The University Record, May 8, 2000

Bentley publication recounts Robert Frost’s time on campus

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

This portrait of Robert Frost hangs in the Special Collections Room of the Hatcher Graduate Library. Photo courtesy U-M Photo Services
Just when residents of Southeast Michigan were looking forward to the last frost of the 1920–21 season, U-M president Marion L. Burton was looking forward to the arrival of the first frost—poet Robert Frost.

The efforts of Burton to secure enthusiasm and funds to support a Frost fellowship at the University are well documented in Frost-Bite & Frost-Bark: Robert Frost at Michigan by Robert M. Warner, published by the Bentley Historical Library. Warner’s accounts of the University’s courting of Frost and Frost’s arrival at and departure from the U-M offer fascinating views of the poet, the University and the beginning of a famous romance.

For this initial experiment in fostering a relationship between the University and artists, Frost brought his family to Ann Arbor, attended receptions and parties, lectured, met with students and student groups, and arranged a series of presentations by outstanding American poets. Not only did the campus community take note of this renowned visitor, the city also did. A local drug store concocted an ice cream treat encased in chocolate and called it “Frost-Bite.” A bookstore next to the pharmacy advertised Frost’s writings as “Frost-Bark—Very Little Worse than his Bite.”

Frost’s time here brought praise from throughout the University, and reports to Burton expressing, “from all the evidence at hand . . . this fellowship in Creative Art has been a very great success.” Warner writes: “Burton even half jokingly suggested at an alumni gathering that Frost might be more popular than football coach Fielding Yost. When told of this comparison, Frost suggested that the matter be put to the test by his scheduling a reading in Hill Auditorium at the same time as a home football game. The result, Frost concluded, would be that no one would be in the auditorium since even he would be at the game.”

Frost’s first year at U-M was so successful that he was persuaded to return for a second. His second term under the Fellowship in Creative Arts was not quite so successful, but the fellowship itself found support and enthusiasm for its continuance.

The University continued its relationship with Frost, bringing him back to U-M in 1925 as a faculty member. Illnesses beset Frost and his family both in Ann Arbor and on the East Coast. “I am not sure of hanging on long at Ann Arbor though the position is supposed to be for life,” Frost wrote to a friend. “Elinor stands being separated from the children worse than I do. What I want is a farm in New England once more.”

Frost was persuaded to make several more appearances at U-M and in April 1962 made his final appearance here at Hill Auditorium. “He read his poetry and captivated his audience by looking back affectionately, with humor and with remarkable historical accuracy at his Ann Arbor days,” Warner writes. “He spoke with real warmth of his great friend and sponsor, President Burton.”

What Warner called a “noble experiment” had its glitches. “Certainly the great expectations of the experiment were not fulfilled.” Warner writes. “Other colleges and universities did not fall into line and become sponsors of creative artists to enrich the culture of America . . . President Burton’s dream of a permanent, fully endowed Fellowship in Creative Arts was not realized. The endowment did not materialize, and the fellowship survived only a short time after Burton’s death. And Burton’s dream of adding Frost to the permanent faculty never came true.”

The venture did bring publicity to the U-M: “Already renowned for its athletic prowess, the University of Michigan became equally well known for its cultural significance,” Warner writes.

Frost-Bite & Frost-Bark is available at local most bookstores or from the Bentley Library, (734) 764-3482, 1150 Beal Ave., Ann Arbor, MI, 48109.