The poet and essayist Robert Francis settled in Amherst, Mass., in 1926, three years after his graduation from Harvard, and created a literary life that stretched for the better part of half a century. An associate of Robert Frost and friend of many other writers, Francis occasionally worked as a teacher or lecturer, including a brief stint on the faculty at Mount Holyoke College, but he sustained himself largely through his writing, living simply in "Fort Juniper," a cottage he built on Market Hill Road in North Amherst. A recipient of the Shelley Award (1939) and the Academy of American Poets award for distinguished poetic achievement (1984), Francis was a poet in residence at both Tufts (1955) and Harvard (1960) Universities. He died in Amherst in July 1987.
The Francis Papers contains both manuscript and printed materials, drafts and finished words, documenting the illustrious career of the poet. Of particular note is Francis's correspondence with other writers, publishing houses, and readers, notably Paul Theroux. Also contains personal photographs and Francis family records and a small number of audio recordings of Francis reading his poetry. Letters from Francis to Regina Codey, 1936-1978, can be found in MS 314 along with two typescript poems by Francis.
Background on Robert Francis
A key figure in poetry circles in western New England during the mid-twentieth century, Robert Francis was born in Upland, Pennsylvania, on August 12, 1901, the son of the Rev. Ebenezer F. Francis and Ida May Allen Francis. In 1910, the Francis family moved to Medford, Massachusetts, where Robert attended the local public schools, graduating valedictorian of his high school, before entering Harvard College in 1919 to study literature. After receiving his bachelor's degree and teaching English in the prep school of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1923, Francis returned to Harvard to study for a master's in education.
Teaching, however, never became Francis's focus in life. A few months after completing his M.Ed., he moved to Amherst to teach English in the high school, but remained only a year. From this slender beginning in western Massachusetts, Francis set out to create a base for a literary career, supporting himself at first by his writing and by teaching violin. Over the next decade, he poured forth a steady stream of articles for a variety of newspapers, including a regular stint writing the "Home Forum" column of the Christian Science Monitor (1938-1954). Francis's poetry and longer essays also began to appear in print on a regular basis.
In 1936, Francis published his first volume of poetry, Stand With Me Here, with Macmillan, a critically well-received collection of modern verse that firmly established his poetic voice and garnered the attention and of fellow writers. One of those instrumental in the publication of Stand With Me Here was David Morton of Amherst College, whose friendship brought the benefits both of encouragement and wide experience with publishing.
On the strength of his first book, Francis was invited in August 1937 to attend the Breadloaf Writers Conference as a fellow, where he met Kentucky writer James Still. Primed by his experience at Breadloaf, Francis published his second volume, Valhalla and Other Poems, a year later, winning praise from one of New England's best known poets, Robert Frost. With a rapidly expanding circle of literary friends and associates, Francis's career seemed to be gathering steam, and his efforts began to bear fruits: in March 1939, he was named co-recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award and in 1942-1943, he became the recipient of the Golden Rose Award of the New England Poetry Club. Through his involvement with the Club, he became acquainted with another important friend and literary sponsor, Gretchen (Mrs. Fiske) Warren.
With his fortunes waxing in 1940, Francis built a Spartan, one-man cottage on Market Hill Road in North Amherst to serve as his writing refuge. Fort Juniper, as he began to call the house, fulfilled the essential conditions of Francis's philosophy, combining his love of nature, leisure, and solitude.
In 1944, after brief service in the army during the Second World War, Francis accepted a position in the English Department at Mount Holyoke College. When he again resigned from the teaching profession, little more than a year later, he renewed his commitment to writing. In addition to contributing a regular column, "Country Comment," to Forum magazine, Francis published a novel, We Fly Away, in 1948, and a third volume of poems, Face Against the Glass, in 1950. This period of high productivity, however, came crashing down in the early 1950s, when Francis passed through what he later called his "Lean Years." During these years, he found a measure of compensation through his performances as a violin soloist in churches and publications in The New Yorker and The Saturday Review. Even though his rate of publication in poetry suffered, he continued to reap the rewards of a strong reputation. In 1955, he was named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts University, he spent the academic year 1957-1958 on the Rome Prize Fellowship from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he spent the year 1960 as poet in residence at Harvard. He returned to Italy in 1967 on an Amy Lowell Poetry Scholarship.
In 1965, Francis issued his fourth collection of poems, Come Out Into the Sun, with his fifth, Like Ghosts of Eagles, following in 1974. He turned to memoir in the 1970s, with the appearance of an autobiography, The Trouble With Francis, in 1971, and Frost: A Time to Talk in 1972, his account of visits with Robert Frost in the 1950s, both published with the University of Massachusetts Press. 1976 was a particularly productive year, featuring the appearance of three volumes: A Certain Distance (a book of prose sketches), Collected Poems, and Francis On the Spot: An Interview With Robert Francis, conducted by Philip Tetreault and Kathy Sewalk-Karcher.
At this late point in his career, Francis began to receive a surge of attention, both locally and nationally. In Amherst, he was regularly called upon to give readings of his work at the Jones Library (the local public library), and on several occasions, he was featured on "Poems to a Listener," a program on the Five College radio station, WFCR. Nationally, the Academy of American Poets recognized Francis with its award for "distinguished poetic achievement" in April 1984. All the while, Francis continued to write, publishing his reflections on poetry, Pot Shots at Poetry, in 1980, followed in 1984 with his final volume of poems, Butter Hill, and a book of short prose pieces, The Satirical Rogue on All Fronts.
In 1981 interview with the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Francis remarked that his "specialty has been not to earn much, but to spend little," however his specialty also included a literary talent that spanned the genres of poetry, essays, novels, memoirs, and journal writing, and talents that extended to a wide circle of friends and fellow writers, from Frost, Still, and Morton to younger poets such as Anne Halley and Doris Abramson. Robert Francis died in Amherst in July 1987. The Juniper Prize in Poetry, established by the UMass Press in 1975, is named in honor of Francis's North Amherst home.
The Robert Francis Papers are a rich source of information on the life and philosophy of the poet Robert Francis and the development of his career in literature. Occupying approximately 8.25 linear feet, the papers are divided into seven series, including Bio-bibliographical, Correspondence, Poetry, Non-fiction, Fiction, Photographs, and Recordings.
The correspondence, poetry, and non-fiction series are especially strong and provide a detailed account of Mr. Francis' long literary career.
The collection is open for research.
The collection was donated to Special Collections and University Archives by Robert Francis between November 1975 and July 1987, along with a collection of his printed works which are now housed in the Rare Books collection. Additions to the collection were subsequently received from Francis' literary executor, Francis Quinn; from the University of Massachusetts Press; and the Tunnel Press in 1977.
Listen to recordings of an interview and poetry reading with Robert Francis conducted by Henry Lyman for WFCR radio in 1977 and 1978.
Processed by Stephanie Welch and Mark Madigan, 1988. The following letters, now interfiled with the Correspondence series, were previously arranged by Robert Francis in a file called "Help asked for and received."
|Apodaca, La Verne||April 20, 1980|
|Brazeau, Peter||April 27, 1978|
|Cochran, J.||March 30, 1980|
|Haney, Paula||May 1, 1980|
|Motts, Dona||May 28, 1980|
|Norbutt, John||January 10, 1979 (with response January 22, 1979)|
|O'Gorman, Ned||March 8, 1980 (with response March 18, 1980)|
|Quinn, John Robert||July 22, 1978; July 28, 1978|
|Richards, Lucie A. (2 copies)||March 6, 1979|
|Sussman, Sherry (with photo of Francis)||n.d.|
|Shetline, Leonard J.||May 28, 1978|
|Tuttle, Claire||September 1978|
|Liz [?]||July 30, 1978|
The following letters, now interfiled with the Correspondence series, were previously arranged by Francis in a file called "Letters of appreciation."
|Abbe, George||May 20, 1978|
|Boyd, Charles||July 16, 1977|
|Brown, Rosellen||November 16 [?]|
|Brown, Rosellen||May 13, 1977|
|Cate, Edward W.||January 22, 1977|
|Emery, Mary||December 23, 1977|
|Faust, Pamela||March 22, 1980|
|Hicks, John||October 5, 1976|
|Howes, Jeanne||February 12, 1977|
|Osborne, Marion A.||September 6, 1977|
|Peterson, Lani||January 17, 1979|
|Philbrick, Stephen||November 5 [?]|
|Rand, Frank L.||December 16, 1955|
|Reidy, P. Michael||September 23, 1977|
|Rigby, Libby||September 27, 1975|
|Roberts, Haslin Cherie||August 13, 1978|
|Rosten, Norman||December 6, 1976|
|Smith, Nathaniel B.||July 29, 1978|
|Taylor, Thurston||October 17, 1977|
|Tetreault, Phil||May 29, 1979|
|Yolsen, Melvin B.||August 21, 1978|
|Frank [?]||December 16, 1954|
|Shirley [?]||February 2, 1975|
The following items, now filed in box 13, folders 165-169, were originally interleaved in the author's copy of The Trouble With Francis in the pages noted below.
|Front matter||Near East, November 1954|
|4-5||photographs: "Entrance to Market Hill Rd in 1940," "The Old House by the Brook, 1937-38"|
|12-13||photographs (4): "Adamites"|
|18-19||letter to Literary Executor for Robert Frost.|
|28-29||photograph: "Henry King of Flat Hills Road and one of his oxen"|
|32-33||photographs (2): "Forrest Sanborn"|
|34-35||photograph: "Porter Dickinson"|
|56-57||Christmas card (photo of rock.)|
|64-65||photographs "Walter from Brooklyn" & "Lord Wilbur"|
|70-71||photograph: "Richard Gillman at Fort Juniper"|
|74-75||photograph: "Full-grown mantids"|
|92-93||newspaper clippings (3) and photocopies about soybeans|
|98-99||Thanksgiving Dinner menus (8) with photocopies for Fort Juniper|
|108-109||postcard from Rebecca Richmond of Chautauqua Writer's Institute|
|116-117||photographs (2): "Pasquino, Rome" & "Trattoria Pasquino"|
|118-119||newspaper clippings about late birthday card with photocopies; birthday card delayed in mail nearly 30 years.|
|122-123||Christmas card from Francis Gillespie; postcard of Tyrellspass; vacation brochure|
|136-137||photographs: "Ferris Pemberton" & "Baptist Church, Greenport, NY"|
|142-143||photographs: "Aunt Addie" & "Aunt Nell" (2)|
|150-151||photographs: "James Allen Francis" & "West Medford Baptist Church"|
|156-157||offprint of Matthew Francis photograph postcard: "Tower in Lawrence Fels, West Medford"|
|162-163||photograph: Pat Francis [cat]|
|178-179||letter concerning Francis' illness|
|180-181||photographs: "Miss Phelan's house, Cambridge, Mass." (2), "Fellow inmate" (2)|
|182-183||news clipping, Harvard Alumni Bulletin 5/13/50|
|184-185||letter of appointment to American University of Beirut, 3/21/23|
|186-187||photograph: RF with students in Beirut; carbon of letter from Dr. F.J. McIntyre|
|188-189||letters (2) from Bancroft Beatley; news clipping and news photo of Harvard|
|192-193||photograph: "Theodore Ward"; typescript epitaph for Theodore Ward|
|196-197||photographs: "Schoonmaker family"; [?]|
|198-199||photographs (2): "Hildegard"|
|200-201||photograph: "Frost's house on Sunset Avenue"|
|204-205||photographs: "Jones Library" (2); "Prof. Arthur John Hopkins" [?]|
|218-219||Harvard Divinity School news clipping; letter to Harvard Divinity School|
See also Regina Codey Papers (MS 314), and Arthur E. Niedeck collection (MS 295), audio tapes of readings. Additional collections of Robert Francis's papers are located at Syracuse University and the Jones Library in Amherst.
The following books and broadsides by Francis -- nearly a complete set of his works -- have been transferred for storage with the Rare Book collections:
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Cite as: Robert Francis Papers (MS 403). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.