Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Robert Francis Papers
Robert Francis was born on August 12, 1901, in Upland, Pennsylvania, the son of the Rev. Ebenezer F. Francis and Ida May Allen Francis. In 1910 the family moved to Massachusetts where Robert finished his grammar schooling and attended Medford High School, from which he graduated in 1919 as valedictorian. He entered Harvard College that year and graduated in 1923. The next year he taught English in the Prep School of the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. During 1925-1926 he earned an Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
A few months later he moved to Amherst to teach English in the high school. Although that position lasted for one year, he established his residence in Amherst, and used it as a base for his developing career as a writer. During these early years he supported himself by his writing, and by his violin teaching.
Numerous essays he wrote appeared in newspaper columns within the next decade. Some of these contributions, were on a regular basis, for example in the Christian Science Monitor "Home Forum" column (1938-1954). In addition, Francis' poems and longer essays appeared frequently in those pages, and in numerous other publications.
His first volume of poetry, Stand With Me Here, was published by Macmillan in 1936. With this volume Robert Francis formally began his poetic career. This event prompted the attention and acquaintance 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 of encouragement and wide experience with publishing.
In August, 1937, Mr. Francis was given a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, where he met Kentucky writer James Still. Valhalla and Other Poems, his second volume, and the praise which it drew from Robert Frost, followed a year later. In March, 1939, he vas co-recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award. Mr. Francis was also involved with the New England Poetry Club, and so became acquainted with another important friend and literary sponsor, Gretchen (Mrs. Fiske) Warren. In 1942-1943 he held the Golden Rose Award of the New England Poetry Club.
In 1940, Mr. Francis moved into the one-man house which was built for him on Market Hill Road, to which he gave the appellation Fort Juniper in 1942. Here he fulfilled all of the essential conditions of his philosophy, as he stated them in his autobiography: nature, leisure, and solitude.
After serving a brief stint in the army in World War II, he took a teaching position in the English Department at Mount Holyoke College in 1944. When he again resigned from the teaching profession, he renewed his commitment to his writing career. His essays, poems, and "Country Comment" columns were a regular feature of Forum magazine, beginning in 1946. A prose work, We Fly Away, was published in 1948, and Francis published his next volume of poems, Face Against the Glass, himself in 1950. In the early 1950's he experienced what he called "Lean Years." However, several following events were to balance the scales of success. His frequent violin solo performances in churches, publications in The New Yorker Magazine and The Saturday Review were some of the highlights of the next half-decade. He was Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts University in 1955, and at Harvard in 1960. Francis spent 1957-1958 at the American Academy in Rome with a fellowship from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Amy Lowell Poetry Scholarship again took him to Italy ten years later.
His next volume of poems was titled Come Out Into the Sun, published in 1965. Robert Francis' autobiography, The Trouble With Francis, appeared in 1971. In 1972, he published Frost: A Time to Talk, his account of visits by Robert Frost in the 1950's, taken from Francis' journals. Like Ghosts of Eagles, a poetry volume, appeared in 1974. The University of Massachusetts Press handled the publication of these works, and became his regular publisher. A Certain Distance, a book of prose, "sketches" was published by the Pourboire Press. Francis' Collected Poems, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, appeared in 1976. Francis On the Spot: An Interview With Robert Francis conducted by Philip Tetreault and Kathy Sewalk-Karcher appeared in 1976.
Mr. Francis gave numerous readings at the Jones Library (the public library of Amherst), and was featured on the Five College radio station, WFCR, in a program entitled "Poems to a Listener." By his appearances he helped to advance the appreciation of poetry, particularly among the young.
The beginning of the 1980's marked a period of activity and new-found recognition for Francis: a statement of his poetics, Pot Shots at Poetry, was published in 1980 by the University of Michigan Press; the Academy of American Poets bestowed upon him its award for "distinguished poetic achievement" in April 1984, while a book of poems, Butter Hill, and a book of prose, The Satirical Rogue on All Fronts, were published later that year; in 1985 Richard Gillman wrote a laudatory article about Francis in the New York Times Book Review, and Francis' prose work, Travelling in Amherst, was published one year later.
Robert Francis died in July, 1987.