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Robert Frost
by Janice Albert

Frost in San Francisco

In the 1870s, two writers were born in San Francisco a couple of years apart. One was fatherless; the other the son of a Harvard graduate. The younger boy lived to be only forty years old, yet his work was translated into dozens of languages and is a staple in school rooms both in California and the former Soviet Union. Famous for claiming he would rather “wear out than rust,” his memory is preserved in photographs showing a rakish grin above an athlete’s body. This is the swaggering, prolific Jack London.

Two years before, and not two miles away, another boy was born to a newspaper man and his school teacher wife. This child spent his first eleven years in San Francisco, trailing his father up and down the hills, watching him swim in San Francisco Bay, and cringing from the blows that a drunken dad might aim at his head. When the father died, the boy and his sister accompanied their mother back to the East Coast where he grew up to be the poet Robert Frost. In his biography of Frost, Jay Parini sketches a boyhood in which the young Robert was torn between his parents’ differing drives. His father was a newspaperman with political aspirations, a member of the Bohemian Club, and a heavy drinker. His mother was a Swedenborgian six years older than her husband. The family moved often out of necessity. Parini gives several addresses for the Frost family although these all predate the fire of 1906. An assessment of the ways in which climate and family atmosphere shaped the young Frost is beyond the scope of this brief piece. Frost’s national reputation and long life has produced an abundance of biographies and critical pieces, which the reader is invited to examine. There is, however, a significant literary site to be noted in the city of his birth.

Frost’s life in San Francisco is remembered by a monument on Market Street and Drumm, in front of the Hyatt Hotel and at the foot of the California Street cable car. The poem whose first stanza is cast on this marker, “A Peck of Gold,” captures the quality of life in San Francisco at the time, as well as Frost’s perception of the contradictions that colored his home life. In the 1870s, San Francisco was bursting with life, a city attracting sixty thousand immigrants a year, many arriving by sea. All of the early Frost addresses are a short distance from the busy waterfront. Horse drawn carts traveling over unpaved streets would have been the background to his writing:

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 gold 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.”

Other references to the Pacific in the body of his poetry arise from family trips to Cliff House and the boy’s experience of the ocean. Although he became the quintessential New England poet, Frost said of himself that San Francisco was “the first place in my memory, a place I still go back to in my dreams.”

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