Reeve was professor of Russian literature at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, CT, and the author of several scholarly works on Russian literature, as well as several translations of works by Russian authors. In 1961 Reeve was an exchange professor in the Soviet Union, at a time when such exchanges weren’t common.
In 1962, he accompanied poet Robert Frost on his famous trip to the Soviet Union at the behest of President John F. Kennedy. Reeve acted as translator for Frost’s meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev, but also served as cultural guide for the poet, introducing him to Russian writers and poets during the trip.
As successful as that earliest of attempts at cultural diplomacy might have been, in a 2006 interview on his book “Robert Frost in Russia,” Reeve said the effort broke down when Frost returned to the United States. “When (Frost) came back there was a press conference, which I tried to stop but he wanted to do it. In the press conference, they asked him all about Khrushchev and Frost suggested that Khrushchev suggested maybe the Americans were too liberal to fight. When Kennedy heard that, he never spoke to Frost again. Because that was politically too much and in that sense, that came from Frost’s vanity. But what Frost wanted to do and meant to do and what he thought he did was personalize politics. He wanted to blend humanism or humanitarianism and socialism and he thought he could humanize Khrushchev as if he needed that.”
Although his role during the trip wasn’t a political one, Reeve was politically active for most of his life. Locally, he served on several town committees, as well as a Pettee Memorial Library Trustee. He successfully ran for justice of the peace on the Progressive Party ticket.
“Franklin was always political,” says his wife Laura Stevenson. “His politics began local, because he thought one should serve where one lived; but politically he was way to the left and he wrote passionately about justice and freedom in a world that is gradually corporatizing them out of existence.”
In 2003, as the nation headed to war in Iraq, Reeve and other local activists protested the invasion during weekly demonstrations in Wilmington Village.
In an autobiographical piece on FDReeve.org, Reeve described himself as a lifelong socialist, becoming a socialist at a time when it could be dangerous to express such political tendencies. But Brock Reeve says that, although his father was politically left-leaning, he was never a member of a Socialist Party, describing him as a small ‘s’ socialist. “He was always engaged socially and politically,” says Brock Reeve. “When Martin Luther King spoke in Washington, DC, he took all of us down to be a part of that.”
Although Reeve maintained ties and friendships with Russian colleagues during some of the chilliest years of the Cold War era, Brock Reeve says his father wasn’t an admirer of the Soviet communist system, despite his interest in socialism.
“Most of his connections were to people in the literary set,” Brock Reeve says. “Those people were being repressed by the regime. The communist system wasn’t embodying socialist principles. He thought the political structure should benefit the people, not the one percent.”
Reeve’s trip with Frost wasn’t his last visit to the Soviet Union, and he traveled there on numerous occasions with his family. His son Brock Reeve recalls a family camping trip around the Soviet Union in a VW microbus. The family left from France and, at a border crossing leaving Western Europe, watched as border guards tore apart their camper before they were allowed to continue on. “At that time, you had to tell the communist regime where you were going to go every day, and get gas coupons,” he recalls. “I remember in Odessa (a popular resort area on the Black Sea) they had separate campgrounds for foreigners as opposed to Russians. We ended up at the Russian campground. The Russians thought it was hysterical.”
Later in the trip the family visited a Russian writer, a friend of the family. “After we were there a couple of days, the KGB showed up and told us it was time to leave.”
Growing up with those kinds of adventures, Brock Reeve says he realized his life was different from the other kids even in the college town of Middletown, CT. His mother was also a Russian language professor. “I remember in grade school there was a strong anti-Russian sentiment in the US,” he said. “As a kid, you don’t want to tell people your parents teach Russian; they’re the bad guys, they’re the communists.”
But the experiences gave him a broader view of the world, Brock Reeve says.
Reeve was born in Philadelphia, PA, on September 12, 1928, grew up in New Jersey, and lived for many years in Middletown, CT.
But his connection to Vermont also goes back many years – first as a skier. Brock Reeve says the family learned to ski at Powder Hill in Connecticut, and later skied in Vermont when on visits to the home of poet Robert Penn Warren in West Wardsboro. Later, Franklin Reeve owned a cabin in Ludlow and, after a divorce, he built a place in Ludlow.
Reeve moved to Wilmington after he met and married Stevenson in 1995. Stevenson says they met “When he came to tea, because he’d read one of my books – it was love at first sight,” she says. “An 18-year love story.”
Reeve continued as a professor at Wesleyan for several more years before retiring in 2002, but the move to Wilmington and his life with Stevenson at her family home in an idyllic setting on Boyd Hill Road spurred a new rush of creativity.
“There was a great outpouring of poetry after 1995,” Stevenson says. “Seven books, including some really spectacular long poems like “The Urban Stampede” and “The Puzzle Master.”
Reeve also published two sequels to his “Blue Cat” collection, including “The Return of the Blue Cat” in 2005 and “The Blue Cat Walks the Earth.” Reeve’s Blue Cat revealed his leftist politics, as well as his wit.
Reeve was predeceased by his son, actor Christopher Reeve, and is survived by his daughter Alya Reeve, sons Brock Reeve and Benjamin Reeve, his wife Laura Stevenson, and his grandchildren.