In our continuing exploration of the history of the Humanities Series at Boston College, its contribution to the burgeoning cultural and intellectual life of the university, and its facilitation of unique literary encounters, we look next to Robert Frost. Frost had significant associations with the Series and with Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, its devoted champion. For the Humanities Series, the great American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner stands at the genesis. As Father Donovan notes in his History of Boston College: “The origin of the Humanities Series is usually traced to a lecture given by Robert Frost . . . [who] spoke in the Campion auditorium on April 3, 1957, reading and discussing his own poetry” (p. 243). In his own reflections on the origins, Father Sweeney described how the Series was inaugurated with a gift of $2,750 from the engineer and philanthropist David Bernard Steinman. At that time, the sum was enough to entice nationally recognized talent, among those slated for the first cycle was Robert Frost. During its first four decades, Frost—along with W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Janeway, James Reston and Susan Sontag—would be one of the figures to visit on at least six occasions. The popularity of the Steinman Visiting Poets Series of 1957-1958, in which the Frost lecture played a marquee role, “persuaded the administration to fund the Humanities Series” on a perennial basis, Father Donovan writes in his History of Boston College (p. 243). Father Donovan goes on to laud the Humanities Series as “enormously successful”, “perhaps the most enduring, popular, and high-quality lecture and artistic series on campus”, which drew an “appreciative and discerning audience from the academic and artistic community in the Boston area” (p. 242). Frost’s visits were integral to that early success of what has gone on to become the Lowell Humanities Series.
In his own account of the early history of the Humanities Series at Boston College, Father Sweeney described its genius as the viva vox of the great texts, the dynamic embodiment of the great literary insights that students learned about in class, but got to interact with in the Series. Students, “heard the great texts that they had analyzed in class come alive in the voices of their writers.” The living presence of the authors drew the audiences into the Humanities Series events by the flocks. With particular mention of Frost’s lively performance and enactment of his poetry, Sweeney reminisced, “That is why thirty school buses were parked around Roberts Center the last time Robert Frost came to read. Why the great crowd rose, stood in silence while the old poet walked down the aisle, then greeted him with a storm of applause as he reached the platform”. Rumored to be one of Sweeney’s personal favorite poets, Sweeney articulated Frost’s special role in the success of the Humanities Series 20 years later,“Each of Robert Frost’s readings was a signal triumph, with the last one [in 1962] gathering students from thirty universities and fifty high schools in what was to be an entire New England generation’s farewell to the national poet.” (Edited typescript by Francis W. Sweeney titled “History of the Humanities Series”, Box 3, Folders 15 and 16, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.)
Negotiating, at their first encounter, through Frost’s literary secretary, Kathleen Morrison, as already by this time Frost’s widespread reputation had him in high demand, Sweeney first inquired about bringing Frost to BC in April of 1957. A stipend of $400 plus expenses was offered . According to Sweeney’s recollection, it was Boston College’s collection of the papers of Francis Thompson, whose haunting poem “The Hound of Heaven” had enraptured Frost from an early stage in his own craft, that initially enticed the Pulitzer Prize winning poet to the Humanities Series, that led him not to flee down the labyrinthine ways, but rather to seekest out Boston College. In any case, following Frost’s first visit to Boston College both parties seemed to be enamored. Frost returned every year during the Spring for the following five years, and had plans to return on a seventh occasion in 1963, the year of his passing. The Humanities Series offered him increasing honoraria of $500 then $700 and up to $1,000 for his performances. More than that, Sweeney wrote to Frost, via Morrison, on May 15, 1961, that his presence at and commitment to BC had rendered the cultural “debt in astronomical figures. ” (“Financial Records,” Box 4, Folder 12 and “Letters to Robert Frost”, Box 24, Folders 11 & 13, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.)
By the end, Father Sweeney could hardly restrain the effulgence of his praise for the old poet. In a letter dated May 1962, he claimed that another future visit from Frost would be awash in “the great wave of affection that engulfs you when you come”. Later in that same month, following Frost’s 1962 visit he echoed the unbridled “thanks of four thousands” to Frost for his presence there. In an earlier year, when it was uncertain whether Frost would be able to repeat his visit, Father Sweeney wrote to him on July 15, 1958 that the Humanities Series would be simply “incomplete without [him].” In June of 1960, Father Sweeney professed: it would be “difficult to express our gratitude for [Frost’s] unending courtesy to this college.” Recollecting the first visit of Frost to Boston College in 1957, from the nostalgic gaze of 20 years of success later, Father Sweeney wrote that his audience met him with a “mixture of exuberance and awe” (Box 24, Folders 11 – 13, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
With such fondness and admiration for the poet, Father Sweeney sought to guard carefully his treasured guest, as an interesting incident during the reception on the occasion of Frost’s May 2, 1962 lecture demonstrates. It seems a lady from the community, whom Father Sweeney claimed had “psychiatric leanings” but whom he was quick to say “was no guest of mine”, joined the reception and had Frost’s ear for some time at great “annoyance” to the old poet, though Father Sweeney does not disclose for what reason. Father Sweeney recounted how he had “engaged six policemen and twenty ushers to protect [Frost]” from just such an occurrence. Not enough information is captured in the records to make a judgment about the nature of this interaction. But it might be said that here we see Father Sweeney being forced to navigate the sensitivities of celebrity; the challenges to hospitality that present themselves to the growth of any endeavor on such a scale (Letter from Sweeney to Frost dated May 4, 1962, Box 24, Folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
Greatness it was, nevertheless, that the Humanities Series encountered during its affair with the poet Frost. Many of the audience members long remembered the invigoration of the campus upon such an event as a lively personal reading from Frost, during this transitional time in the history of Boston College and its influence in the world. The connections forged would not be easily forgotten. Father Sweeney would forget least of all. Towards the end, when Frost was chosen by President Kennedy to recite at his inauguration, Sweeney wrote to him afterwards that, “The President could not have made a better choice than yourself to speak for the really important matters in our culture. I was never prouder of you than when I watched you on TV changing the homespun wool of our New England Speech into poetry’s cloth-of-gold.” It was a characteristically fitting gesture from Father Sweeney to the poet “for whom wisdom and innocence are one”, the poet who “searched for truth with the passion of a lover”, in Father Sweeney’s assessment. (Letter from Father Sweeney to Robert Frost date January 26, 1961, Box 24, Folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
The correspondence between Father Sweeney and Robert Frost is available for research in the Burns Library Reading Room. You can also learn more about the Humanities Series by reading my past blog posts, one from last semester on Susan Sontag and a second post from Spring 2012 “Honoring the Humanities“, which gives an overview of the history of the Humanities Series. For more information, read the finding aid for the Humanities Series Director’s Records or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- James Daryn Henry, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & BC Doctoral Candidate, Department of Theology