“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.” – Publishers Weekly
“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. An illuminating voyage into the heart of Frost’s poem and the American spirit.” – Kirkus Reviews
“This entertaining book will appeal to poetry and American literature lovers, as well as to readers interested in the interweaving of art and culture.” – Library Journal
A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a split in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past—the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man with his thumb out on the side of the road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realize the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he’s accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he’s chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveler. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold—for it’s a commercial we’ve been watching— the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.
This advertisement ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial: A poem is read by a voice over artist as the young man ponders his choice.
It is, of course, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. In the commercial, this fact is never announced; the audience is expected to recognize the poem unaided. For any mass audience to recognize any poem is (to put it mildly) unusual. For an audience of car buyers in New Zealand to recognize a hundred-year old poem from a country eight thousand miles away is something else entirely.
But this isn’t just any poem, it’s “The Road Not Taken,” and it plays a unique role not simply in American literature, but in American culture— and in world culture as well. The iconic American poem, the iconic American brand—what better pairing to convince a Kiwi that his own self-determination is central to the life he will lead and the choices he will make? And that this power would be enhanced by the purchase of a Taurus?
No text from the past hundred years better captures the difficult essence of American experience. “The Road Not Taken” is a literary oddity and a philosophical puzzle, but more than anything else it’s a way of framing the paradoxical and massively influential culture in which it both begins and ends.