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


Edited by Ann Godoff

A cultural “biography” of Robert Frost’s beloved poem, arguably the most popular piece of literature written by an American

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” One hundred years after its first publication in August 1915, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it is, in fact, a poem. Yet poetry it is, and Frost’s immortal lines remain unbelievably popular. And yet in spite of this devotion, almost everyone gets the poem hopelessly wrong.

David Orr’s The Road Not Taken dives directly into the controversy, illuminating the poem’s enduring greatness while revealing its mystifying contradictions. Widely admired as the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review, Orr is the perfect guide for lay readers and experts alike. Orr offers a lively look at the poem’s cultural influence, its artistic complexity, and its historical journey from the margins of the First World War all the way to its canonical place today as a true masterpiece of American literature.

“The Road Not Taken” seems straightforward: a nameless traveler is faced with a choice: two paths forward, with only one to walk. And everyone remembers the traveler taking “the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” But for a century readers and critics have fought bitterly over what the poem really says. Is it a paean to triumphant self-assertion, where an individual boldly chooses to live outside conformity? Or a biting commentary on human self-deception, where a person chooses between identical roads and yet later romanticizes the decision as life altering?

What Orr artfully reveals is that the poem speaks to both of these impulses, and all the possibilities that lie between them. The poem gives us a portrait of choice without making a decision itself. And in this, “The Road Not Taken” is distinctively American, for the United States is the country of choice in all its ambiguous splendor.Published for the poem’s centennial—along with a new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Frost’s poems, edited and introduced by Orr himself—The Road Not Taken is a treasure for all readers, a triumph of artistic exploration and cultural investigation that sings with its own unforgettably poetic voice.

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Praise

“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

Author Q&A

Excerpt

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.

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