James Franklin Lewis was both a scientist and a poet. He was a physical science and chemistry professor from 1930 until his death in 1945 spending most of his tenure at The College of St. Scholastica from 1930-1937.
He was also a prolific writer amassing a body of work that includes 2,066 poems, 4 novels, 3 plays, 10 book reviews, 3,444 notecareds of word studies and notes for writing, and many letters. Of this work, he published 4 books, 184 poems in 62 different publications, 10 book reviews, and 1 chemistry article.
All his papers were donated by his family to The College of St. Scholastica, who finished curating this collection in April of 2012.
His eldest son, Frank Taylor Lewis, has completed a biography entitled, The Life of James Franklin Lewis: Poet, Philosopher, Scientist A Personal View with Family History available at The College of St. Scholastica's Library.
James Franklin Lewis was born on March 14, 1903 in DeSoto, Iowa. His father, James Henry Lewis, was an Englishman and Methodist minister, and his mother, Lillian (St. John) Lewis, was a schoolteacher. James H. Lewis moved his family all over the Midwest, spending just a year at a time in each town due to his inability to get along with his parishioners (Personal Correspondence, Henry Harrison, May 8, 1936, para. 6). Lewis’ father left when he was eight years old, an experience that “had a profound effect on [his] life” (Autobiography). Lillian moved her sons (Ralph Lewis born on January 13, 1905) (Frank Taylor Lewis) to Albany, Indiana near her family.
Lewis attended DePauw University in 1921 and graduated with a degree in Chemistry in 1925. That same year he entered Ohio State University and attained his Ph.D. in 1930.
Lewis’ professional life reflected his own internal restlessness. He held teaching positions at:
While teaching at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, Lewis met Janet Taylor, an aspiring Home Economics major. They married on June 16, 1937 with a quiet ceremony. They relocated to Alton, Illinois soon after, but would live in various places in the Midwest. After 1937, Lewis embarked on a quest for fulfillment; he strived to find an institution whose mission harmonized with his personal beliefs.
In his lifetime, Lewis wrote 2,066 poems, four novels, three plays, as well as hundreds of notes and letters. His persistence in being published was often met with rejection, but Lewis was relentless; “It may take ten years, twenty years, to get an audience, but I am going to be heard” (Publication Correspondence, David Gould, Feb. 4, 1938, para. 5).
Lewis’ first son, Frank Taylor Lewis was born in 1940, his daughter Barbara in 1942, and his youngest son David in 1945. Lewis died of a heart attack on October 26, 1945, only six days after David’s birth. Janet was still in the hospital recovering. The University News, the newspaper for the University of Kansas City, reported Lewis’ passing on October 31 and honored the memory of his illustrious life. Lewis was well-liked at the college and the author writes, “Lewis’ quick and charming smile, his subtle wit, and pleasing personality were familiar with everyone on campus” (The University News, Vol. 13, No. 7, Oct. 31, 1945).
Poverty drove Lewis to begin working at age 14. He did numerous odd jobs on farms, at a machine shop, a grocery store, cement gang, and he delivered newspapers every morning for five years. To put himself through college at DePauw University, he worked as a piano salesman for a brief time and then became a laboratory assistant. He graduated in 1925 with a degree in chemistry.
While working towards his Ph.D. at Ohio State University, Lewis was commissioned to work on a research fellowship for Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company based in Indiana (1929-1930). He was contracted for one year and was paid $2500. The project was abandoned by Lewis due to “ill health and general dissatisfaction….effect to be taken January 1, 1930 (Personal Correspondence to Dean R. B. Moore, Dec. 5, 1929, para. 1).
Lewis taught part-time at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio from 1928-1929 while in graduate school. He received his Ph.D. in March 1930 and began to substitute at State Teachers’ College in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
He secured a position at The College of St. Scholastica in the fall of 1930. Though he was grateful for the work and opportunity to teach, he continued to send out applications to larger institutions, fearing that a small college atmosphere would trap him in a rut. After several years in this position however, he admitted that he had grown to like the college and the Duluth area. He explained in a letter to Dr. M. Cannon Sneed, fellow chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota: “The Administration has at last discovered that I am not a religious man; and, on account of this, my tenure is hazardous…. The Dean grew hoarse trying to convince frightened mothers that I am harmless….ladies will continue to sigh that an atheist is teaching in a religious school.” Despite this discontent, he goes on to write, “I have never at any time been more comfortable in my surroundings, and I never dreamed that work could be so pleasant as I have found it here…. My job here of building up the department is, as I say, still unfinished. But although the work is not done, perhaps never will be, still I feel that I have myself little more the gain. Soon I would be in a rut; and I am far too active for that” (Letter to Dr. M. Cannon Sneed, March 3, 1934, pgs 1-3, 6).
Following his resignation at The College of St. Scholastica, Lewis wed Janet Taylor, one of his former students, on June 16, 1937. Only a few days later, the couple moved to Evanston, Illinois where Janet enrolled in summer courses at Northwestern University (Personal Correspondence to Pres. Edward H. Todd, June 23, 1937, para. 1). Lewis was offered a position at Shurtleff College via telegram on August 19, 1937 (cite telegram). He accepted the following day. They relocated to Alton, Illinois where Lewis began teaching on September 8 (Professional Correspondence, Margaret Kohlhepp, Secretary to the President, Aug. 31, 1937, para. 1)
Only a few months into his employment at Shurtleff, Lewis began his search anew, finding the religious atmosphere too stifling: “…a black cloud is gathering which may break loose [and] drown me any minute” (Professional Correspondence R. F. Fletcher, January 8, 1938, para. 2).
When his contract with Shurtleff terminated in June, Lewis began searching again. He sent dozens of applications to colleges and was met with rejection. In August he attained an industrial position in Chicago, Illinois and the Lewis family relocated once again.
In January of 1939, Lewis secured a teaching position in Chemistry at Arkansas College in Batesville, Arkansas (Professional Correspondence, College & Specialist Bureau, January 28, 1939, para. 1). He taught at Arkansas College for two years, non-consecutively. Of the experience, he said:
“It is true that a first enthusiasm often wears down a little on the stone of reality, but in this case it has not. Whether due to the South, to Arkansas, to Batesville, or simply to the atmosphere of Arkansas College, my life and work here continue to be remarkably pleasant” (Professional Correspondence, President Wily Lin Hurie, June 23, 1939, para. 2).
After his second term at Arkansas College, Lewis spent the remainder of his career at the University of Kansas City. He died suddenly in his chemistry lab of a heart attack on October 26, 1945.
Lewis began writing verses at age 12, earning him the title “Class Poet” in school (Autobiography). His writing went on a brief hiatus after a college composition teacher advised him to quit, stating that he had “too big a vocabulary and no imagination” (Autobiography). Five years later, in graduate school, Lewis picked up the pen again and rediscovered his life’s passion. He dedicated enormous amounts of time and effort to the study and writing of poetry, and in the nineteen years since then he had written 2,066 poems, four novels, three plays, ten book reviews, and hundreds of letters.
As early as 1928, Lewis sought out publishers, eager to have his prose read. His attempts were met with countless rejection letters, but William Alexander Percy of the Yale University Press advised Lewis to “pay no attention to what any critic says and to hammer ahead at your own ideals uninfluenced by praise or blame” (Publication Correspondence, William Alexander Percy, Jan 25, 1929, para. 2).
Lewis’ first writing enterprises, Wonder, a novel, and Love’s Crucible, a book of poetry, were met with either harsh criticism or complete disregard. Undeterred, Lewis continued to submit his work either directly to publishers or as entries in novel contests. Lewis’ lengthy and unfinished novel, Strange Species, is an expanded re-working of Wonder. It chronicles the journey of Case Portier as he navigates through heartache, disillusion, and the despair that accompanies leaving childhood and entering adulthood. Lewis dedicated the novel “To those college students, who in the honest quest for truth, have come to regard life too seriously.”
His hard work paid off in 1936 when publisher Henry Harrison expressed interest in Lewis’ book of poetry, Days of Pity. After several months of revisions and sometimes tense letter exchanges, the book was released in September of 1936. When Harrison asked what inspired Lewis to write the volume, he replied, “I think the inspiration comes from being impelled to write poetry….but the actual writing of it is a matter of sheer hard work, the practice of a well-learned technique” (Publication Correspondence, Henry Harrison, May 8, 1936, para. 16).
Commercially, the book did not do well; only 30 copies were sold in seven months, earning Lewis $21 (Invoice from Henry Harrison, Mar. 25, 1937). Both Harrison and Lewis were remained resolute and began negotiating a companion volume. After the release ofDays of Pity, Harrison said to Lewis, “I can’t make money on you, but it gives me a kick to know that I’m putting over a poet who is worthy of recognition” (Publication Correspondence, Henry Harrison, Nov. 29, 1936, para. 2).
Lewis chose to publish the second volume, Freedom in Bondage, a volume of 158 Spenserian sonnets, with Avon House Publishers, ultimately because they allowed him more creative freedom on matters Lewis and Harrison fought bitterly over, such as punctuation (Publication Correspondence, David Gould, Apr. 17, 1937, para. 2). Lewis believed that this work “continue[d] the tradition of… blending social and sometimes abstract thought with deeply personal feeling” (Publication Correspondence, David Gould, Aug 28, 1937 para. 3). He was so frustrated with the slow pace of reviewers that he lamented to his publisher, David Gould, “Perhaps a street brawl with my namesake Sinclair Lewis would attract some notice” (Publication Correspondence, David Gould, Nov. 26, 1937, para. 8).
Lewis’s work attracted the attention of poetry review and publisher, Alan Swallow. The two collaborated on a book of poetry entitled, Score for This Watch, which Swallow published independently in 1941 (Publication Correspondence, Alan Swallow, June 4, 1941). Beyond the Page was Lewis’ and Swallow’s second publishing endeavor. It was a small publication of sixteen poems dedicated to Lewis’ brother, Ralph. Lewis contributedBeyond the Page to the compilation Three Young Poets, where he was published alongside Thomas McGrath and William Peterson. Swallow was incredibly supportive of Lewis and often recommended his pieces to literary magazines.
Trying his hand at editing, Lewis joined up with fellow poet, Scott Greer, and the two formed a literary magazine (?) called Crescendo which ran for several issues. It featured Lewis’ and Greer’s work as well as the work of relatively unknown poets.
In 1943, Lewis was offered a position in the Chemistry Department at the University of Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri. President Decker asked Lewis to become an associate editor of the college’s literary journal, The University of Kansas City Review, which Lewis accepted. He remained an editor at the journal until his health began to decline in 1945 (Autobiography).