A Review of David Orr’s The Road Not Taken. The subtitle of Orr’s work devoted to the Robert Frost poem a year short of the 100th year of its publication is indicative of his intention: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.
Orr has little trouble convincing us that “The Road Not Taken” is America’s favorite poem. For many Americans it is first encountered in a middle-school or high school literature anthology. And it is echoed at retirement parties, achievement dinners, commencement speeches, and in advertising for a wide variety of products.
In the traditional interpretation of the poem, the speaker is a solitary and stoic person who rejects the conventional to choose a path — spiritual, vocational, marital –, that is more arduous and more life-enhancing. The romantic speaker, anticipating how he will look back at his decision, imagines that he will be satisfied because the decision has “made all the difference.” With Frank Sinatra and self-help guru Scott Peck, he will be able to claim that he has done it his way. The poem then is a celebration of confidence in making important life choices and in the inevitable rewards that will come from the unexpected, even socially unpopular selection.
Orr argues that Frost’s poem is the undisputed favorite poem of Americans (who have said so in many surveys) because the verse is attuned to the basic DNA of American culture. Our culture stresses independence of spirit. Our foundational documents, the thoughts of Adams and Jefferson, and contemporary political oratory honor the unencumbered pursuit of happiness in a culture of freedom. Frost poem captures the idea that we are free agents capable of achieving a satisfactory life if only we have the courage to go our own way. The way may be lonely but it is ultimately rewarding.
Orr argues that we get the poem wrong because we disregard elements of the poem that don’t support the myth. For instance, the speaker tells us that the two roads are not all that different from one another. They are equally worn and on the morning that the poet-speaker faces his choice, the leaves on both had “not been trodden black.” Orr also points out that despite our tendencies to call it “a path not taken,” this is a road, and like all roads it’s the product of human design and work and use, which makes it different from a faint path and makes the speaker less of a pioneer. Additionally, the difference that the choice makes is left open to many interpretations. It’s possible that the choice has led to a downward spiral of a demoralized speaker rather than the uplift of a contented one.
Factoring in these details, we have a portrait of a hesitant speaker who’s more like the dithering Prufrock of T.S. Eliot than the adventuresome Daniel Boone. Perhaps his dilemma is more inconsequential than monumental. Additionally, the speaker demonstrates a penchant for self-deception and illusion. Long after the fact, he’s come up with a rationale for the choice that he makes, one that puts him in the best light possible.
In offering us an interpretation that places the work outside the range of sentiment found in the greeting card industry, Orr realizes that this more “sophisticated” reading is one that will appeal to graduate students in English departments (where love of ambiguity and pessimism prevail) than grandfathers getting a gold watch at their retirement party.
Yet, Orr argues that the playful and clever Frost has made it possible for both of these interpretations to easily slide into one another; one version does not necessarily negate the other. He gets his warrant to make such a claim from his reading of Frost’s biography and his awareness of the prominent though conflicting images of Frost. In the popular imagination – the one that reads the poem positively – the poet is the embodiment of grandfatherly wisdom. The poem flows from the experiences of a practical Yankee farmer, one equally at home in the barn as in the den.
According to a number of Frost’s biographers, both hostile and friendly, the public image created by events such as his reading at the Kennedy inaugural, are quite at odds with the real man: difficult, domineering, and depressed. For a man who lost two children (in childbirth and through suicide) and a wife (from a heart attack) in the span of six years, “I Am Acquainted with the Night,” is a far better indicator of the soul of the man than is “The Road Not Taken.” Yet these two images seem like two side of the same personality coin.
The second and more challenging part of the book covers territory not suggested by Orr’s subtitle. In chapters called “The Decision” and “The Decider,” Orr takes this multi-sided literary work about a “pure choice” situation and explores it against the background of contemporary work on decision making, using studies conducted by psychologists, statisticians, neuroscientists, economists, and practitioners of decision science.
He apparently wants to use as many tools as he can – not just biography and literary theory – to get to the heart of Frost’s poem and its appeal. Readers who believe that science has little to tell us about the meaning of poems may quickly grow impatient with Orr’s foray into these waters. And, in truth, in these sections the poem frequently disappears as Orr lays out the latest summaries research into decision making.
He’s acquainted with that branch of the billion dollar self-help industry that aims to make us better decision makers. And he is conversant with some of the more respectable academic publications like Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing. Orr believes that Frost’s enigmatic poem anticipates some of the robust debates about choice, determinism and free will that are occurring in our own time. Another case of writers having sound intuitions about human nature long before the laboratory men arrived on the scene.
One’s allegiance to a particular party in the free-will vs. determinism debate might determine one’s reading of the poem. The crowd that Orr calls the “Compatibilists” acknowledges that cultural and hereditary conditions shape choice, but within these mild constraints, free will has a lot of room to operate. Furthermore, the “Compatibilists” are inclined to see the deciding self as unified and authentic, a self that is discovered rather than created by the inquiring subject. This kind of reader is more likely to embrace the traditional reading, the one that sees the self-determined agent/decider confidently making a choice and seeing the continuity between the deciding self, the self in the moment of choice, and the evaluating self, the self that looks back “ages and ages hence.”
The Hard Determinists are likely to see that the choice is pre-determined and that we invent poorly understood explanations for our behavior after the fact. For the Determinist, the deciding self in much more fragmented and acts inconsistently over time, occasionally rushing in to defend a choice previously rejected. This is the interpretation of the academic critics who want to complicate the easy affirmation of the Frost poem.
Coming at the poem from a variety of directions, Orr essentially sees the poem and its speaker as a case study in decision making. And he sees its creator, Frost, as a case study as well, as an example of a poet who delighted in the postponement of a decision. Just as poet Frost turns his attention to his anonymous speaker, critic Orr turns his attention to both observer and subject. We are encouraged to see the interplay between all three: the speaker in the poem, the poet who creates the poem, and the critic who endeavors to understand it.