the American ideal of rugged individuals making choices that matter, that add up to success. Orr questions whether we even have choices and dives into the way in which our brains fill in gaps in our reasoning to explain our choices. This was my favorite chapter.
With “The Chooser,” what had been an interesting use of Frost to explore and critique American individualism becomes tortured and drawn out. The arguments overlap and repeat and the chapters begin to seem like dissertation chapters or separate articles mashed together rather than book chapters that build carefully on one another. Orr critiques self-help authors for pushing us to the brink of acknowledging there are no real choices and then pulling back at the last minute to empower us to change our lives through choice, but he himself follows this model. Having argued that we misunderstood Frost, that our culture is built on a false assumption of individual choice, that we cannot even trust ourselves about our reasons for the choices we make, having taken us to the dark side, Orr concludes with a reflection on the Statue of Liberty and its poem and these lines: “Those who pass through those doors will one day lift their own small light in a yellow wood, where two roads diverge. And it will make all the difference.” What? Immigrants, who come from cultures which see society as playing a larger role in our choices, once in the United States suddenly gain the ability to make individual choices and make a difference?
Orr is a lawyer and poet who writes on poetry as a journalist. This particular project might have been better served as a feature article for a publication like The Atlantic rather than stretched too far to become a short book. That decision made a big difference.