Robert Richardson Jr., biographer of literary giants, dies at 86

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Robert Richardson Jr., biographer of literary giants, dies at 86
In an image provided by David Carmack, the biographer Robert Richardson, Jr. Richardson, whose work as the biographer of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James was acclaimed as “a virtual intellectual genealogy of American liberalism and, indeed, of American intellectual life in general,” died in Hyannis, Mass. on June 16, 2020. He was 86. David Carmack via The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Robert D. Richardson Jr., whose work as the biographer of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James was acclaimed as “a virtual intellectual genealogy of American liberalism and, indeed, of American intellectual life in general,” died June 16 in Hyannis, Massachusetts. He was 86.

His daughter Judge Anne K. Richardson, of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, said the cause was complications of a subdural hematoma resulting from a fall.

Robert Richardson devoted 10 years to researching and writing each of his three biographies, devouring everything his subjects wrote as well as books they had read. He concluded that while they were products of the 19th century, their legacy was enduring.

“In their pluralism, in their liberation from Puritanism, in their respect for mind, those three are, together and singly, voices for democratic individualism,” he told The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2012. “Each voice counts. Every voice counts.”

“Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind” (1986) did not win any major literary awards. But it prompted a fan letter from Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” (1974). They ended up marrying in 1988, Dillard later recalled, after “two lunches and three handshakes.”

“Emerson: The Mind on Fire” (1995) won the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. In his review for The New York Times, David S. Reynolds said that the book described “in rich detail the intellectual milieu” that nurtured Emerson, and praised Richardson for his “felicitous phrasing, as when he writes: ‘Emerson’s adult life seems to have been half epiphany and half cordwood. He needed both ecstatic experience and pie for breakfast.’”

“William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism” (2006), Richardson’s biography of the psychologist and philosopher who was the older brother of novelist Henry James, won the Bancroft Prize for American history. The award jury hailed it as an “intellectual genealogy of American liberalism.”

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2009, Irish novelist John Banville said that together the three biographies “form one of the great achievements in contemporary American literary studies.”

“Aside from his learning, which is prodigious,” Banville added, “Richardson writes a wonderfully fluent, agile prose; he has a poet’s sense of nuance and a novelist’s grasp of dramatic rhythm; he also displays a positive genius for apt quotation, the result of a total immersion in the work of his three very dissimilar yet subtly complementary thinkers.”

Richardson once said, paraphrasing Emerson, that all biography is autobiography. His very choice of subjects proved his point.

He and they had Harvard and New England in common; in addition, Richardson lived as a child at a parsonage in Medford, Massachusetts, across the street from where Emerson and Thoreau had attended a meeting of what became known as the Transcendental Club.

Robert Dale Richardson III was born June 14, 1934, in Milwaukee. His father was a Unitarian minister. His mother, Lucy (Marsh) Richardson, later wrote a memoir. The family moved to Massachusetts when Robert (who preferred to use the less pretentious suffix Jr.) was a young boy.

He was unimpressed by the local literati. (“My chief interests were not Emerson and Thoreau but getting a car and meeting girls,” he once said.) Nor was he inspired by Thoreau in college.

After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he majored in English at Harvard, where he was motivated by professor Walter Jackson Bate, a literary critic and biographer and later the subject of Richardson’s book “Splendor of Heart” (2013), and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a doctorate in 1961.

In 1959, he married Elizabeth Hall; their marriage ended in divorce. In addition to their daughter Anne and Dillard, his second wife, he is survived by another daughter from that marriage, Dr. Lissa Richardson Biddle, a veterinarian; three stepchildren, Carin Clevidence, Shelly Clevidence and author Cody-Rose Clevidence; a brother, David; and three grandchildren.

He taught at the University of Denver for 23 years and then had shorter stints at other colleges before completing his academic career at Wesleyan University, where Dillard also taught.

He was not drawn to Thoreau and Emerson until he was in his 40s and found “the thread connecting these giants of America’s tumultuous formative years,” Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle recently wrote in a tribute to Richardson.

“My wish for every young person is that they might find a mentor and role model as suited to their own gifts and shortcomings as Bob was to mine,” Von Drehle said. “As a scholar, he was diligent, humble, meticulous and insatiably curious. As a writer, he was charming, lucid and deeply respectful of his readers’ time. No writing is good that fails to hold someone’s interest, he taught.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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