A Neighbor of Yesterday: Jeanne Robert Foster, Adirondack Poet
I am dedicating my blog posts this month to local poets & poetry because April is National Poetry Month! The first featured Jonathan E. Hoag.
I discovered the poetry of Jeanne Robert Foster (born Julia Elizabeth Oliver, 1879-1970) when I was SpO Clerk & Local Interest buyer at Borders Books & Music #389 in Saratoga Springs, NY. Richard and Janis Londraville's biography of her, Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Robert Foster and Her Circle of Friends, had recently come out, as well as a reprint of the 1916 volume Neighbors of Yesterday, which created renewed interest in her poetry.
I was fascinated by her humble upbringing in rural Warren County, NY. Traipsing through the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, little Julia Oliver took it all in--the nature, the people, the hardships, the beauty. She never forgot the area where she grew up. She came back frequently after marrying Matlock Foster and moving away to Rochester, New York City, Boston, Paris. Her poetic sketches of local people are sparse and compassionate, but far from sentimental. In the Forward to the 1963 edition of Neighbors of Yesterday, Foster writes
The men and women who come to you in these groups of stories... were real men and women who lived within the boundaries of that section of the Adirondacks known as the North Woods. Their stories are true stories: their portraits are not embellished, nor has their curt idiom been perceptibly softened or altered.
We don't have much in the Folklife Center save the books shown above, the woodcut below, and this two-page, typed document titled "Data on poems in 'Neighbors of Yesterday'" which appears to identify most of the people mentioned in that volume. Frank Oliver and Lucia Oliver are Jeanne's parents. Francis, Julia, and Rachel Putnam were her mother's adoptive family. Andrew Tripp was a farmer near Darrowsville. Is Julia Oliver Jeanne herself?
The Jeanne Robert Foster Papers are available for research at the Adirondack Research Library and the Jeanne Robert Foster collection (SCA-047) at Schaffer Library, Special Collections and Archives both at Union College, Schenectady, NY. Adirondack Experience, the Museum at Blue Mountain Lake also has a small Jeanne Robert Foster collection.
One of my favorite poems by Jeanne Robert Foster from her collection, Wild Apples (1916).
The Bitter Herb
O bitter herb, Forgetfulness,
I search for you in vain;
You are the only growing thing
Can take away my pain.
When I was young, this bitter herb
Grew wild on every hill;
I should have plucked a store of it,
And kept it by me still.
But, oh, I plucked the roses;
My heart they cannot heal-
The velvet, crimson roses,
'Tis only joy they feel.
And now I cast them from me,
The lovely springtime flowers;
They have no solace for my heart,
Nor comfort for my hours.
I hunt through all the meadows
Where once I wandered free,
But the rare herb, Forgetfulness,
It hides away from me.
O bitter herb, Forgetfulness,
Where is your drowsy breath?
Oh, can it be your seed has blown
Far as the Vales of Death?
Foster, Jeanne Robert, and Noel Riedinger-Johnson. Adirondack Portraits: a Piece of Time. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986.
Foster, Jeanne Robert. Neighbors of Yesterday. Schenectady, NY: Riedinger & Riedinger, 1963.
Foster, Jeanne Robert. Wild Apples. Boston, MA: Sherman, 1916.
Londraville, Richard, and Janis Londraville. Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Robert Foster and Her Circle of Friends. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
I also consulted the Regional history writings and research papers collection, 1877-2012, the Women of the Adirondacks : woodcut portraits by Cheryl Mirer & the biographical vertical files held in the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library.
Tisha Dolton is Librarian/Historian at The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, NY. Her areas of interest are suffrage music, suffragists of Warren and Washington Counties, local women and minority populations, and embroidery.