Farewell Richard Macksey, legendary polymath and “the jewel in the Hopkins crown” (1931-2019)


Approaching Richard Macksey with a question was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water. That was a comment made by Milton Eisenhower, brother of President Dwight Eisenhower and a former president of Johns Hopkins University. It is the best summation of the legendary polymath, polyglot, and bibliophile Dick Macksey that I know. I got to know the Johns Hopkins professor while doing research for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardHe was one of the more difficult interviews I’ve ever done. Usually “difficult” interview means that the subject isn’t forthcoming. In Dick Macksey’s case, it was the opposite: I was losing control of the interview at every moment, as digression piled on digression, anecdote led to more anecdotes, until I couldn’t remember what I had asked.

Chez Macksey: a personal library of 70,000 books, many of them rare.

Dick Macksey died this morning, after several months of ill health. He was three days shy of his 88th birthday. I have written about him in several blogposts, notably: “Western Civilization Cannot Do Without Him” here, “An Autographed Copy of Canterbury Tales? I Believe Him”  here , and “He Lived on Three Hours of Sleep and Pipe Smoke” here. He is at the heart of my Evolution of Desire chapter about the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference that brought Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and French thought to America – it’s included in its entirety in Quarterly Conversation here. Writer Kate Dwyer wrote  “Meet the Man Who Introduced Derrida to America: On the Remarkable Legacy of Richard Macksey,” a profile of him earlier this year over at LitHub. I’m personally convinced Western civilization cannot do without him. Now it will have to.

The Eisenhower remark is “a funny quote, but it doesn’t include the generosity,” according to former student Robert Friedman in the short  film below. Another, Betty Sweren said, “Dick really is the jewel in the Hopkins crown.” She added, “We all think of him as the great guru.”  The Hopkins community praised his optimistic, enthusiasm, humility: “He makes you feel like he’s learning from you as well.”

“There was always this rumor that when he was up for his PhD and doing his orals, they couldn’t stump him on anything,” the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, another former student, said. “Finally, exasperated, one of his interviewers decided to ask him about 16th-century French cooking or something and he goes, ‘well that’s great that you should ask that question, because it happens to be one of my hobbies.’”

His lifestyle was his teaching, too.

His legacy will live on in his unimaginably comprehensive personal library of 70,000 volumes. His capacious campus home was turned over to them. Among the many treasures: a signed copy of Proust‘s Swann’s Way, first editions of Faulkner, Hemingway, Wharton. Dick Macksey’s library was featured in Robaroundbooks’s “Bookshelf of the Week” here. In the combox, one former student, Bill Benzon, chimed in with a memory of his own: “I was a student of Macksey’s back in the 1960s and was in that library shortly after it was constructed (out of a garage). It wasn’t so cluttered then, but the shelves were full. Macksey was a film buff and would have people over to his place regularly to discuss films. He lived a couple blocks away from campus so it was easy to see a film on campus and then go over to Macksey’s for the discussion.”

‘His whole lifestyle became part of his teaching,” said one former student, and his door was always open to students, generations of them, with informal seminars that lasted till midnight.”There’s no topic that bores Dick. He can regale you with stories till three in the morning,” said another. His writing  was “a way of not limiting yourself to one particular way of thinking.” Well, isn’t that exactly what  the role of the humanities is supposed to be? Isn’t the absence of that precisely what’s poisoning with our thinking, our politics, our education, our public discourse?

“I don’t think there will ever be another person like Richard Macksey,” Prof. Frank Moorer. For that reason, and many others, he will be missed. Is missed already.

Postscript: On Twitter, a few posts by Sonoma State’s Dean Hollis Robbins, a former student. (We have corrected an error above, he actually died three days shy of his 88th birthday. It’s nice to know I share a birthday with him.)

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7 Responses to “Farewell Richard Macksey, legendary polymath and “the jewel in the Hopkins crown” (1931-2019)”

  1. Robert Friedman Says:

    I’m honored to be quoted above, particularly by the choice of quote.

    That wonderful home with 70,000 books—how I will miss visiting and discussing them into the wee hours and beyond.

    He was extraordinary.

    Rob Friedman

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    It was an honor to include you, Rob. And yes, he was extraordinary.

  3. Davide Panagia Says:

    With much sadness, we must say farewell to one of the most unassuming but influential intellectuals in America. By the time I arrived at JHU, he was spoken about by students and faculty alike with a kind of deference and sublime admiration that is reserved for those whose contribution to learning and teaching are mythical. He was a conservationist… of memories, of books, of traditions, of critical insights. I had very few personal interactions with him while a grad student there. By that point, in the late 90s, he was retreating from graduate life and focusing on undergraduate teaching. And yet, I will miss him dearly.

  4. Hollis Robbins Says:

    Thank you for this archive, Cynthia. You know — anyone he touched knows what a unique character he was.

  5. Efrain Ribeiro Says:

    I had the great fortune to study under Richard Macksey during the early 70’s and he was not only an incredible literary mind but his knowledge and love of film was equal to that of books. Living in Baltimore we had the opportunity to stay in touch and continue our dialogue. Earlier this month when we went for a visit we discussed doing a re-viewing of Rohmer’s Moral Tales. Unfortunately there wasn’t time for that but I will always remember his always positive attitude and those great group literary discussions in his incredible library. He was unique individual an example for us all.

  6. Billy Galperin Says:

    There was a year or so when I was in touch with Dick on a regular basis (his accessibility was legendary) regarding an article in MLN and then a talk that I arranged for him to give at Rutgers (for Comp Lit). A talk it was! Nominally about Leo Spitzer but ultimately a magisterial riff about the origins of the discipline in the US. The archive as improvisation and vice versa. Some years later I had dinner with a distinguished person who was at the famous Hopkins event that he organized as a young faculty member. Imagine all of that intelligence, erudition and energy in a rising academic! The future, as she remembered it, looked radiant.

  7. Ziad Elmarsafy Says:

    Thanks very much indeed for writing this. He was utterly amazing. Perhaps the time has come for 70K volumes celebrating his life and work.