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At Cliff House

At Cliff House

Robert Frost as a boy

They were also often happy, the kids. They went on jaunts to Woodward’s Gardens, a zoo with other amusements on Mission St. between 11th and 12th, and in the summers there were vacations in the country, in Marin County and the Napa Valley. A remnant of their favorite place to play can still be found on top of Nob Hill, a wooded strip called Priest Pathway that cuts from Washington St. over to Clay, with a nice patch of rocky dirt for digging in. Children of today might still find it wild and large enough to feel like a special place, good for secret games.

Belle Frost, in her tormenting marriage, somehow endured. She made friends with her neighbors and the people she knew from church; she became close with Henry George, an ex-goldminer turned typesetter turned newspaper owner, the one who first hired William at the Post and who in 1879 wrote Progress and Poverty, the most widely circulated book by an American to that date, an autodidact’s Das Kapital, known now mainly for its doctrine of a “single tax” on land. Belle reviewed books for the Post and also published poems in it, contributing to the family kitty. And she faithfully instructed her children. She may not have been very rigorous as a teacher, but the depth and breadth of her literary culture is hardly to be imagined nowadays; although not university educated she was steeped in Bib- lical, Classical, English, Scottish, and American literatures, and her constant reading to her children had a deep impact.

William also endured. Despite his heavy drinking and failing health he kept his job; hoping to enter politics, he did favors for the local party boss, becoming a delegate to the Democratic Convention of 1880, which nominated Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock to run against James Garfield. Belle feared he would kill himself with this extra work. The hemorrhages continued; Robbie tagging along, he would sometimes go to a slaughterhouse downtown for a tall glass of warm blood, hoping it would work a cure. He swam recklessly in the frigid bay. Maybe he was looking for the way out that the banker Ralston had chosen; maybe he didn’t know what he was looking for.

Many of the stories Frost told about his childhood are too polished, too genial, to be taken at face value. But when they touch on his father the stories communicate deep puzzlement and also horror, and those feelings are surely to be trusted. His last view of this problematic father, except for a brief moment at his deathbed, came, oddly, at the claybank. He was playing there with Jeanie when they saw an emaciated figure being helped off the cablecar at Leavenworth and Clay. He was holding a bloody handkerchief to his mouth. Then they recognized their father. They could see the doom that was on him.

Written: Monday July 13th, 4:07pm 2020