The Key West literary community lost one of its most brilliant and beloved members with the death of Robert D. Richardson last week. He was 86.
Richardson was a celebrated historian whose books included biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Mind on Fire), Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism). His honors included the Francis Parkman Prize and the Bancroft Prize, perhaps the two most prestigious awards in the field of American history.
Bob was a steady and reliable friend of the Seminar, full of good advice and goodness of heart. He served on our board of directors from 2001-2009, and our honorary board since that time. He had a special interest in supporting young and emerging writers and was a strong advocate for our scholarship program and our 2008 “New Voices” seminar.
In Emerson, Thoreau, and James, Richardson took on subjects viewed by many as the founding fathers of American intellectual life, and ones who have been extensively studied by historians for over 100 years. But Richardson’s approach was utterly new. In addition to their own writings, Richardson endeavored to read every single thing that Emerson, James, and Thoreau read — every book, every pamphlet, every article and essay. Richardson’s aim was what he called the “intellectual biography,” a work that would chart the development of the writer’s mind.
The results are thrilling. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda called Richardson’s Emerson biography “one of those exciting books that flash bolts of lightning across an entire intellectual era and up and down modern history.” Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner John Banville said Richardson’s works belong “among the glories of contemporary literature.”
While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of his subjects is impressive, it was his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives that astonishes his readers. Richardson, who was married to novelist Annie Dillard, with whom he lived in Key West on Margaret Street, had a novelist’s sense of pacing, structure, and humor. “The past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it,” he wrote.
He credited Dillard with helping to activate his writing process. “I learned from her that you have to go all out, every day, every piece. Hold nothing back. The well will refill.”
In an interview in 2013, I asked Bob what it was about Emerson, Thoreau, and James that sustained his attention over decades of research and writing. His answers point to a belief in the essential value of the American experiment, and the ever-more-urgent imperative to balance personal interests with the collective good:
“Emerson is for me the best describer of real individualism, the best explainer of why we can and must trust our best selves,” Bob remarked. But instead of the so-called rugged individualism adopted by some as a political philosophy, Bob emphasized something infinitely more humane and well-suited to our times. “In their pluralism, in their respect for mind, those three are voices for democratic individualism. Each voice counts. Every voice counts.”
Bob’s voice will continue to comfort, guide, and enlighten us through his books. But we will miss his presence and his friendship a great deal.
(—Arlo Haskell, June 23, 2020)
read: “Concord Is Where You Are Right Now“: a conversation with Robert D. Richardson (2012)
listen: “The Work of a Biographer”; Robert D. Richardson in conversation with Brenda Wineapple, James Atlas, and Judith Thurman (2013).
watch: “Biography and Fiction”; Robert D. Richardson (2013)