Robert Frost Was a San Francisco Kid

Long before he stopped by woods on a snowy evening, New England’s favorite poet roamed the rough-and-tumble streets of the Barbary Coast.

ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE CARROLL

In 1884, Robert Frost visited saloons all over San Francisco with his father, who was running for city tax collector. The future author of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” and “The Road Not Taken” was 10 years old. He had never climbed a birch, never been snowed on, and the roads he took each day were San Francisco’s streets, some paved but others muddy or dusty, depending on the weather.

He had been born in San Francisco and raised in cheap digs on the backside of Nob Hill. His father, William, was a newspaperman; his mother, Isabelle, a fey spiritualist poet. The family moved often, probably for reasons of economy; when flush, they liked to live at the Abbotsford House, a small hotel at Broadway and Larkin.

Robert was a street kid. He hated school and manipulated his mother into letting him stay home much of the time. Belle taught him herself, but he resisted her; he was lazy about homework, and he didn’t like to read.

His San Francisco youth—11 turbulent, painful years—profoundly shaped him. The great event, which brought that period to a close, was the early death of his father. The perplexity of a child who suffers a great loss before he’s able to make sense of it finds echoes in much of his best poetry, in which baffled people lose children and others they love, take the wrong paths and end up imprisoned by fate, and too soon, too intimately, are acquainted with the night.

 

William Frost had been born in New Hampshire, Isabelle in Scotland, their son Robert in San Francisco, and their daughter, Jeanie, Robert’s younger sister, during a trip to visit relatives in Massachusetts. Yet here they all were: a California family.

As a Harvard student (class of 1872, cum laude), William had been eager to get out West, excited to see the “wickedest city in the world,” as San Francisco was often described. Belle, though no friend of wickedness, had been moved to read Thomas Starr King’s book A Vacation Among the Sierras: Yosemite in 1860, which combined nature worship with strenuous Christianity.

William was smart, capable, handsome, and seemingly destined for great things. He was also a rascal and scornful of all restraint, waging a private war against what he thought of as puritanism. He won the Bowdoin Prize at Harvard, for an essay on German history, but was better known as a gambler, a hard drinker, and a visitor to brothels. In one revealing bit of rakehellery, he tried to blackmail the madam of a Boston house of ill repute, only to learn that her discreet establishment was protected by the police. He barely escaped jail and hurried back to college.

Only a year out of school, in 1873, William ventured out to San Francisco. He quickly found work at the Evening Bulletin, one of the city’s many sensationalist daily papers, and sent for Belle. The gold rush was over, but San Francisco was in the grips of a mad silver rush, with local tycoons controlling the action in Nevada. Just as William came on board, the newspaper printed an exposé of mining-stock price manipulations, causing values to tumble; many people lost a lot of money, and an angry mob attacked the Bulletin offices, shooting out all the windows.

William responded by acquiring a revolver. Two years later, as city editor of a competing paper, the Daily Evening Post, he began displaying a jar of bull’s testicles on his desk.

ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE CARROLL

And here we arrive at the Frost family drama, an intriguing but darkly disturbing story with few hints of poetry or redemption to come. A case study in frozen Victorian gender identities, it was one of the many domestic mini-tragedies of the era, starring a mismatched young man and woman, each struggling to assert a stereotyped self. During the first year of his marriage to Belle, who was a lively, earnestly spiritual person, a believer in fairies, religious in every stitch of her prim dark bodice, William had disguised his hatred of all belief, his disgust with the whole treacly realm of female yearning after the light. He had even squired Belle around to several Protestant congregations: to the Unitarians, the Scots Presbyterians, and the visionary Swedenborgians, with their humble First Church of the New Jerusalem on O’Farrell Street. Here it was that Robert was baptized, in the spring of 1874, wearing a pretty white dress. (In later life, Robert described his religious progression as “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.”)

Immediately after Robert’s birth, the veil fell away. William would hide his skeptical face no longer. He denounced all churches and began to drink and dally; he took on the coloration of the rapscallion journalists he was working among, becoming a member of the recently founded Bohemian Club—the very word bohemian meaning, in those days, a newspaperman, a convivial scribbling fellow.

The change in William was the shock of Belle’s life. Overnight, he had become a “Heathcliff,” she wrote to a friend. He was a bully when drunk, kicking the furniture around, and many times, she later told Robert, she had to snatch him out of his cradle and run to the neighbors’ to protect him from her rampaging husband.

The sad, careening Frost home came more and more to resemble the volatile world around it. The year 1873 saw a big new silver strike in Virginia City, Nevada, leading to yet more feverish activity on the San Francisco mining exchanges. (The markets were “weird in their excitement,” wrote canonical California historian H.H. Bancroft, “the brokers crying to one another, like the unseemly harpies of Dante’s hell.”) In 1875 came the collapse of the Bank of California, bringing ruin to many local businesses. William Ralston, the bank’s president, had been speculating with the deposits, and the day after the collapse, he took a swim out into San Francisco Bay and literally went under.

William Frost had been speculating too. The size of his bets cannot be determined, but that they were unwise is suggested by his failure to acquire even a modest house in a city where hundreds of small, inexpensive dwellings had recently been erected.

His salary—about $2,000 per year—should have been adequate for that and everything else. The 1870s were a time of truly great fortunes coming into play, of grandees like the Ralstons, the Crockers, the Huntingtons, and the Stanfords leveraging gold rush–era bundles into whomping-huge money piles and building stone mansions on the front side of Nob Hill, just blocks from where the Frosts were hunkering down in their latest cold-water flat.

When Robert was able to walk, Belle began taking him around the neighborhood, and they often went to look at the stately homes. Belle was an energetic walker, a climber of the city’s hills, and she often brought her two toddlers to lookouts from which they could see Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, Mount Tamalpais, and the then-still-visible Sierra Nevada, sharply outlined though over a hundred miles away.

William had a dire secret. Only 25, he was already gravely ill; at night, he was spitting blood, a sure sign of the “white plague,” tuberculosis, so common a fate in the 19th century that it was rarely noted on death certificates. His rage against his wife and her piety, the beatings he began meting out to Robert with a cane, the dark and contemptuous visage turned to all who wanted to love him: that he knew he was dying does not excuse these things, but we should perhaps favor him with a touch of mercy.

 

Robert was a “queer” fellow, Belle wrote in a letter. He had stomachaches, headaches, weird aversions. Still, he was a well-built kid, with translucent pale-blue eyes like his father’s, and the grubby, liberated world of unsupervised play gave him ordinary childish joy. In his white-haired phase later on, as America’s most widely read and beloved poet of the 20th century, he told his first biographer, Lawrance Thompson, many stories about having fun in the streets, running with a gang of older boys who stole things, digging in a clay bank on Nob Hill that he and Jeanie especially liked. In their day, the “knob” of Nob Hill was a square block of wildland bordered by Washington, Leavenworth, Clay, and Jones Streets, an undeveloped space grown over with coastal scrub, with a few squatters living up near the top.

In “A Peck of Gold,” one of his California poems, Frost writes,

Dust always blowing about the town,
Except when sea-fog laid it down,
And I was one of the children told
Some of the blowing dust was gold.

He continues,

Such was life in the Golden Gate:
Gold dusted all we drank and ate,
And I was one of the children told,
“We all must eat our peck of gold.”

Not to overinterpret, but here we have a true taste of Frost’s childhood: a peck (eight quarts) of raw dirt with a little seasoning of fanciful gold. In another California poem, “Auspex,” a child is trapped, vulnerable, and passive as an eagle swoops down on him, declining to eat him at the last moment.

And in “Once by the Pacific,” a family walk on the beach turns into an experience of pure helplessness, dread, and rage. Frost told Thompson that this poem recorded an actual walk with his parents on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, during which they suddenly disappeared around a headland, leaving him alone; the boy found himself trapped between high, crumbly cliffs and the threatening waves, expecting extinction.

Another poem of similar tone, the famous sonnet “Acquainted with the Night,” is unique in Frost’s body of work in being specifically set in a city.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

The setting isn’t specifically Californian, but the frank sounding of a chord of existential despair connects with the California poems of abandonment and helplessness.

ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE CARROLL

Jeanie—another highly sensitive, odd child, an excellent student unlike Robert, and a passionate early reader—in a letter written in the 1920s, from the State Hospital for the Insane in Augusta, Maine, where she was committed, reminds Robert of their San Francisco days. With her now deeply fractured mind, she seems to be trying to understand their California origin story, including a certain coldness in her responses to their mother, who sometimes left her for too long in the care of others, and the sense that their father, who teased them cruelly, was “not perhaps especially fond of children.” “The other night we had a little birthday party out on the violent ward,” she continues, and her thoughts, though scattered by psychosis, include sharp flashes of deep understanding, adroitly, tartly expressed: Frostian.

They were also often happy, sister and brother. They went on jaunts to Woodward’s Gardens, a zoo with other amusements on Mission Street between 13th and 15th, and in the summers there were trips to Marin County and Napa Valley. A remnant of a favored place to play can still be found on top of Nob Hill, a wooded strip now called Priest Street that cuts from Washington Street over to Clay and has a nice patch of rocky dirt for digging in. Children of today might still find it wild and large enough to feel like a special place, good for secret games.

Belle Frost, in her tormented marriage, somehow endured. She made friends with her neighbors and the people she knew from church; she became close with Henry George, an ex–gold miner turned typesetter turned newspaper owner who had hired William at the Post and who in 1879 wrote Progress and Poverty, at the time the most widely circulated book ever written by an American, an autodidact’s Das Kapital, now known mainly for its doctrine of a “single tax” on land. Belle reviewed books and wrote poems for the Post, contributing to the family kitty. And she faithfully instructed her children. She may not have been very rigorous as a teacher, but the depth and breadth of her literary cultivation is hardly to be imagined nowadays. Although not university educated, she was steeped in biblical, classical, English, Scottish, and American literatures, and her constant reading to her children had a powerful impact.

William also endured, in his way. Despite his drinking and failing health, he kept his demanding job. Hoping to enter politics, he did favors for the local party boss, becoming a delegate to the Democratic Convention of 1880, where General Winfield Scott Hancock was nominated to run against James Garfield. Belle feared he would kill himself with this extra work. The hemorrhages continued. Robert tagging along, William would sometimes go to a slaughterhouse downtown for a tall glass of warm steer’s blood, hoping it would work a cure. He recklessly swam in frigid San Francisco Bay. Maybe he was looking for the way out that the banker Ralston had taken; maybe he didn’t know what he was looking for.

Many of the stories Frost told about his childhood are too polished, too genial, to be taken at face value. But when they touch on his father, the stories communicate deep puzzlement and also horror, and those feelings are surely to be trusted. His last view of this haunting father, except for a brief moment at his deathbed, came, oddly, at the Nob Hill clay bank. Robert was playing there with Jeanie when they saw an emaciated figure being helped off the cable car at Leavenworth and Clay. He was holding a bloody handkerchief to his mouth. Then they recognized their father. They could see the doom that was on him.

The San Francisco chapter came to a brutal end. Days after that last sight of William alighting from the cable car, he died, leaving the family destitute—among other poor decisions, he had failed to keep up with his life insurance payments.

 

Belle and her children took a train east. In the baggage car was William in his casket. He had asked to be taken home, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his elderly parents lived, for burial. With more resources, Belle might have ignored that request and stayed on in California, but the hard fact was that they had nothing; they must seek sanctuary with their relatives, people they hardly knew.

New England did not charm them. The grandparents lived in a narrow house with things that could not be touched, floors that could not be dirtied. Robert remembered the train ride itself as an ordeal, the unscrolling of American geography in a backward direction saddening to him. Belle told him that they would soon be going home, meaning back to San Francisco, but even an 11-year-old can recognize catastrophe when it comes.

There was a humiliating introduction to formal education. Robert and his two-years-younger sister sat for a placement exam, and she was put in fourth grade while he was put in third. He was still not an independent reader. He blamed the test result on his failure to correctly identify the source of the nearby Merrimack River, complaining that he should have been asked a question about the Sacramento.

His grandfather was not kindly; a frugal hoarder, a pack-rat type, he collected string and bent nails and had a lot of rules. A more relaxed, more fatherly figure was Robert’s great-uncle Benjamin Messer, who with his wife, Sarah Frost Messer, owned a small farm near Amherst, New Hampshire. Visits there provided Robert with his first experiences of the rural world that he would later write poems about. In Robert Penn Warren’s phrase, Frost was “stunned” into consciousness by these initial encounters with the New England environment, which he came to as if from outer space. Something about beginning entirely anew—with new trees, a new horizon, new scents in the air, blanketing snowstorms, twisted orchards, people speaking a pungent regional English—was all to the good.

ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE CARROLL

Belle eventually found a job: a teaching position in Salem, New Hampshire, a town of hardscrabble farms and a few shoemakers’ workshops. Many of the local people found her admirable: erect of carriage, possessed of an intoxicating Scottish burr, literary but not condescending. Others found her unpleasantly otherworldly and not much of a disciplinarian. Her own children were in her class, which combined several grades, Jeanie as usual at the top, Robert among the slowest, the least attentive.

The summer of his 14th year, while working a first grown-up job, cutting leather for shoes, he spontaneously recited a poem he knew he had never read, never seen on the page: William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl,” all 32 lines brightly present in his mind, indelible. He found other poetry packed inside there, too: lots of Robert Burns; Emerson, his mother’s favorite; Poe; Wordsworth—a bounteous gift outright, all the verses she had lovingly read to him, and was still reading to him sometimes, because at age 13 he was still not reading on his own, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps because of some wound that had not yet healed.

At last he began reading on his own. The first book he read was Jane Porter’s well-known historical novel The Scottish Chiefs, which his mother had not given him, which he had found on his own, but which she would surely have approved of, had he asked her about it. Thereafter he was on his way.

Robert Roper’s most recent books are Nabokov in America and The Savage Professor. In school, he was always glad when he was assigned to read a poem by Robert Frost because the language was plain American. He is still reading him with pleasure and illumination.

A PECK OF GOLD

Dust always blowing about the town,
Except when sea-fog laid it down,
And I was one of the children told
Some of the blowing dust was gold.

All the dust the wind blew high
Appeared like god in the sunset sky,
But I was one of the children told
Some of the dust was really gold.

Such was life in the Golden Gate:
Gold dusted all we drank and ate,
And I was one of the children told,
“We all must eat our peck of gold.”

—West-Running Brook, 1928

ONCE BY THE PACIFIC

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

—West-Running Brook, 1928

ACQUAINTED WITH THE NIGHT

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Virginia Quarterly Review, 1928

AT WOODWARD’S GARDENS

A boy, presuming on his intellect,
Once showed two little monkeys in a cage
A burning-glass they could not understand
And never could be made to understand.
Words are no good: to say it was a lens
For gathering solar rays would not have helped.
But let him show them how the weapon worked.
He made the sun a pinpoint on the nose
Of the first one, then the other, till it brought
A look of puzzled dimness to their eyes
That blinking could not seem to blink away.
They stood arms laced together at the bars,
And exchanged troubled glances over life.
One put a thoughtful hand up to his nose
As if reminded—or as if perhaps
Within a million years of an idea.
He got his purple little knuckles stung.
The already known had once more been confirmed
By psychological experiment,
And that were all the finding to announce
Had the boy not presumed too close and long.
There was a sudden flash of arm, a snatch,
And the glass was the monkey’s, not the boy’s.
Precipitately they retired back-cage
And instituted an investigation
On their part, though without the needed insight.
They bit the glass and listened for the flavor.
They broke the handle and the binding off it.
Then none the wiser, frankly gave it up,
And having hid it in their bedding straw
Against the day of prisoners’ ennui,
Came dryly forward to the bars again
To answer for themselves:
Who said it mattered
What monkeys did or didn’t understand?
They might not understand a burning-glass.
They might not understand the sun itself.
It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.

—Poetry, 1936

“At Woodward’s Gardens,” “A Peck of Gold,” “Once By the Pacific,” and “Acquainted With the Night” by Robert Frost from the book THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 1936 by Robert Frost. Copyright © 1964 by Lesley Frost Ballantine. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.

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