Edison’s Incandescent Lamp: Taking Robert Frost’s “Literate Farmer” Literally

"What's a star doing big as a baseball?" (Photo (c) Robert Goldwitz)
“What’s a star doing big as a baseball?” (Photo (c) Robert Goldwitz, 2013)

Below is the abstract for a panel paper I will give at the American Literature Association Conference in Boston, May 2013. The Robert Frost Society hosts the panel.

More than just a poem about two men debating the merits of scientific achievement, Robert Frost’s “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus: A Dated Popular-Science Medley on a Mysterious Light Recently Observed in the Western Sky at Evening” is a direct challenge to the reader’s sense of security about his own beliefs. In the poem, a stranger appears at a farmer’s doorstep one night. The stranger asks about the bright light in the sky, which he assumes is the planet Venus. The farmer, however, believes it is an “incandescent lamp” installed by Thomas Edison to lengthen the workday, much to the stranger’s astonishment. Critics suggest the farmer’s references to technology, evolution, and religion indicates he is well read and that he only pretends to believe light is a lamp. He takes this position to mock “the values symbolized by Edison,” including technological advancement, unquestioned faith in science, and an emphasis on thrift. The reader’s own incredulousness over the farmer’s notion that an incandescent lamp is the source of sky’s bright light makes it easy to believe he’s playing the devil’s advocate during the debate.

My alternative reading challenges that analysis by accepting the farmer’s belief that the light is, in fact, an incandescent lamp. The farmer is literate, but he represents a man well read in popular science, as the poem’s subtitle suggests. To support this reading, I contextualize the poem within popular print sources from the 1920s that encouraged faith in science and technology, causing readers to value beliefs and ideas backed up by scientific authority and reject any that were not—effectively closing off other avenues of thought.

In shaping his poetic response to this trend, Frost may have been influenced by William James’s “On a Certain Belief,” where James concludes that when beliefs masquerade as immutable facts, our understanding of the world becomes limited. In the essay, James describes his encounter with North Carolinian farmers who live on deforested land. He believes the scene ugly and depressing, but learns the farmers consider the denuded landscape a symbol of progress. James’s insight is that although his belief contradicts the farmers’, both beliefs are valid. Frost’s poem demonstrates that conclusion by leaving the men’s debate unresolved. Such a debate cannot be decided because what we consider a fact is, at bottom, a belief. Facts—scientific or otherwise—are only true and secure if we believe in them. As such Frost cautions the reader against dismissing another’s beliefs if they do not agree with his own, no matter how ludicrous they might seem. A better position remains open to questions and contradictions that perpetually challenge beliefs, including the ones posited by science.

Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

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