- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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A paper life
The Sweeney files
From 1957 until his retirement in 1998, Francis Sweeney, SJ, himself a poet and essayist, directed the Humanities Series that brought hundreds of significant writers, intellectuals, and performing artists to Boston College. Fr. Sweeney, who died in 2002 at age 86, left behind a complete record of his encounters—from Eliot to Kerouac, Frost to McPhee—all in carefully sorted and labeled folders, a life’s work contained in letters, telegrams, and notes-to-self, that occupies 38 cubic feet in Boston College’s archives. Brian Doyle, a former writer for BCM who spent two days in the Burns Library reading room this past spring battering his way through the Sweeney files, first encountered Fr. Sweeney on Linden Lane in 1987. The conversation went thusly, he once recalled:
”How are you, Father?” I said.
”I am as fat as a stuffed pig,” he replied. “I am old and my teeth need repair. But I have just had word from the poet Richard Wilbur that he will come for the Humanities Series this fall, and I must see to the details of the contract. He is the poet laureate, as you know. I do not think that I will pick him up at the airport. I wish I had a trustworthy assistant to do these things. I had one once, but he is, I believe, now incarcerated, or a graduate student, both of which are predicaments. My teaching is going well. I have too many papers to correct. I am far behind in my tasks. I have no energy anymore. Such is the wage of age. But I must tend to my writing as well. I am working on a brief piece about my mother. She was a saint. Are you new here?”
”Come to lunch.”
How terse a man’s life in inky summary, but how layered and labyrinthine in full flow; so of the late Francis Sweeney we can say quickly that he was born in 1916, educated by the Jesuits at Holy Cross, ordained by Cardinal Cushing, that he taught literature on the Heights for nearly 50 years, committed ornate poetry and mannered essays when young and then bonier and sharper work when older, and directed this and moderated that until he retired in 1998, his sight and hearing dimming, a cancer brooding in his vitals, his swan song a volume of collected poems in 1999, his spirit becoming verb again in 2002, the end.
But Francis also left behind a vast, most unusual autobiography—an epistolary epic comprising thousands of missives he wrote and received in the latter half of the 20th century, to and from some of the greatest writers in our language.
Let us begin in 1946, with a letter from a fellow priest-in-training. Both men are about 30, both two years from ordination, both poets, and Francis has sent a sheaf of dewy poems for comment and blurb.
“Thanks for the pleasure of reading your poems. [You have] a penetrating and wise eye, and eloquent and tender and flexible idiom, and a heart full of sympathies which flow along a whole level of American experience,” replies Father Louis of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Hammering on a typewriter, onto fragile blue paper, in his monastic cell in Gethsemani, Kentucky, the former Thomas Merton goes on to flag some poems as “young,” “altogether too quaint,” and “much too weak,” and he closes his note with humor: “We need religious poets . . . funnily enough, that is the thing those who are most secular actually expect of us: uncompromising and unadulterated single-minded preoccupation with the supernatural.”
So began two decades of letters, the two priest-poets sending each other books, prayers, and writer-talk. “Have you been reading Dylan Thomas?” asks Merton in 1946. “You should, if you haven’t—but steer clear of some of his prose.” 1947: “Have you ever read William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity? [I]t will help you enormously.” 1948: “I am expecting Evelyn Waugh here this evening. No doubt I will fall down on the floor from sheer admiration. There is hardly any one I have ever looked up to so much, as an artist, except Joyce and Picasso and people like that.” Scribbled at the end of that letter, by the way, in Merton’s sharp-cut scrawl: “Sure B.C. can have those ms—if Fr Abbot says ok,” which is how Boston College came to acquire the manuscript of The Seven Storey Mountain.
Back and forth they go over the years, discussing possible visits by Sweeney to Gethsemani (he never went), books Merton has borrowed from Boston College’s library (their return usually overdue), and literary projects. But the last letter in Sweeney’s Merton file isn’t to or from Gethsemani. It is from Sweeney to a woman in New York who has written to the priest in shivering despair over Merton’s sudden death (by accidental electrocution) in December 1968.
“I can well understand your feeling of bewilderment, that his living presence, which was in all he wrote, is no longer with us,” writes Francis, in June of 1969. “We do have his books and can always find him there. More than that . . . we can be sure in the mercy of God that we shall see him again. . . . In the mysterious designs of God, it may be that the sacrifice of Father Merton’s death has resulted in a better climate of peace than we have had in many years. This is the cause he believed in so profoundly.”
The very first Humanities Series letter, so far as I can tell, is to humorist Ogden Nash, in 1957. Among the last guests whose visits Francis arranged, in 1998, were the Irish poet Eavan Boland, the American novelist Richard Russo, and the Yale Russian Chorus—for the 23rd time in his tenure, by far the most appearances of any guest. Those events are Francis in a nutshell—a thorough Irishness, a sharp eye for quality in American letters, and a hilarious weakness for stages crammed with singers and dancers—the General Platoff Don Cossack Chorus, the Gijuku Wagner Society Male Choir from Japan, the Iberian Dance Theater, the Komsomol Theater of Leningrad, the Naval Air Training Command Choir. Was it Francis’s private dream to star in a musical? The mind reels.
In May 1964, an odd and poignant correspondence with Jack Kerouac opens: “Dear Mr. Kerouac [writes Francis to an address in Orlando, Florida], “This is an inquiry whether you might be interested in giving a public lecture at Boston College. I know that you almost came here as a student; perhaps you would find it interesting to visit here after the lapse of many years.” (Kerouac, a legendary track star from Lowell, Massachusetts, had been recruited for the Boston College football team but chose to accept an offer to play football at Columbia University instead.)
Kerouac apparently replies by telephone. In June Francis writes again, this time to an address on Long Island. “Dear Jack, after our pleasant conversation of a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to seeing you at Northport. I was in New York City . . . and telephoned . . . evidently you were away.” This was a period when Kerouac was fond of hiding in his basement, drinking heavily all day, and ignoring both telephone and doorbell. Francis continues: “I shall try again on my next visit to New York, and shall hope for better fortune.”
October 1964, Kerouac to Sweeney, from St. Petersburg, Florida: “I drink, wait, get drunk with friends and then get drunk WAITING for them . . . I’ll probably take a trip to a motel in Montana to write my next beautiful book, and I promise you it will be beautiful . . . meanwhile I have my St Benedict medal on my door.”
1965? Scrawled, undated, slanting childish scribble, Kerouac to Sweeney: “I wanta make a speech about Jesus at Boston College in my Name Jean-Louis of Heaven.”
December 6, 1966: another wildly scrawled letter from Kerouac (“Secret Pope of America,” he signs it) to Sweeney, asking if Francis could officiate at his imminent wedding in Lowell. Francis replies, professionally, on December 11: “I feel honored—more than I can tell you [but] the pastor has to give me permission . . . undoubtedly you know all this and have taken it up with the priests in Lowell.” December 18, a meticulously typed response from Kerouac, now in Hyannis: “[C]ome and grace us with your presence . . . it would be nice to meet you at last . . . don’t over-exert your dear priestly heart. I can always see you at B.C . . . Do I have to go to confession before my wedding?”
He never wrote to Sweeney again. Francis sent notes to Hyannis, but Kerouac was drinking away his last years; he died in October 1969.
Sweeney to Kerouac in 1964: “Jack, I wish I could see you and talk with you about liquor. I know how you feel and how you find this the nearest refuge. But—this kind of retreat will burn and numb and eventually destroy.” Sweeney concluded: “I pray for you and ask that you pray for me.”
A slim file contains a sweet sidelong correspondence, with Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. 1963: Sweeney sends her a condolence note after the murder of her son. She replies with a prayer card on which is printed, along with John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s favorite scriptural passage, from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, perhaps his most famous presidential remark: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. 1972: Francis sends her an essay of his that had appeared in the New York Times. She replies that she will copy it for her grandchildren. “I always try to impress upon them the fact that they should use their extraordinary advantages not only for their own amusement, but also for the benefit of others in the community,” she writes, signing off, “Your respectful child, Rose.”
A lifetime of tiny fussy touches: francis addressing Pauline Kael, at the New Yorker, to correct something she’d written about the Saint-Gaudens’s bronze sculpture opposite the Massachusetts State House (not bas-relief but haut-relief); telling James Joyce’s grandson Stephen that his grandfather’s works are indeed not “an open book to every reader”; specifying sheet cakes and cranberry juice for post-reading receptions; arranging for a bagpiper at Seamus Heaney’s readings; paying $20 to print Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial” in the Heights; visiting (in Kilkenny) the novelist Jennifer Lash, among whose six children were two who grew to be the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes (in my mind’s eye I see Francis beatifically blessing the boys, then ages 13 and 8); recounting, to the editor of the New York Times Book Review, how Frost told him he had found Francis Thompson’s book-length poem “The Hound of Heaven” in Boston’s Old Corner Bookstore, and bought it, said Frost, “with all the money I had, which was a dollar and fifty cents, and I walked back to Lawrence—twenty-five miles—with this book in my hand”; Francis presenting Frost with an opera cape after a reading, which the poet “accepted cautiously”; Francis writing President Gerald Ford in December 1974 “concerning the recent insult offered to Pope Paul by Mr. Butz, Secretary of Agriculture”—who had said “He no playa da game, he no makea da rules” in reference to the papal stricture against contraception—causing, Francis wrote, an insult to the pope and “to American citizens of Italian extraction . . . I ask respectfully that you seriously consider the future usefulness of this man in a crucial hour in our history.”
Lots of people said no to his invitations, of course. Edmund Wilson sent one of his famous printed cards: “Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to” on which he had carefully checkmarked “Deliver Lectures.” “I am not a public speaker and don’t do lectures or talks of any kind,” wrote John McPhee in 1991. “Right now I am working on a manuscript that feels as if it might get itself done by early 2063. I am totally burrowed in with it. It has to do with California rocks.” (It was finished, somewhat before 2063, as Assembling California, the final volume of McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.) And the polymath Robert Graves, replying from Mallorca in 1971: “Many thanks for the invitation to Boston, my favorite Northern City [but] I do not wish to pretend that I can stomach the (to say the least) unchristian politics of the present Administration.” And Graham Greene, to whom Francis wrote twice. The first gentle refusal came in 1962 via Greene’s secretary Josephine Reid: “[Greene] will not be able to come lecture for you as he has a rooted objection to speaking in public because he says he is such a bad speaker and prefers not to embarrass his audience or himself.”
Katharine White (“Mrs. E.B. White,” as she noted helpfully in her handwritten letter) wrote in 1976 that “My husband . . . has to refuse this generous offer. He wishes he could speak in public, and especially to students . . . but to appear in public and to make a speech literally makes him sick. He tried it once on a Memorial Day during World War II and it so unnerved him that he was undone for two—no, four—weeks. It was a good speech, too.” Sweeney replied instantly, observing, among other matters, that “I think everything I write owes quite a bit to my reading of Mr. White. Perhaps he would be inclined to ask me not to let anyone know.”
“Dear Mr. Auden,” writes Francis in 1957, “this is an inquiry whether you can come to Boston College one day during the [next] academic year for a lecture. . . Our lectures this year are being held on Wednesday afternoons at four. The lecturers are earnestly desired to remain afterwards for tea . . . Please tell me what fee we might have the honor of offering you.”
Wystan Hugh Auden, who had won the National Book Award in 1956 for The Shield of Achilles, did come the next year, the first of six visits, all apparently for the same $500 fee, and each a “luminous reading with much wit and original comment on the human condition,” as Francis wrote happily. The two men wrote back and forth steadily, Auden by scrawl and telegram until he died in 1973.
“He stood hunched over the lectern,” Francis wrote in eulogy, “a tall man in a rumpled dun suit and grey carpet slippers. He read without dramatic emphasis, his voice husky now but clear, letting the poems unroll their music like bolts of tweed and broadcloth. He did not ‘speak’ his poems as Frost did, lifting his forefinger like a schoolmaster, nor rock his shoulders with the meter as Eliot did. . . . He was an original, humorous, patient, completely candid and radically humble man troubled by genius. . . . Along the coastlines and harbors of letters, in the present hour’s constant labor, and in the life beyond time, Auden knew where things were.”
There was a moment, as i sat in the buttery bars of light in Burns Library’s reading room that I felt a pang. Not because I was pawing through a shy man’s tracks—I know very well that this rummaging, this close attention, is exactly what Francis wanted—but because for the most part now we speak electric, and when our inboxes swell alarmingly we delete the gentle and thorny and hilarious voices of our friends.
September 1961: a young writer in rural Georgia replies to Sweeney’s invitation to lecture at Boston College. “I very much appreciate your invitation,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “However I have already accepted invitations to go to two other colleges.” Sweeney replies instantly with offers of special arrangements. “I am afraid my physical limitations just won’t permit it,” she replies, gently.
Francis keeps trying. O’Connor, June 1963: “If you would be content with a lecture entitled ‘The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South’ and if you could have me . . . when the snow is off the ground, I would like to come.” They settle on April 16, 1964, agree to a private dinner before the lecture, a reception afterwards with students. “I prefer not to be involved with third floors,” writes O’Connor on February 11, 1964. “I am sure you have had decrepit speakers before.”
Eight days later she writes to Sweeney again: “I am distressed to have to write you that the doctor has just told me I must go into the hospital for an emergency operation.” She asks for his prayers. May 1964, a handwritten letter: “The operation I had was a success but unfortunately it set in motion my chronic trouble, disseminated lupus, a mean and rather unpredictable disease.”
She died on August 3, 1964, age 39. Among Francis’s papers I find a handwritten, heavily edited manuscript, Prepared but not given, Mass in St Patrick’s NYC 7 Aug 1964 scrawled in the corner.
“Consider the lilies of the field how they grow,” he wrote. “Consider the mysterious ways of the providence of God, who, in a world in which most of us are distinguished only for our determined mediocrity, raises up the hidden and the humble so that they go before us like a shining light. . . . Consider Mary Flannery O’Connor, who understood better than most of us what Our Lord meant when he said that the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. . . . She knew . . . how inevitably [men and women] are tempted to evil and summoned to luminosity. And as she drew from her great compassionate heart her smiling histories of man’s failure and rare triumph.”
In 1957 Francis writes to Faber and Faber Publishers in London inquiring as to whether one of the firm’s partners would be interested in delivering a lecture at Boston College.
“I am much pleased that you should wish me to lecture,” replies T.S. Eliot, “[but] I am writing now to explain that on this visit I hope to defray my expenses entirely by poetry readings instead of giving any lectures. A lecture requires several weeks of preparation and I am anxious to avoid such distractions from the work I have in hand. If you did wish me to appear at Boston College therefore, I should be interested to know whether a reading would be acceptable, and what fee you propose to offer.”
A reading was acceptable to Sweeney, the fee was a thousand dollars, Francis carefully filed a Petition for Permission to Import Nonimmigrant Aliens with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Eliot appeared, accompanied by his new wife Valerie, on May 14, 1958. “It was an experience we shall never forget, to listen through more than an hour to the magnificent voice weaving the rich texture of the poetry like velvet and silk and cloth of gold,” wrote Francis to Eliot afterwards. “Please remember this campus as a place where the Eliots are held in especial affection.”
So began a correspondence of years, Sweeney inviting Eliot back whenever he wanted to come “on whatever terms you may [choose]“—the one time in all his correspondence I find the parsimonious Francis throwing open the coffers.
Eliot came again, in 1961, again to an enormous crowd and wide acclaim, and after he died in January of 1965 Francis kept up his correspondence with Valerie until his own death in 2002. There is a sweet letter from Valerie to Francis in July 1965. He had sent roses and a note of condolence; she replies, “You will be glad to hear that my husband’s actual death was gentle and he bore his sufferings beforehand with great patience and sweetness . . . He was sent home after a short spell in hospital . . . because he kept asking for me in his sleep. As the ambulance men carried him in the frontdoor [sic] he shouted ‘hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!’”
Francis sent her roses every January thereafter until he died.
Something there was between the priest and the poet, some warmth of heart, some common road, for their letters are the easy ones of friends, not inviter and invitee. When Eliot, a devout Anglican, received the Catholic Book Club’s 1963 Campion Award on a February night at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, one of the speeches was made by the priest from Boston, a man “not too tall and not too thin,” as he once said to me, grinning. In Sweeney’s papers I find both the draft and the finished talk as delivered. Excerpts:
“[Eliot] found the highest function of art in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality. . . to bring us to a condition of ‘serenity, stillness and reconciliation.’ . . . This same commitment to an order in the world had its strongest and most astonishing epiphany in the poetry. He had shown us ‘fear in a handful of dust.’ Now he showed us faith and hope in a ‘crowned knot of fire.’ . . . It is possible, but I think difficult, to exaggerate the effect of Mr. Eliot’s Christianity upon the academic world. Here was a man who had gotten rid of all illusions, and then, still completely disillusioned, had come upon the Christian faith as something beyond illusion.”
After a number of hours of reading letters to writers, I conclude that I should write an epistolary roman à clef starring Francis and money. The deft offer of x to one writer and y to another, gauged by some inner calculation of merit and magnetism known only to Francis. The courtly what fee might we have the honor of offering you to one writer and the equally courtly the budget does not permit at this time to another. The infinitesimal elevation of fees paid to performers who return for encores. The free hand with one, the exquisitely razored negotiation with another. Sweeney to the poet John Berryman: “[I do not ever] regret paying a poet a high fee but rail bitterly at the hack novelists and self-help swamis who collect fees of eight hundred or a thousand. While the living Homer begs his bread.”
Utterly weird moment, reading through Francis’s cascade of correspondence: a letter to him from me with a raw ragged draft essay of mine on Jack Kerouac. After being startled I smile, for I see I had sent my letter undated and I remember Francis telling me how much he hated undated letters and scorned the uncivilized mules who sent them, heedless of history. The world is full of such ignoble beasts, however, which is why so many of the letters to Francis have his cramped notation of the date on the envelope or tucked deep in a corner clear of the precious prose. I can almost hear him huffing peevishly as he checks his calendar and scribbles the date on my note, his quick scrawl an arrow against entropy.
The correspondent most rudely and entertainingly familiar with Francis was the late novelist George Higgins ’61, JD’67, who was not only Sweeney’s former student but editor of the Stylus, BC’s undergraduate literary journal, when Francis was its faculty moderator. A melodramatic character who had written ads for Chevrolet, prosecuted underworld murderers, and defended G. Gordon Liddy and Eldridge Cleaver, among other high adventures, Higgins was the very definition of graphomaniac, and his letters to Sweeney roll on for pages and decades, filled with gossip and details of his writing life. His letters to Francis are a sort of journal, a catharsis, a confession. Dear Father, they begin in the early 1960s, and then become Dear Francis and finally Dear Frank—the only such salutation I find in all of Sweeney’s letters. My favorite passage in the ocean of Higgins’s letters is a rare jolt of naked emotion in what otherwise is a long parade of caperings and jibes; he is responding, in 1987, to a phone call from Francis, reporting that he, Sweeney, is about to be given an honorary doctorate from Boston College for graceful service rendered. “It’s an awkward admission for a writer to make,” writes Higgins, “but I lack the words to tell you what you’ve meant to me. . . . It means a lot to me that Boston College now formally intends to recognize what you have done for so many of us. It gives me joy. . . . Now and then the good guys win one. When they do, we all rejoice. Father, you ass, I’m very proud of you. Count the spoons. George.” Higgins’s last letter to “Frank” before he died in 1999 closes, suitably, with the word love.
So much of Francis peers through the bars of the sentences on the page. His unapologetic Anglophilia. His Irishness. His headlong love for the city of Rome. His fussiness over fact (writing, for example, to ascertain the exact order of the songs and readings at T.S. Eliot’s memorial service, the exact wording of his memorial in Westminster Abbey, the exact etiology of the name Sweeney in Eliot’s works). The fact that he is a priest to the marrow of his bones: Be at ease in the hand of God, he writes to the doomed Flannery O’Connor, with, I suspect, the sure sense of a man who has seen souls leave bodies.
And the chaos of life is similarly visible, the letters like boats on a vast ocean beneath and behind them. “Your American tragedy has shattered us,” Séan O’Faolain writes to Sweeney from Dublin on November 30, 1963. “All day, still, the Consulate here has a stream of humble people entering to sign their names and addresses to a message of condolence. . . . Some of them bear Mass cards, to be sent to Mrs. Kennedy. It is moving to see them enter, sign, look at the picture of J.F.K. on the wall with stricken eyes, and pass out in sad silence. He was an image for us of the history of so many of our millions who emigrated to America, there to achieve what they could not achieve at home.”
Sweeney to his dear friend Alec Guinness, December 1971: “We are having a pleasant year with nothing to disturb us until recently. Yesterday a group of students protesting against the university’s allowing recruiting interviews by Air Force personnel, occupied an administrative building and were arrested by police. Many of them were friends of mine, although I cannot approve of this form of demonstration.” The paragraph before this is a bow to the Lady Guinness; the paragraph after a bow to Guinness’s films; between the lines of the paragraph reporting the protest I hear students and policemen shouting angrily.
By the late 1990s Francis’s letters are thinning in volume and frequency. More and more he makes notes to himself, as aids to memory: today, on the phone . . . called Andre today . . . yesterday Robert told me. The handwriting becomes craggier, begins to slant dangerously, the words getting murkier, the scratch-outs more common. He uses faxes for the first time—or, more accurately, asks other people to use the fax machine for him. One sheet of paper very late in life is covered top to bottom and side to side with scrawled notes from months of calls, as if he could no longer find a clean page but depended on the one anchored by the phone.
Late on the second afternoon of my explorations, staring at a pile of letters more than a foot high, a mere scrap of the Sweeney collection, I realize that I have been wrong to think of Francis’s letters as a sort of autobiography; they are more a novel in which he creates a character, himself, by an act of imagination, and while this letter-writing character bears many resemblances to the real man, he is not the man I knew. The mask does not quite fit the face. Francis was a fine essayist and a respectable, if ornate, poet; what may live of his literary output are a few of the essays, perhaps; but what I will remember now is the novel he wrote over 50 years, starring a bemused priest. And, too, I realize with a start that Francis over those years was, in a serious sense, the face and voice of Boston College to much of the world: not only lecturers and performers, but the many thousands of people who came to the events. It may be that we forget that Boston College was for far longer small, poor, and obscure than it has been momentous, secure, and renowned; and for a significant part of its life its most extraordinary agent and ambassador was neither president nor player of sport, but a small priest, not too tall and not too thin.
In the end, I spent two long days in the reading room in Burns Library, scribbling notes, flipping file folders, riffling reams; but I have no illusion that I did anything but wander and wonder, picking out something here and there from curiosity and impulse. I’ll never find the time to read Sweeney’s correspondence with, say, Donald Barthelme, or with Anthony Burgess, Steve Allen, Henry Kissinger (have Steve Allen and Henry Kissinger ever been in the same sentence before?), E.E. Cummings, Ralph Ellison, Rachel Carson, Eudora Welty, Evelyn Waugh, Lillian Hellman, Czeslaw Milosz, J.R.R. Tolkien, so many more.
In my last minutes with Francis’s correspondence I flagged the files I wanted to copy, I tried to restore some order to the boxes, I gathered up my notes, returned the librarians’ pencils to them, and then I just sat there thinking of Francis, four years dead. He knew very well someone would come and riffle through his life, which is why he had been so maniacal about recording it; and while I knew him well enough to know his regard for history and Boston College’s place in it was utterly genuine, I also knew him well enough to see in his endless ordered files the story he was too shy or calculating to speak much while alive. In Francis’s letters he is the man he wished to be: poet and essayist, priest, efficient manager of matters large and small (berths on trains, sheet cakes, Petitions for Permission to Import Aliens); he is the College incarnate (suitably, in the second half of the 20th century, male, Irish American, and Jesuit); he is learned, alert, a man who lightly quotes Latin; he is not an Irish boy from the outlying town of Milford, Massachusetts, whose father died young, but Continental, traveling familiarly in Europe, welcome at the homes of great poets and actors; he is urbane, solicitous, courteous, a gentleman. In his letters he never forgets a detail, fails to bow to the ladies in the room, suffers disease or embarrassment.
Finally the librarians call five o’clock and we readers rustle and rise. A man goes around the room tucking chairs under tables. I leave Francis’s green boxes on a cart. The security guard signs me out and wishes me well. I gird against the weather and step outside and stare for a moment at Saint Mary’s Hall, where Francis lived for so many years, where he wrote so many letters, where so many letters came to him; and I say a prayer for my friend, not too tall and not too thin, and go.
Brian Doyle was the senior writer for this magazine from 1987 to 1991. He is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, Oregon, and the author most recently of The Wet Engine (Paraclete, 2005), about “the muddle and miracle of hearts.”
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