It Happened at Michigan — The ‘harrowing experience’ of meeting Robert Frost


Stella Brunt was about to read aloud a few verses of a poem she was working to perfect. It was 1922, and she was a U-M senior.

Her audience was one of the most recognized poets of the day.

A photo of Robert Frost
The student magazine Whimsies featured Robert Frost in 1921. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

“It was a harrowing experience, especially when Robert Frost kept scolding me over the same old faults — not making my meaning clear, and using old phrases,” she wrote afterward. “My nerves were all on edge to begin with, and that about unsettled me. I didn’t sleep all night.”

Robert Frost came to campus in the fall of 1921 as an experiment carried out by President Marion L. Burton: Provide a one-year fellowship to a distinguished artist, with zero strings attached — no teaching duties, no public talks, no committee assignments. Burton offered a $5,000 stipend and a rented house to be U-M’s inaugural Creative Fellow in the Creative Arts.

The idea of a university hosting an artist was not original to U-M. The president of Miami University in Ohio had earlier challenged universities nationwide to focus more on the arts and humanities and less on materialism. It was a concept that resonated with Burton and even more so with Frost.

“I don’t know why I am so gratified,” Frost told Burton, “unless it is because I am somewhat surprised when men of your executive authority … see it as part of their duty to the state to encourage the arts.”

A photo of Stella Brunt from 1922
Stella Brunt graduated from U-M in 1922. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Once on campus, Frost engaged with students, particularly those like Brunt who wrote for a literary publication called Whimsies. “Just to talk with him is to find new confidence,” she said. “To meet and talk with a man like Frost is to be absolutely happy.”

At the end of Frost’s residency, students and faculty begged Burton to keep him on. The poet received a second fellowship for 1922-23.

Frost won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924, and Burton hoped to make him a permanent faculty member. However, the president’s unexpected death in early 1925 left Frost without his biggest advocate. He returned for one final semester in early 1926. Still, the experimental fellowship left its mark.

“Already known for its athletic prowess,” wrote archivist Robert M. Warner, “the University of Michigan became equally known for its cultural significance.”


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