The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

by David Orr

(Penguin, $25.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

David Orr, whose debut book of literary criticism, “Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry,” made the Chicago Tribune’s list of the 20 best books of 2011, is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review and  teaches at Cornell University. He won a Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, and he has contributed to The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate and The Yale Review. A Princeton graduate from South Carolina who holds a law degree from Yale, Orr now lives in Ithaca, N.Y.

What is this book about?

“The Road Not Taken,” the Robert Frost poem that nearly everyone has committed to memory, celebrated its 100th anniversary this August, and while it may be the most popular poem Frost wrote and is certainly well-loved, literary critic David Orr says we just don’t get it.

In this “biography” of a classic piece of literature, Orr makes the case that superficial interpretations of “The Road” miss the point of what its author was trying to do, and  he suspects that the poet was actually spoofing the indecision and romanticism of a close friend. He makes his case by citing the poem’s influence on culture; its subtle artistic structure, which is far more complex than its short length and simple vocabulary suggest; and its historical background and appearances in inspirational books, titles for TV show episodes and even TV commercials for cars in New Zealand. Orr plumbs its true meaning – or meanings. Is it sincere or sardonic?  Is the poem a hymn to individualism and nonconformity, albeit at an unquantified price, or a sly dig at the human desire to find deep significance in random decisions?  Orr’s book has four main sections that explore Frost the man and poet; the poem itself; the American predilection for choice; and the self that does the choosing. Without being pedantic or academic (no small feat for a college professor), Orr explicates it all for you.

Why you’ll like it:

You probably know this poem by heart, but haven’t pondered its meaning since that long-ago English class in which you studied it. With Orr’s help, you can plunge into it once again and refresh your appreciation of this American classic. His wide-ranging analysis is provocative, insightful and just plain fun. He may be going down a road less traveled in his interpretation of what Frost intended to convey, but you will enjoy making that literary journey with his astute guidance.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “”New York Times poetry critic Orr, in his engaging follow-up to Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to American Poetry, narrows his scope to focus on one of America’s most beloved and most misunderstood poems. Even with poetry‘s diminished hold on the popular consciousness, many Americans can still recite the final lines of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” from memory (though most would probably misidentify it as “The Road Less Traveled”). Orr looks at how one poem could become so well-known among a generally poetry-allergic populace that it’s been used to launch a self-help revolution, provide titles for episodes of TV shows, and, further afield, sell cars in New Zealand. The book is divided into four sections, beginning with “The Poet,” a biographical sketch of Robert Frost the man and “Robert Frost” the myth. “The Poem” offers a close reading that disputes both popular readings of the poem as “a paean to triumphant self-assertion” and more critically accepted interpretations of it as a “joke (or trick).” “The Choice” probes American conceptions of choice from the days of the Founding Fathers to contemporary neuroscience. Finally, “The Chooser” synthesizes previously presented ideas into a nuanced discussion of modern selfhood. Orr blends theory, biography, psychology, science, and a healthy dose of pop culture into a frothy mix so fun, readers may forget they’re learning something.”

Says The New York Times Book Review: “David Orr has written the best popular explanation to date of the most popular poem in American history…he’s persuasive enough to give us good reason to hope that his interpretation will lodge a toehold in conventional wisdom. This holds for the poet as well as the poem. If Frost’s most famous poem is representative, and if Orr is right about it, we should see Frost not as the earnest Yankee sage beloved by junior high school teachers or the dark jokester expounded by college professors, but as an artist able to evoke and clarify the conflicts that follow from the ways we think we understand ourselves…In Orr’s lucid reading, the poem brings to life and dances on the grave of the plucky, nonconformist, self-determined and self-realized person at the heart of the American myth of individualism.”

The Boston Globe says: “The most satisfying part of Orr’s fresh appraisal of “The Road Not Taken” is the reappraisal it can inspire in longtime Frost readers whose readings have frozen solid. The crossroads between the poet and the man is where Frost leaves his poems for us to discover, turning what seems like a fork in the road into a site of limitless potential, ‘in which all decisions are equally likely.’


Says Library Journal: “Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, provides a literary and cultural examination of human desires and the United States through this book-length study of Robert Frost’s famous 1915 poem “The Road Not Taken.” Orr finds that Frost’s poem, which is an exploration of choice symbolized by reaching a crossroads, is more complicated than it appears and the overall meaning of it may be quite different from what most admirers and readers of the poem believe. Although the poem is revered worldwide and is arguably a universal creation, Orr sees it as decidedly American, owing to its central theme of free choice and self-determination. In his examination, the author first writes on Frost’s life and then discusses the origins of the verse. The final chapters provide a critique of the poem, often through a cultural lens. VERDICT This entertaining book, published on the centennial of Frost’s poem, will appeal to poetry and American literature lovers, as well as to readers interested in the interweaving of art and culture.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Unraveling the mystery of a famous poem. New York Times Book Review poetry columnist Orr brings his finely honed skills as a literary critic to a meticulous investigation of Robert Frost’s beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which Orr believes has been consistently misread. The poem, he argues, is not “a salute to can-do individualism” or an exhortation to choose an uncommon path in life. Orr presents a fresh, perceptive reading of the verse; places it in the context of Frost’s life, other works, and public persona; and considers the meaning of choice in American culture. Anyone writing about Frost confronts an early biographer’s portrayal of him as a monster: unfeeling, arrogant, and cruel. “Frost is always being rescued, always being reclaimed,” Orr notes. “He’s like a disputed frontier, constantly contested, and this book is yet another stone thrown in that conflict.” Orr sees Frost as neither monster nor angel, nor the modest, “witty, rural sage” that became his public image. “The Road” was inspired by Frost’s dear friend Edward Thomas, who tried Frost’s patience with his “romantic sensibility,” indecisiveness, and “self-dramatizing regret.” Frost meant the poem as a joke, but Thomas—and future generations of readers—failed to understand the humor. Instead, many readers took the poem as underscoring Americans’ “belief in human perfectibility, a concept that assumes the humans in question can make choices that will lead to improvement.” As the poem seems to imply, taking one road rather than another can make “all the difference.” Orr, though, concludes that the poem is a “critique” of the choosing self. “What matters most, the poem suggests, is the dilemma of the crossroads,” a troubling, unsettling intersection; a space, Orr suggests, “for performance and metaphor.” An illuminating voyage into the heart of Frost’s poem and the American spirit.”

Says the Observer: “. . . Orr, who lives in Ithaca with his wife and daughter, is a poet and a professor of literary criticism at Cornell University. (He is also a lawyer, but doesn’t practice full-time anymore.) He decided to write about one poem so he could do a kind of extended close reading. He divided his latest book into four parts. The first two look at the poem and the poet while the second two are a bit more abstract, containing, for example, meditations on free will and examinations of the nature of the self, forms of which are slyly embedded in Frost’s poem.

“Perhaps the greatest testament to the poem’s enduring strength is the fact that, for Mr. Orr, “The Road Not Taken” had not lost its mystery by the time he finished writing his book. “The more you look at it,” Mr. Orr observed, “the stranger it seems.”

When is it available?

Take the road to the Downtown Hartford Public Library to borrow a copy of this book.

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