Robert D. Richardson is the acclaimed biographer of America’s three central writers: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James. Taken together, writes John Banville in the New York Review of Books, Richardson’s three studies are among “the glories of contemporary American literature.”
Richardson’s chosen form is the “intellectual biography,” which means he attempts to read not only everything his subjects wrote, but everything they read as well. This immersion allows Richardson to tell the story of his subjects as if he were their contemporary, and to provide an uncanny portrait of that facet of the writer’s life that makes him or her worth remembering at all: the writer’s work and thought. “Aside from his learning, which is prodigious,” says Banville, “Richardson writes a wonderfully fluent, agile prose; he has a poet’s sense of nuance and a novelist’s grasp of dramatic rhythm… Can there be any more exciting critical writing than this?”
Richardson’s honors include the Melcher prize, the Parkman Prize, and the Bancroft Prize and in 1998 he was awarded an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also been a Guggenheim, a Huntington Library, and a National Humanities Center Fellow. He and his wife, Annie Dillard, have called Key West home since 1994 and he is a former board member and current honorary board member of the Key West Literary Seminar. His most recent books, are First We Read Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process and The Heart of William James.
“Literature of the Spirit is difficult to get both hands around because we mean so many different things by spirit and because the inner life—a life of the spirit—is different for each individual. For many of us, a life of the spirit is not a rejection of science or matter or ordinary reality, but is an affirmative, even a religious—but definitely unchurchy—approach to living in this world without being of it. Plato’s valuing ideas above things affirms the primacy of spirit; so does Hegel’s notion of history as the unfolding, the incarnation, of spirit in time and space. Emerson’s saying that the mind common to the universe is disclosed to each individual through his or her own mind is an affirmation of a democratic notion of spirit. Henry Thoreau speaks for many of us when he says, in his personal credo, “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.” Anyone seeking to lead a principled, plausible life pursuing a worthy goal knows the difference between the aims of the spirit and the obstacles of brute material fact. William James put it best for me when he said that we are all free to live as if there were a just and benevolent spirit overseeing us and our world.”
(Robert D. Richardson)