The scarcity—the disappearance, non-appearance, and, to be sure, sudden reappearance—of farm labor is the context for one of Robert Frost’s most frequently reprinted poems, “The Death of the Hired Man,” yet it is a context that, so far as I know, has received relatively little commentary. The poem has more often than not been read as a contest between masculine and feminine ethics, between justice and mercy, with various critics applauding or regretting its supposed sentimentalism. It certainly is all those things, yet the poem also demonstrates how much the origins of modern American poetry lie in its borrowings from contemporary labor problems, in this case, the industrialization of agriculture and the agricultural proletariat it gave birth to. As such, one must pay as much attention to the background incident of the poem—the broken contract between Warren and Silas—as to the debate between Warren and Mary about the definition of home and what, as a result, they owe their hired labor. According to this way of reading the poem, the dialogue between Warren and Mary is not only (or even primarily) one between two types of people, two models of human character. Rather, it is a dialogue about changing economic conditions and how to respond to them.
As the poem opens, Mary sits “musing on the lamp-flame at the table/ Waiting for Warren” (40), and when Warren arrives, Mary “meet[s] him in the doorway with the news” (40) that “Silas,” their aged hired hand, “is back” (40). Their exchange follows:
‘Be kind,’ she said.
She took the market things from Warren’s arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.
‘When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,’ he said.
‘I told him so last haying, didn’t I?
If he left then, I said, that ended it.
What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.
“All right,” I say, “I can’t afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.”
“Someone else can.” “Then someone else will have to.”
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket money,—
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.” (40-41)
In the opening stanza quoted above, Mary bids Warren to “be kind” (40) and then takes “the market things from Warren’s arms” (40), implicitly setting one set of ethics (kindness) against another (the market and its things). Warren’s response, “When was I ever anything but kind to him?” (40) depends on a certain definition of kindness, namely, one of contract and fair-dealing. From Warren’s perspective, however, Silas has violated that agreement and, thus, forfeited his right to kindness. Warren offers two reasons why he will “not have the fellow back” (40). The first is that Silas is no longer of use, can no longer perform sufficient labor to merit his pay or room and board. “What good is he?” Warren asks. “Who else will harbor him/At his age for the little he can do?” (40). Yet Silas is not totally useless—otherwise, he would not have left Warren during the harvest season. Obviously, someone found Silas useful enough to want to employ him. The second, related reason for Warren’s refusal to take Silas back, then, is because Silas has broken a contract. After agreeing to work for Warren during the harvest season, Silas has run off to work elsewhere for better pay.
What emerges in the poem, then, is a conflict between two modes of hired labor employment. Moreover, the conflict the poem represents was not especially new—discussions of it date to the 1840s—but it was, as Frost was writing in the early 1910s, and because of the changes in farming detailed above, approaching a crisis. Like Warren, many small farmers who could not pay regular, monthly wages to their hired labor instead offered them room and board for the entire year and, at the end of the harvest season, after farmers themselves had turned their harvest into cash, would pay laborers their back wages. Other, more large-scale farmers, however, employed laborers for only two or three months during the harvest season—but paid them immediately, monthly. Each situation had advantages and disadvantages for hired laborers. If employed year-round, laborers generally made less in wages than they would by working seasonally, and, as Silas objects, in the interval had no or little money. (“He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,” Warren explains, “Enough at least to buy tobacco with, / So he won’t have to beg and be beholden” .) In contrast, if men hired themselves out strictly for a few months during harvest season, they would make decent money and have (as Warren calls it) “fixed wages” (41) but, come winter, they would be left without employment, room, or board. Some farmers, like Warren, took advantage of this situation. “By employing a man for several months or the entire year,” the agricultural historian David E. Schob notes, “the farmer in effect guaranteed himself a permanent harvest hand during July and August” (73). Because he has employed him throughout the year, Warren expects Silas to remain throughout the harvest season.
But changes in agricultural production undermined this already unstable situation. As Cindy Hahamovitch puts it, “Dwindling were the days of the ‘hired man’ who took most of his pay in room and board and shared the table with the family who employed him” (35). New England farmers who tried to survive by shifting towards large-scale, concentrated production had to rely even more on “just-in-time” seasonal labor to harvest their crops, thus driving up demand in an already strained hired labor market, where, as Warren puts it, “any help is scarce” (41). And that is precisely the opportunity that leads Silas to abandon Warren. Even though Silas is “good” for little, during harvest season his labor is nevertheless in demand. “You can be certain,” Warren says, “When he begins like that,/ there’s someone at him/ Trying to coax him off with pocket money…” (41). In fact, hired laborers frequently left year-round employment for temporary though better-paid harvest work, betraying the farmers who had thought that they had guaranteed themselves harvest labor. Unlike Silas, however, few of those who jumped these formal or informal contracts had the audacity to return to the farmers whom they had abandoned. As Warren puts it, rightly angered, “What help he [Silas] is there’s no depending on./ Off he goes always when I need him most” (40) and “In winter time he comes back to us. I’m done” (41).
The situation was made worse by the collapse of the agricultural ladder that was supposed to make this problem, at least for hired laborers, temporary. As Warren tells Mary, “I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself/ If that was what it was” (41). In other words, Warren could understand Silas’s going off “always when I need him most” (41) if in going off and earning wages he put those wages to “bettering himself” (41), that is, climbing the agricultural ladder and using the money he earned as seasonal harvest labor to buy his own land and start his own farm. Silas, however, does no such thing. Either by choice or by necessity, and by the time the poem is published, this was increasingly a matter of necessity, Silas remains a hired man, dependent, in his later years, on the kindness of employer-farmers who, according to the practices of the time, bore little to no responsibility for their hired labor. As the radical agronomist Abner E. Woodruff put it in 1919, “when the farm hand was really an apprentice to the trade”—that is, when the cost of taking up farming (land and tools) remained comparatively low—“the relations of the farmer and his hired man were, therefore, those of social equals” (69). “But with the introduction of machinery on the farms,” Woodruff observed, “and the development of commercial or competitive farming, the farm hand was forced to remain longer at his apprenticeship” (69)—or, like Silas, give up on apprenticeship altogether and settle into what Abner called “the agricultural proletariat” (68). “The price of farm land and the cost of farm equipment has advanced to such a figure,” Woodruff argued, “that the farm wage worker, with an average wage of less than $35 per month (1918), has a remarkably slim chance to become a farmer on his own account and that chance growing slimmer” (72). As a result, Woodruff added, “The farm hand of today is no longer the potential equal of his employer” (72). “Economically the line of cleavage between the farmer and the farm laborer has widened into a gulf,” he concluded, “across which they glare at each other in uncompromising hostility” (57). Although uncompromising hostility may not fairly describe Warren’s relationship with Silas, even so, the terms of their relationship have been affected by the industrialization of agriculture. For example, if hired workers got sick, as Silas does, David E. Schob explains, “Their employers”—and note the change in terminology—“might provide some immediate help but were not expected to assume long-term burdens or obligations” (230).
Thus, when Silas returns to Warren and Mary’s farm after leaving them during the harvest season, he has violated two principles of the farmer-hired labor contract: he jumped his contract, leaving Warren without much-needed harvest help, and yet he still expects room and board over the winter; moreover, and although he is still under the impression that he will earn his room and board, Silas has become a responsibility and a burden to a family who, by rights, was no longer obliged to accept that responsibility. This context makes the debate about home between Warren and Mary so pointed:
‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’
‘Home,’ he mocked gently.
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’ (43)
Warren’s definition of home is suitably cynical. It is “the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in” (43). While on the surface still offering harbor, Warren’s definition of home implicitly objects to the fact that it is a functionally a-moral place. Regardless of how one has treated those at home, one can nevertheless expect to be taken in there. Or, rather, it is not quite that the home is an a-moral place but that one moral, hospitality, trumps all others, including justice.
Mary, of course, offers a different definition of home. “I should have called it,” she tells Warren, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve” (43), and the poem puts a lot of pressure on that word “deserve.” Warren insists on an ethics ruled by exchange and contract: labor (or service) for wages, room, and board. When that contract is violated, or when one party (Silas) has no labor to exchange, then that marks the end of the relationship and responsibilities—even if sentimentalists will insist that home remains a place where one will have to take someone in regardless of the latter’s sins. Mary, in contrast, wants an ethics—her definition of home—that transcends that calculated system of exchange. Home, for her, is something you haven’t to “deserve,” in the sense of deserve in its original Latin (deservire), “to serve diligently.” In other words, as in so much nineteenth-century discourse, the “home” stands as an asylum from and even an implicit rebuke to the public, economic sphere of use and exchange.
While some debate remains alive, most readers of the poem have concluded that Warren comes around to Mary’s way of thinking. Critics of “Death of the Hired Man,” therefore, tend to read the poem as a triumph of, as Karen Kilcup puts it, “the ethic of connection and nurturing” over an ethic of the market. Mary’s “most important task in the poem,” Kilcup writes, “is to teach Warren and, by extension, the reader, especially the masculine reader, the value of sustaining relationships” (85). Moreover, “Warren’s transformation mirrors the reader’s own, as the dialogue of the poem teaches us to value relationships over autonomy, compassion over economics, and feeling over thinking” (86). In addition, and perhaps because of Frost’s own comments on the poem, in which he identified Mary’s view of home as the “feminine way of it, the mother way” (“Paris Review Interview” 885) and Warren’s, by contrast, as “the male one,” critics have argued that these ethics—economics over against compassion—are also gendered, and that the triumph of the one (compassion) over the other (economics) also signals the triumph of one perspective (female) over another (male).
Yet that reading ignores a slight irony, one that emerges not in the poem itself but in the poem as it stands in relation to other poems in the collection, North of Boston (1914), in which “Death of the Hired Man” appears. If Silas had not died, and Warren had agreed to let him to stay, the care of Silas would in all likelihood have fallen to Mary. In other words, as Frost in other poems like “Home Burial,” “The Fear,” “The Hill Wife,” “The Witch of Coos,” and “The Housekeeper” makes disturbingly evident, women were, far more frequently then men, providers (and occasionally victims) of an ethic of compassion and an ethic of home grounded in compassion and not service. In short, home might be something you somehow haven’t to deserve, but someone—usually women—had to serve the undeserved. Indeed, another Frost poem, “A Servant to Servants,” turns on the irony that women had to serve those who served—that is, all those hired laborers like Silas that made the newly industrialized farms go.
Because so many of Frost’s poems seem to take place in some pastoral no place the temptation, which Frost himself cultivated, is to view him as some sort of rural isolate. Yet it is surprising how often the various rural dramas and epiphanies (like “The Death of the Hired Man”) that play out in the course of North of Boston do not occur in isolation but, as the title also rather deliberately announces, always in relation to the political, financial, and industrial center of Boston specifically or modernity more generally. The nation’s farms and fields, Frost shows, tend to mirror, rather than solve or provide a haven from, the labor problems playing out in factories and cities.
The labor problem, that is, did not stop at the outposts of cities, the fences of farms, or, even, at the doors of farmhouses. Rather, it penetrated into its very crevices, into the habits and routines of men and women everywhere. “The earth works for him,” Emerson wrote of farmers, but by the first decades of the twentieth century, the farmer required more than just earthly labor. He required human laborers, too, men and women alike, and more than ever before. Moreover, the presence of these laborers created new problems, both for the laborers and, as “The Death of the Hired Man” suggests, their employers. They also created, as Frost’s book of poems suggests, opportunities for new kinds of poetry to be written.
Because The Library of America edition of Frost’s Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays does not include line numbers for poems, and many Frost poems are hundreds of lines long, all references are to page numbers.