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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Letters, Francis Joseph Henry (Frank) (1897–1964)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Francis Joseph Henry (Frank) Letters (1897-1964), classicist and writer, was born on 6 December 1897 at Gympie, Queensland, eldest of four sons of Francis Letters, a pharmacist from Scotland, and his Melbourne-born wife Sophie, née Bastian. His father had been educated in Belgium and his mother in Vienna. The family moved to Brisbane in 1906 (where Frank attended a Catholic school) and to Sydney in 1910. Continuing his education at Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, and the University of Sydney (BA, 1918; MA, 1921; LL B, 1926), he graduated with first-class honours in Latin. He was coached in Greek by Christopher Brennan, whom he admired.

Disappointed at not being offered a position at the university, Letters studied law and coached students. He visited Europe in 1926. In addition to classical languages, he was fluent in French and German, and acquired some Spanish, sufficient Italian to master Dante and enough Hebrew to read the Old Testament. Back in Sydney, he was admitted to the Bar on 28 July 1927 and practised until 1937, while applying in vain for university posts. He coached Governor Sir Philip Game's son, and enjoyed vice-regal patronage of his first slim book, Darkness and Light and other Poems (1934). At St Martha's Catholic Church, Strathfield, on 5 October 1933 he married Kathleen Mary Logue, a 23-year-old violinist.

In 1937 Letters obtained an acting-lectureship in Greek at the university. Early in 1938 he was appointed foundation lecturer in English and Latin at New England University College, Armidale; his salary of £400 was about half his combined earnings from the Bar and coaching. Greek was not taught at the college and he wrote acidly of the 'Greekless Athens of the North'. Letters published—sometimes privately—a scholarly work, Virgil (c.1943, revised, New York, 1946), poetry, The Great Attainder (1943) and Aurora Australis (Sydney, 1963), and one book of essays, In a Shaft of Sunlight (Sydney, 1948). He contributed verse and essays to Southerly, Quadrant, Twentieth Century, A.B.C. Weekly and Catholic Weekly, and also wrote for the Church. Only his major academic publication, The Life and Work of Sophocles (London, 1953), was well received in academic circles. In 1956 the National University of Ireland conferred on him an honorary D.Litt.

Widely read and enormously knowledgeable, Letters had a lively interest in all matters of the mind. His manner was gentle, his sense of humour quizzical and his laugh boisterous. He was 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, with brown, wavy hair which turned white in later years. He cultivated his legendary reputation as the 'absent-minded professor' because it left him largely free from the distractions of university politics, about which he cared not a whit. All the while he watched as men he believed less qualified obtained promotion. Appointed associate-professor in 1957, he was overlooked when the chair of classics was created in 1959. His indifference to administration counted against him, as did his attacks in the early 1950s on the ascendancy of economists and the 'rise of barbarism' in Australian universities.

Letters' Catholic faith was central to his life and work, and contemporaries remarked on the serenity it gave him. He shared with many Catholics a sense of being alienated from the culture of the majority and believed that anti-Catholic prejudice had blighted his academic career. In 1960 Pope John XXIII appointed him a knight of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great. Letters retired at the end of 1963. Survived by his wife and four daughters, he died of cancer on 23 September 1964 at Armidale and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Kelly (ed), For Service to Classical Studies (Melb, 1966)
  • K. Letters, History Will Out ( Armidale, NSW, 1997)
  • University of New England External Studies Gazette, Oct 1964
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Apr 1960
  • Northern Daily Leader, 24 Sept 1964
  • Letters papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Letters, Francis Joseph Henry (Frank) (1897–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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