In Memoriam: Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
by Eric Gould, professor of English & Literary Arts
The Department of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver is deeply saddened to hear that Robert Dale Richardson, Jr. passed away on June 16, 2020, in Hyannis, Massachusetts. He was 86. After a two-year spell as Instructor of English at Harvard University — where he was a student of Walter Jackson Bate and earned his PhD in English in 1961 — Bob Richardson came to the University of Denver as an Assistant Professor of English. He taught with us till 1987, leaving his mark as one of the most distinguished and respected scholar-teacher-mentors at the University in modern times.
Bob was professor of English from 1972 till 1987 before going on to an equally distinguished career as an independent scholar and one of America’s best known and honored intellectual biographers. He was chair of English from 1968-1973, president of the Faculty Senate from 1972-73, acting dean of graduate studies for the College of Arts and Sciences in 1975-76, and Phipps Professor of the Humanities from 1979-1982. While in the Department of English & Literary Arts, he published Literature and Film, Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance and, with Professor Burton Feldman (also of the English department at DU), The Rise of Modern Mythology (1972 and a second edition in 2000). Following these works, he turned, as it were, to a second career as an independent scholar with time spent also at the University of Colorado, Yale, Wesleyan, and the University of North Carolina. His new focus was an extension of the old, which had long been centered on the study of myth. He turned mainly to intellectual biography, publishing a set of major studies of American thinkers (Thoreau, Emerson, and William James). These began right at the end of his career at DU with Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), and with the addition of the studies of Emerson and William James, he produced a much praised trilogy that won prizes and drew close attention from important reviewers and scholars. As the distinguished Irish novelist John Banville put it, the trilogy is “one of the glories of contemporary American literature.”
Bob Richardson’s passing has inspired lengthy and eloquent obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. They recognize Bob’s extraordinary talent for thorough research and in-depth readings of texts within their historical contexts. He was a voracious reader, an inspiring conversationalist, an elegant and extraordinarily lucid writer, and a much-loved mentor to many students and younger faculty. One of his more famous students, The Washington Post columnist for national affairs, David von Drehle, recently remembered Bob in a touching opinion piece entitled “How America can shift to the right direction” (June 19, 2020, The Washington Post). As Dave puts it, “He [Bob] identified with each of his subjects on the man’s own terms: with Thoreau as a scientist, a naturalist and close observer of the world; with Emerson as a teacher, an optimist, a life coach; with James as a lover of human complexity, of mysteries, of all that cannot be precisely pinned down yet must be navigated.”
Bob will be remembered by those who knew him as a man of great empathy and perception, remarkable erudition, and a passion for making the complex understandable. In recognition of this, the University bestowed on him the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 2008.