University acquires extensive Robert Frost collection
I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering. — Robert Frost
A friendship that began more than 70 years ago between a 20th-century great American poet and a quiet country boy from Wisconsin will live on in McIntyre Library’s Special Collections and Archives department at UW-Eau Claire through the acquisition of a rare and extensive collection of Robert Frost materials.
The collection — acquired by the UW-Eau Claire Foundation in part as a purchase and in part as a gift from Joan Christopherson Schmidt of Milwaukee — is believed to be one of the most extensive Frost collections maintained outside of academia. It contains 44 Frost books, most of which are first or rare limited editions, including many that have been signed and inscribed by the poet. The collection also includes manuscript materials containing handwritten poetry, Christmas cards and pamphlets as well as dozens of books about Frost.
Ms. Schmidt, affectionately known as Miss Chris, is the wife of the late Frederick (Fritz) Schmidt, a man who cultivated a lifelong friendship with Frost while a student at Dartmouth College in 1942. Mr. Schmidt started collecting first-edition books as a high school student in Shorewood, focusing on Frost, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, unaware of the future relationship he would one day have with Frost.
Mr. Schmidt met the poet through Harold Rugg, Dartmouth College’s chief librarian and fellow book collector.
“Rugg told Fritz to come to his library apartment one day and said, ‘Fritz, there’s somebody I’d like you to meet up in my study,’” Ms. Schmidt said. “So Fritz said he trudged up the back stairs, and sitting there in a rocking chair was this old man with a shock of white hair sipping a glass of apple ‘cidah,’ as he said in a classic New England accent. It was Frost. He was there to do a seminar in the summer, and those two bonded: this young 17-year-old shy boy who loved nature and this famous poet. They would walk around campus almost every night and simply talk. That was the beginning of Fritz’s real Frost collection.”
A ‘natural’ friendship
Ms. Schmidt describes her husband as a quiet man who had a passion for poetry and nature, which was the basis of the friendship between Mr. Schmidt and Frost. Mr. Schmidt was deeply involved in preserving the environment and purchased his first 40 acres of land near Greenbush on a land contract while in college. He was asked to serve on the original three-person board for the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation in 1958, and his land in Greenbush later became a part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. He purchased more land near the Mississippi River, where he planted 1,000 walnut trees every summer, Ms. Schmidt said, and in his last weeks, he decided to purchase even more in order to preserve a trout stream in the area. Mr. Schmidt also worked to preserve the natural environment around Ms. Schmidt’s family farm by opposing the privatization of water on the land.
Mr. Schmidt received a law degree from Yale University, but because of his connection to nature and his love of reading and books, he started the original Milwaukee Magazine, often featuring Wisconsin’s beauty and landscapes, Ms. Schmidt said.
Frost’s shared connection and passion for nature has been prominent in his poetry, said Max Garland, current poet laureate of Wisconsin and professor of English at UW-Eau Claire.
“Frost had a deep attraction and commitment to the land and the natural world,” Garland said. “He understood how nature worked. He knew the darkness behind it, not just the beauty. His writing and view on nature is greatly connected to the environmental sensibility Wisconsin has nurtured. Frost’s poetry didn’t just teach the right principles of conservation or sustainability; it moved people’s hearts to see and feel the beauty of the natural world.”
Ms. Schmidt said she is happy the Frost collection that meant so much to her and her husband now has a home at UW-Eau Claire surrounded by the nature they both loved.
“The books will be used and appreciated and studied,” Ms. Schmidt said. “Not for how well the words fit or how well the meter is, but for the true meaning of the involvement with nature that was so important to Fritz and Frost.”
‘One Step Backward Taken’
Mr. Schmidt, an expert skier and mountain climber, entered the U.S. Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division during World War II and was sent to the mountains of Colorado for training. While Mr. Schmidt was away, Frost sent handwritten Christmas cards to him and asked Fritz’s parents for all of his first-edition Frost books. When Mr. Schmidt returned from the service, Frost returned the books, each now personally inscribed by the famous poet. Frost also gave Mr. Schmidt a first-edition copy of “A Boy’s Will,” a Frost book Mr. Schmidt could not afford to purchase for himself.
One inscription written on the front page of the book titled “Mountain Interval” was particularly special for Mr. Schmidt. The words to the poem “One Step Backward Taken” were carefully handwritten on that page. Ms. Schmidt revealed that the poem was written for her husband about his time in the war, a piece of Frost history scholars and researchers had not known until recently.
“Fritz said when he saw Frost for the first time after the war, Frost said, ‘Fritz, I took undue advantage of you, but I ain’t gonna take it back. I wrote a poem about you, but it’s yours, and I’m not going to tell anyone what it is; that’ll be up to you,’” Ms. Schmidt recalled. “And Frost never did. And Fritz never did until near the end of his life in 2005, and then he told me.”
Frost wrote “One Step Backward Taken” about his friend’s experience training for the war and his inability to join his unit when they were deployed due to tinnitus — which the military thought might be Meniere’s disease, a potentially serious disease causing hearing loss and vertigo that would have prevented him from participating in any military service. Mr. Schmidt was sent to a hospital in Washington state to be tested when his unit was deployed. According to Ms. Schmidt, a large number of soldiers in Mr. Schmidt’s unit were killed. “One Step Backward Taken” was a description of Mr. Schmidt’s alternate path, which ultimately saved his life.
Saying goodbye to Fritz and Frost
Ms. Schmidt’s family and friends understand the significant role Frost and his poetry played in the lives of the Schmidts, so when she was approached by neighbors Larry and Meg Fox about the Special Collections and Archives department at UW-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library, Ms. Schmidt gave them her attention.
The Foxes learned about the UW-Eau Claire archives through Ms. Fox’s brother, Dr. Mark Attermeier, a family practice physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. Attermeier built a strong connection to UW-Eau Claire through his relationship with Gary Schwartzhoff, a professor of music and director of choral activities at UW-Eau Claire, who also directs the choir at the church Attermeier attends. The relationship led to Attermeier’s involvement in the university’s alumni choir and his attendance at many of the programs the UW-Eau Claire music department offers.
“I have always had an interest in lifelong learning and, therefore, a natural affinity toward UW-Eau Claire,” Attermeier said. “My wife and I love singing in the alumni choir and have had some wonderful experiences with the university. I suggested UW-Eau Claire to Miss Chris as a possible place for the Frost collection because I knew it would meet Fritz’s conditions for the future of the collection. First, he wanted the collection to stay intact and remain in Wisconsin, and, second, he wanted it to be used for scholarship.”
There were many people and institutions interested in the Robert Frost collection, Attermeier said, but almost every one of them wanted to break it up and sell it in pieces for more money or keep it as a personal collection in their study. Miss Chris is very happy with the new home that it has found, he said.
Ms. Schmidt had always been hesitant about the Frost collection going anywhere because of its sentimental and personal value, but she said when she learned more about UW-Eau Claire and its mission and connection to the natural environment, her feelings changed. She met with Greg Kocken, head of McIntyre Library’s Special Collections and Archives department at UW-Eau Claire, and Kimera Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and executive director of university advancement, to discuss the acquisition of the collection.
Ms. Schmidt said she appreciated the promise that the books would be studied and used by students. She also saw the university’s connection to nature and knew UW-Eau Claire was the right place for the collection to be housed.
When the day came to say goodbye to the books and materials her husband meticulously collected for more than 40 years, Ms. Schmidt said it was almost too overwhelming.
“I looked at this long table where all of the books were stacked, and all of a sudden I felt my husband, Fritz, and Frost, who had been living up in my study for all these years, walking away forever,” Ms. Schmidt said. “I almost ended it right there, but I’m glad I didn’t. I know this university, set in a natural setting, is going to fulfill Fritz’s wish that the books will be used, that the poetry will be studied and maybe, just maybe, our students here at UW-Eau Claire will take the inspiration from Fritz and Frost to make the world a better place.”
Ms. Schmidt said she has been very impressed with the quality of the Special Collections and Archives department and the work Kocken has done with the collection.
“Greg is a marvelous human being and treats the books and materials as if they are his own,” Ms. Schmidt said. “He has done an amazing job, and UW-Eau Claire’s archives are remarkable. They have controlled temperatures, special boxes and a far better way of preserving the books than any one of the other universities I visited. Frost is going to outlive all of us in that collection.”
The materials in the Frost collection are an impressive addition to the archive’s rare books collection and will allow scholars to understand Frost and his poetry on a deeper level, Kocken said.
“While it is true many of these books can be viewed online or elsewhere, to view Frost’s poetry in the original print version is exciting,” Kocken said. “Poetry is one of the highest forms of writing and is truly an art form. Beyond the words, the full presentation of the printed versions, including the binding style, paper stock and artwork, is part of that art and helps the reader to reach a greater appreciation for the poetry.”
Impact of the Frost collection
The Frost collection is a signature collection for UW-Eau Claire and helps identify it as a scholarly institution able to attract researchers from around the world, Kocken said. Collections such as this further strengthen the Special Collections and Archives department and the reputation of UW-Eau Claire as a premier university in the Midwest, he said.
“Prior to the university’s acquisition, this collection was considered one of the largest collections of Frost materials not maintained by an academic institution,” Kocken said. “There are other Frost collections, notably on the East Coast in colleges and universities, but here within the state of Wisconsin, and really in the Midwest, there are few, if any, of this magnitude. So now Frost scholars who have often spent their time traversing along the East Coast looking at these collections have another stop on their trip to be able to understand Frost through his relationship with Fred and Joan Schmidt and through all of the personal materials we have in this collection. A thank-you to Miss Chris just isn’t enough for what she has given us.”
Garland describes Frost as a “poet of the people,” although he is widely admired and studied among scholars, and said acquiring the collection is a move toward acknowledging poetry, literature and the arts as being important not only to the scholarly and academic community, but to the larger community as well.
“It’s a great honor and great responsibility for an institution such as UW-Eau Claire to house and make available such an extensive collection of rare and first-edition books and manuscripts signed and inscribed by America’s most beloved poet and one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century,” Garland said. “Speaking as a poet and as the current poet laureate of Wisconsin, I’ll add that Robert Frost is arguably the last great American poet to be widely known and admired by those outside the academic world, as well as inside.”
Carmen Manning, chair of the UW-Eau Claire English department, said she is excited for the numerous opportunities having the collection on campus will bring to students.
“I am really excited for our students to have access to this collection; to be in the library with it, turning the pages and interacting with the texts that Robert Frost himself touched, pored over and wrote in for Fritz and Miss Chris,” Manning said. “I know how much this collection means to Miss Chris. It’s obvious it is a representation of the relationship she and her husband shared as well as their love of learning, the arts and nature. Frost really brings those pieces together in his poetry. I am eager for our students to feel that same connection to this collection of poetry, to the ideas that Frost has shared through his poems and the ways in which it challenges us.”
A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. — Robert Frost
During Ms. Schmidt’s visit to UW-Eau Claire in December, a handful of English students had the opportunity to meet with her in the archives and discuss the collection. They sat with Ms. Schmidt around a table filled with books and manuscripts by Robert Frost.
“There was such a reverence,” Manning said. “They were excited, but a little trepidatious, as they understood the magnitude of what was laid out in front of them, but as they started interacting with Miss Chris and the collection and learning from her about what Frost’s poetry meant, they showed pure delight in what this collection means for them and our university.”
Manning described that moment as one of real understanding of what it means to experience engaged learning at a university.
“Challenging students to think about things in new and interesting ways is part of our job as an institution of higher learning,” Manning said. “The Frost collection creates this opportunity for students to interact with literary texts and a piece of history.”
Senior Rebekah Morrisson, an English major from Fresno, Calif., came to UW-Eau Claire because of its well-known English program and green campus. The opportunity to interact with the books of someone she idolizes for his work and environmentalism is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often, she said.
“The most exciting part of this experience was realizing that Robert Frost had touched these books that I am holding now,” Morrisson said. “He had been in a room somewhere, holding these books, reading them, signing them and talking about them. Being able to interact with that history is a really great opportunity and will allow students to take a new perspective on his work and cherish their education a bit more.”
The English department aims to make the Frost collection the focal point of an annual poetry reading and lecture that will be open to faculty, students and the community, and will provide an opportunity to emphasize and honor poetry, Robert Frost and the idea of engaging with the literary arts in ways that have an impact in the world, Manning said.
“We want to celebrate this collection,” Manning said. “We want to celebrate Fritz and Miss Chris and their contributions not only to UW-Eau Claire, but to all of Wisconsin and beyond.”
Miss Chris and Fritz: Leaving a legacy
“The most important thing I want students and anyone who interacts with the Frost collection to understand is that they have the chance to study the work of a man who wanted to make a better world,” Ms. Schmidt said. “Hopefully by listening to and studying what I leave behind about my husband and Frost they will recognize that they too have the ability to change the world for the better and that they can dream and know they can succeed in those dreams.”