[Posted by Kelly Oleksiw, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]
Robert Frost was the focus of my quest at the Watkinson as part of Professor Rosen’s Modern Poetry course. The task was a seemingly easy one (considering the sheer volume of manuscripts the library has to offer from Frost) but it was complicated by the mission to find something truly unique to the poet and the library.
I ventured through the Watkinson’s large glass doors with an agenda to focus specifically on Series V of the Watkinson’s collection on Frost: the poet’s collection of Christmas Cards. The cards ranged from the years 1934-1962 and were housed in a total of five precious archived boxes. My afternoon began and ended with just two of those boxes ranging from the years 1934-50. What initially struck me, when I began my research through the cards, was that they were not cards at all like we receive today in the mail, covered in glitter with snow-covered sleigh and deer, but rather they were small booklets. Booklets that were printed on thick paper, bound or sewn with a thin yarn, no larger than maybe six inches across, and often in earthy tones of brown and blue rather than the green and reds we envision for Christmas today.
As I began to delve deeper into the collection I began to realize that the holiday booklets often had nothing to do with the Christmas season but were rather compiled based on what the next poem Frost was to release for publication. For example the 1946 card featured the Frost poem A Young Birch and the booklet’s title page introduced ‘a new poem by Robert Frost.’ Each consecutive year seemed to feature that year’s new and exciting poem by the poet. This fact was interesting to me because it cemented the ideas from Professor Rosen’s course, that Frost was a poet that wanted to be popular. And this Christmas tradition helped Frost achieve certain popularity among the recipients of the cards. Though Frost was not fond of poet Ezra Pound, you can clearly see a certain selectivity or exclusivity, similar to Pound’s, which existed at the start of this tradition. After my visit at the Watkinson I did some additional research on poets.org about Frost Christmas Cards and discovered that the first batch of Christmas booklets, Christmas Trees was only sent to about 250 people, but by 1963 when the last booklet was mailed, nearly 20,000 copies were received. This proves to me that Frost wanted the popularity and eventually expanded his exclusivity over the years as he realized how deeply people enjoyed these booklets and that they got his name out to his adoring public. Each booklet that I leafed through was printed by the Spiral Press in New York City which was run by publisher and friend of Frost, Joseph Blumenthal. Blumenthal is the man who, according to the poets.org article, took the liberty to start the Christmas card tradition with Christmas Tree. Blumenthal had printed copies of the poem for himself to send out to friends and family that first year. Many of the other names that would show up in the records of the cards in the Watkinson lists also ended up being publishers and close friends of Frost. Henry Holt and Frederic Melcher are just a couple examples of the families that took part in sending the cards out into the world.
There were many booklets to leaf through and clearly many people have received these over the years, but the one object that most caught my eye and which I chose to present in class was 1940’s Our Hold on the Planet. This object seemed extra special because it was not just the card that was sent out that year but what the Watkinson had was a proof of what the card looked like as it was being developed. The proof, which included pencil markings and drawings by (I assume from the descriptions on the envelope) Frederic Melcher, shows how the family wanted the card to be presented on their behalf. “Holiday Greetings” is crossed out and “Christmas Greetings” is penciled in as well as a small holly leaf that ends the booklet. The object shows the time and detail that went into to personalizing the poem based on the family or company that planned on sending the card out that year. The finished copy of the booklet that the Watkinson had enclosed with the proof is the card that was sent from Frost to friend and collector Charles Green (CRG). Frost’s own handwriting can clearly be seen on the title page of the card and I discovered through research and a conversation with Watkinson archivist Peter Knapp, that Green and a local insurance agent and friend of Frost named H. Bacon Collamore were instrumental in donating their collections of Frost works to Trinity College. I found out that Green was not only a friend and collector of Frost he was also the first director of Jones Library at Amherst College where Frost taught and which houses one of the largest Frost collections. It is no surprise that Green is one of the gentlemen who donated much of his collection to Trinity, including his own personal Christmas card from Frost.
The other data that the Watkinson had complied was how many of each card had been printed and who requested the copies. Our Hold on the Planet was printed in 600 copies for Henry Holt, 250 for Robert Frost and 125 for the Melcher family. Both cards as well as the data found were definitely unique to the Watkinson. I don’t think very many people or establishments could say that they have a proof of a Robert Frost Christmas card from a family and publisher that sent out his poems yearly. I think Trinity is extremely lucky to have the Watkinson and I feel lucky to have gotten the chance to spend a couple hours there sifting through Frost and confirming my ideas on the poet, that he was a man who loved to share his poetry and to gain popularity in the process.