The Vanishing Red

Jeffrey Hart: On "The Vanishing Red"

The final blood of the Indians in Frost's poem "The Vanishing Red," dyes a millstream red after the last Indian in Acton, a town near Boston, has been thrown down among the grinding stone millwheels, "He is said to have been the last Red Man / In Acton," "Poking about in the mill," John, the last Indian, makes a "guttural," a savage, sound the miller finds disgusting, perhaps an insult to his mill machinery, A narrator describes John's end:

He took him down below a cramping rafter.

And showed him, through a manhole in the floor.

The water in desperate straits like frantic fish,

Salmon and sturgeon, lashing with their tails.

Then he shut down the trap door with a ring in it

That jangled even above the general noise , . .

Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel-pit all right.

We need not conclude that this local narrator telling the story is Frost, but the poem belongs to Frost—such as we were, such as we would become. Frost chooses to represent that history in this poem. We do not know to what extent Frost endorses the judgment of the narrator about this aspect of American history: "You'd have to have been there and lived it. / Then you wouldn't have looked on it as just a matter / Of who began it between the two races." At a guess Frost does endorse it, sees the Indian wars as a conflict of civilization—such as we were, such as we would become—and savagery. This agrees with Jefferson's opinion in one of the allegations against George III in The Declaration of Independence: "You'd have to have been there and lived it." Frost was not teaching Native American Studies.

Patricia L. Jones: On “The Vanishing Red”

The images in the poem "The Vanishing Red" by poet Robert Frost stay with a reader for many years. The narrative of a murder and the starling imagery of the mill all play into the tenacity of this poem and lend to it's lasting quality as a piece of substantial literature of the twentieth century. This is at odds with the explicated narrative of the poem, which instead describes a forgetful nation that makes its way on the broken backs and death of a people it is quick to forget.

The act of forgetting is operant in lines 9 through 13: "You can't get back and see it as he saw it. / It's too long a story to go into now. / You'd have to have been there and lived it. / Then you wouldn't have looked on it as just a matter / Of who began it between the two races." In these lines Frost adamantly states that the murder of the last red man, the Native American in the poem, stands for the act of the entire history of the colonization of the United States. He talks about the acts of aggression between one side and the other with a cautious understatement in the words "just a matter."

The clear truth of the matter is that the Miller, standing point in the poem as the American Government, is a murderer and makes no compunction about what he does. This is attested to in lines 6 and 7, "Whose business if I take it on myself / Whose business but why talk round the barn? / When it's just that I hold with getting a thing done with?" The fact he is the miller, in control of the place of the act, combines with the amount of control he holds over other by refusing to license them to laugh. These powers are tantamount to the amount of control the government holds over its people.

The people being controlled in this work are given only the faintest shadow of recognition as individuals. They are introduced as "The man with the meal sack" down in line 27. The man who does not get what is said but leaves, content to let the Miller go on with business as he sees fit, since he has a sack full of meal over his shoulder. The government has fed the people, however, there is clear indication that the people will have some concern later with the choice of the word "then" tacked on, as if an arbitrary afterthought.

A hungry people, be it for food, money, land, or change, are less likely to question their government than those who are content. The choice of the Mill as the location of the murder leads the reader into the heart of the Frost's understanding of what was occurring at the time that the people allowed such horrific things to occur. The Mill, with its general noise and large turning wheels, grinding away not only the grains but also now bone and blood, stands as a monument to the revolution of industry.

The images of the salmon and sturgeon, likewise flopping in the water, though not truly there, behave as a two-fold force. They are both other dying forces of nature as old as the Native American man, and at the same time they are strong and beautiful creatures that yearly fling themselves into the maw of death in an attempt to continue their species. Like the salmon and the sturgeon the "Vanishing Red" falls to the exploitation of the White capitalist government without a cry of foul from the onlookers.

Throughout the poem Frost uses language ripe with symbolic meaning to address the murder of a people and the silence of a new nation that watched it happen. While Red' is often seen as a derogatory term for Native Americans when this poem is studied at length it is quite clear that the culprit and the true beast is the Miller and the silent man.