Chummy & Presumptuous: Letters between Isaac Asimov & Father Sweeney

Father Francis Sweeney, Box 64, Folder 11, Humanities Series Director's Records, MS.2002.37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Father Francis Sweeney, Box 64, Folder 11, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Lowell Humanities Series, started by Father Francis W. Sweeney as the Steinman Visiting Poets Series with a lecture by poet Robert Frost in 1957, is a longstanding and integral part of Boston College’s literary and cultural traditions. In the beginning, the series featured not only lectures given by individual guest speakers, but included multi-modal performances and events ranging from visual and studio artists to musicians. In the 1960’s, one aspect of the Humanities Series was an annual Writers’ Conference. Authors across genres were invited to come to campus and lead panels on the work and process of the writer. In 1966, Father Sweeney invited popular science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to speak on the fiction panel along with Jesse Hill Ford and Paul Reynolds.

Letter from Isaac Asimov to Father Sweeney, Box 3, Folder 67, MS.2002.037, Humanities Series Director's Records, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from Isaac Asimov to Father Sweeney, Box 3, Folder 67, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia in 1920 and moved to the United States with his parents in 1923. He started writing at a young age, worked for his parents in their candy store, and received a B.S., M.A., and a Ph.D all in chemistry from Columbia College. A prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, Asimov also served on the biochemistry faculty at Boston University. Asimov is best known for his science fiction, especially his three laws of robotics. Along with fiction he also wrote works on science, math, chemistry, astronomy, humor, and religion.

Asimov appeared at the Writers’ Conference on April 30, 1966. His wife and two children accompanied him and he was paid a speaker’s fee of $50. Asimov and Father Sweeney jokingly call the fee “coffee money” in their later correspondence, an apt description for an author who, by 1972, was charging $1500 for out of state lectures. Despite the best efforts of Father Sweeney and the requests of students, Asimov was never able to return to speak in a full Humanities Series lecture.

Letter from Isaac Asimov to Father Sweeney, Box 3, Folder 67, Humanities Series - Director's Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from Isaac Asimov to Father Sweeney, Box 3, Folder 67, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Humanities Series Director’s Records contain the correspondence that passed between Asimov and Father Sweeney from 1969 to 1972. These letters document Father Sweeney’s attempt to arrange a solo appearance for Asimov. The letters are increasingly friendly, “Isaac” and “Francis” replacing “Mr. Asimov” and “Father Sweeney,” and the content “chummy and presumptuous” as Father Sweeney characterized his own writing in one letter (Box 13, Folder 68, MS.2002.037). Unfortunately, despite the evident regard between the two, the timing was never right for Asimov to feature as a speaker in the Humanities Series. His interest in Boston College, however, as well as his respect and admiration for Father Sweeney, characterize his one appearance on campus and the correspondence that remains to tell about it. The Writers’ Conference, as an element of the Humanities Series, provided an opportunity for a favorite author to speak to BC students and engage in a series of letters that emphasize the effort and dedication of Father Sweeney to both the Humanities Series as well as student requests for speakers.

The Humanities Series Director’s Records are available for researchers at the Burns Library Reading Room.  If you have questions, please contact the Burns Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu. For more information on the Humanities Series Director’s Records Collection, look at the finding aid or view this Flickr set featuring images from the Humanities Series Director’s Records Collection.  The Lowell Humanities Series continues this year; a list of speakers can be found at http://www.bc.edu/offices/lowellhs/.

  • Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of English

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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