Derry historian Rick Holmes is the kind of guy who, when he sees an old, yellowing photograph, tries to find out what’s going on.
It’s part of why his latest endeavor — a book about Robert Frost’s life in Derry from 1900 to 1911 — is so thrilling. These are the years, Holmes said, that Frost enthusiasts call the mystery years. They acknowledge them as the most important in his literary development, but most biographers run through them pretty quickly because there’s so little information about them. But Holmes, a Vietnam vet who’s lived in Derry since his return from the war, knows where to look.
“I know where the nooks and crannies are. I know where the information lies,” he said.
Indeed, Holmes, who says he has at least 30 books on his shelf at home about Frost, generated a $500 fee from the Derry Public Library after having spent a year looking at old census records and Derry News articles. Most recently, he’s been reading old records from Pinkerton Academy, which included letters from about 60 of Frost’s former students. He also went to Dartmouth, where Holmes said there are files that, until now, have hardly been sorted through.
He’s nearly finished the first draft of the book and hasn’t contacted a publisher yet (he wrote seven others, some of which were done by History Press and Peter E. Randall Publisher), but you can get a glimpse of what his book will be like at a Derry Public Library on Monday, Feb. 10, at 6:30 p.m. His presentation focuses on one day in Frost’s life.
“I think we can all look at our own personal history and find that there’s one day which changed our lives forever,” Holmes said.
For Frost, it was March 2, 1906, the day he got a job as a teacher at Pinkerton Academy.
Local award-winning poet Robert Crawford will assist in this event. In addition to Holmes’s lecture, there will be a reading of Frost’s “The Tuft of Flowers,” both the original draft that got Frost the job at Pinkerton and the more widely known version.
Holmes said that Frost getting the teaching job was of extreme consequence.
“In absence of that, he might have stayed a chicken farmer or worked in the shoe factory. A chain of events followed because he got the job at Pinkerton in 1906,” Holmes said. “In two years, the state superintendent of schools recognized him as the best teacher in New Hampshire. He became known throughout the state. Because of this, he got a teaching position at Plymouth State. Because of his job at Plymouth, he was able to save enough money to take his family to England, which is where he published his first book.”
Within two years of this, he became internationally known.
It might at first seem dramatic to say that an English teaching job catapulted into Frost’s becoming one of the world’s most prolific poets and earning four Pulitzer Prizes, but it is, Holmes said, because until that point Frost was considered a 30-year-old failure.
Frost, who was born in California and grew up in Lawrence under the patronage of his grandfather, attended Dartmouth College for two months before dropping out and returning home. After working some odd jobs, he married, went to back to school — Harvard this time — and again dropped out.
A few years later, his grandfather purchased Frost and his wife a farm in Derry, and Frost became a farmer, spending early mornings writing. Financially, things weren’t great.
“He owed money to the doctors. He owed money to the grocery store downtown. He was really at his wits’ end,” Holmes said.
Holmes talks about Frost as though he knew him, and to a certain extent, it seems he does; Frost died in 1963, and because Holmes spent nearly his entire life in the area, he knew people who knew Frost.
“My fifth and sixth-grade teacher was one of his students at Pinkerton. … I knew probably over a dozen people who knew him, though most everyone’s gone now. I’m in contact with Robert Frost’s granddaughter, who has very fond memories of her grandfather,” he said. “People liked Frost. … He was sometimes crotchity, just like the rest of us, but he was brilliant and he was approachable.”
As seen in the January 30, 2014 issue of the Hippo.