Dick Macksey: “the cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it.”



Dick Macksey at home in his library of 70,000 books.

More on the legendary Johns Hopkins University polymath Richard Macksey, who died last month. This time a lively memoir by by Bill Benzon over at his blog, New Savanna. It includes the curious story about how he wound up in the final report to the Ford Foundation on the renowned 1966 Baltimore symposium on “Structuralism” … without ever having attended. 

On the evening of July 22 I learned that Dick Macksey had died earlier that day. He was a Hopkins legend – a prodigious polymath who speaks who knows how many languages, a tireless teacher, a genial host, and an indefatigable conversationalist who owns more books than the Library of Alexandria, though only a few of them are quite so old. Everyone had said so for decades, and Everyone is now saying it again. The thing about legends is that they are based in fact, but are also used to distance the facts they’re based on.


Truth is, I probably took the course in part because I had heard the legend, about this cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it, could talk his way from Baltimore to Towson (just north of Baltimore for those who don’t know the area) by way of Lubbock, Timbuktu, Paris, Moscow, and Dublin, and who smoked a pipe. What’s to tell, strictly from memory?


Home sweet home.

I worked with Macksey for seven years between 1966, the spring of my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, and the fall 1973, when I went to SUNY Buffalo to get a doctorate in English lit. I have had occasional contact with him since then. I knew the legend. I would also like to think I glimpsed something of the man.

I came away with the impression that the Macksey-behind-the-curtain worked really hard. Of course, anyone who knows him knew that he worked hard. How else could he get it all done, teaching four, five, six courses – and on two campuses (Arts and Sciences at Homewood, the Medical School in East Baltimore), advising the Chaplain’s Office on films (not to mention hosting discussions of them in his library screening room), the editing, the correspondence, the guests, and who knows what else? His family, Catherine and Alan! But here I’d been in the middle of the maelstrom. I’m tempted to say that I felt just a bit like Mickey Mouse drowning in that whirlpool of freely associating brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. But it was Macksey himself who was riding the waves and there was no sorcerer to calm the waves. He just had to ride it out.


This is from an article that had appeared in the Hopkins Gazette:

“You needed a profession, and we didn’t have any medical people in my family, so I said, sure, I’m going into medicine,” Macksey says. “It got adults off your back when you said you were going to study medicine. And then I gradually realized that it was a way to give meaning to your life—or at least to make a plausible story.”

Bingo! “It got adults off your back.”

And he’s been doing it all his life. It’s the “adults” who insist that knowledge be divided into discipline, each carefully insulated from one another. It’s the inner six-year-old who insists that the world isn’t like that, so inquiry shouldn’t be like that either. It was the inner six-year-old piloting those flights of intellectual fancy Macksey was famous for, demonstrating that it’s the knowledge that matters, not you or me or Milton Eisenhower. He’s got the chops to fly us to the moon and back.

Read more here.
Meanwhile, a Book Haven exclusive: former student Peter Koper sent us his memories of the academic year 1966-67 at Johns Hopkins University:

Late night in a darkened Levering Hall, a flickering 16 mm. film series was overseen by a tweed and tie, dark glasses, tobacco pipe gesticulating figure with a pile of books under his arm. It was one of the only places in Baltimore to see foreign films and my first introduction to Dr. Richard Macksey. On the all male undergraduate campus populated with students fiercely focused on science, math, and engineering, we few wandering misfits – often in an LSD haze – yearned to become poètes maudits. And we had found our teacher, mentor, patron.

Dr. Macksey’s intimate, free-ranging, classes worked off an impossibly extensive list of dense books we were supposedly reading. But no matter, the real treat for hypnotized students arrayed at his feet was his non-stop stream of consciousness of the entire oeuvre of world literature. A discussion of Grotowski‘s Towards a Poor Theater would somehow end up with Antonin Artaud‘s colon cancer. Dr. Macksey was dazzling. The highest honor was to be invited to a seminar at his oriental carpeted, book packed home. He was so revered that the student weekly News-Letter I worked on ran a 42 point screaming front page tabloid headline “STRUCTURALISM!” for a news story about Dr. Macksey’s ground breaking world symposium at Hopkins.

When I became the co-editor of the Hopkins literary publication, Dr. Macksey was a loyal and caring advisor. We changed the name from the august Charles Street Review to the incendiary DeathBurger and filled its pages with radical literary screed and illustrations. We caused a campus ruckus and went over budget. It lasted two issues. But Dr. Macksey had our back and shielded us from an irate administration.

Like neolithic elders passing on wisdom around the campfire, teachers who mold us live in memory till the end. Dr. Macksey will remain in mine.

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