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Robert Frost letters unveiled, show great poet's thoughts on religion

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Posted on January 31, 2013 |
By Xian Chiang-Waren



frostdonor.jpg
JONATHAN REICHERT POSES with some of the materials from his father Rabbi Victor Reichert’s rare collection of Robert Frost materials that were gifted to the University of Buffalo archives. The collection offers insights into Frost’s previously unknown spiritual beliefs. Photo by Douglas Levere/Poetry Collection of the University Library, University of Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On the 50th anniversary of Robert Frost’s death on Jan. 29, a rare collection of private artifacts that include religious musings during his time in Vermont and shed light on the great poet’s personal beliefs will be made available to the public for the first time.

The collection of letters, photographs, audio files and other materials includes more than 20 years of correspondence between one of America’s greatest literary figures and his friend and Ripton neighbor, Rabbi Victor Reichert. It was donated to the University of Buffalo by Reichert’s son, Jonathan, but substantial portions will be digitally archived and made available online in the coming months.

“The bits, the little pieces I’ve seen of (their correspondence) suggest that Robert Frost had an intimacy with Reichert, a seriousness in the level and tone of their discussions, that was pretty rare,” said Jay Parini, Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College and a prominent Frost scholar. “Frost had two or three major friendships in his life, and Reichert was one of the more important ones.”

Robert Frost came to Ripton for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the 1920s. He purchased the Homer Noble Farm (now owned and preserved by Middlebury College) in 1939, and summered there until his death in 1963.

For Frost, “One of the best parts of being in Ripton in the summer was that Victor Reichert, the rabbi from Ohio, owned a summer house there,” Parini said.

Parini, who spent 20 years writing and researching his landmark biography, “Robert Frost: A Life,” believed that the friendship between Reichert and Frost was the most important of the second half of Frost’s life.

“Frost’s musings on religion interested Rabbi Reichert, and he was taken by Reichert’s wit and his deep learning,” Parini said.

Frost’s religious beliefs have long been speculated upon. Raised by a mother who was a follower of Swedenborgianism, a Swedish mystical belief, many of Frost’s biographers have noted his apparent atheism or agnosticism. But he was deeply interested in Christianity.

“Robert Frost called himself an ‘Old Testament Christian,’” Parini said. “Which meant he was really more focused on the Torah and the old Biblical stories. Things like the Book of Job, the first five books of Moses, the Book of Proverbs and the Psalms were hugely important to Frost as a poet, a man and a thinker.”

Parini was himself a friend and acquaintance of Victor Reichert and his wife, Louise. Parini said he was introduced to them by an acquaintance, who told him, “‘If you’re working on Frost, you must come and meet Victor Reichert.’ So I had dinner with him, soon after coming to Middlebury, over 30 years ago.”

Parini had many hours of conversation with Reichert, then a very old man, about his friendship with Frost. After Reichert’s passing, Parini continued the conversation with Louise Reichert, who also had a great affection for Frost.

“They were likeminded people,” Parini said. “They read books, they talked about them.”

Parini was certain that Reichert had a significant influence on Frost’s later work.

“Look at some of Frost’s later poetry and you can find the influence of Reichert, especially in his ‘Masks’… in the sense that he is meditating on Old Testament themes.”

Parini expressed disappointment that Middlebury College had not snagged the collection, which he said he would be very curious to see if he had a chance. “It would have been very helpful (when writing the biography),” he added.

Middlebury College, which is home to the premiere Robert Frost collection in the country, did, in fact, come close to being the new home for the collection.

“We were told that we were one of several institutions being considered,” said Special Collections curator Andrew Wentick. “We were not the final winner.”

In the end, it was given to the University of Buffalo by Victor and Louise's son, Jonathan, a professor emeritus of physics at Buffalo. Jonathan Reichert did not return requests for comment for this article.

“His ties to the University of Buffalo, having worked here for years, as well as his relationship with the curators … definitely helped sway him,” said UB spokesman Cory Nealon.

“Buffalo certainly has a major rare books and letters library,” Parini said. “They’re very well-known for their work on 20th-century poetry. So it’s an appropriate place for the letters. It’s just a pity we didn’t get the letters here.”

Editor's note: This story was updated after its original posting to correct the name of Victor Reichert's wife.

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