On Robert D. Richardson and the Art of Excavating Other People’s Lives
The Biographer Who Crafted Stories of Self-Transformation
Robert D. Richardson, who died in June, was known as an intellectual biographer. He should be known as a biographer of how to live. More specifically, he should be known as a writer who sought out and built scaffolding for the possibilities of self-transformation—his own and his readers’. His life’s work, you could say, was helping the dissatisfied see the scattered seeds of potential transformation.
He was, himself, one of those people you hear about who reinvent themselves in the middle of life. Though he ultimately made his mark as a biographer, he did not start the activity of life-writing until he was over 40, and did not publish his first biography until the age of 52. This change in focus was spurred by earlier disappointments, but as he moved forward, seeking a new way, he also was not entirely aware of what he was doing. He did not wake up one day and decide to write a biography, but instead looked back and found he was already well along that path—and seeing this, put on the right shoes and carried onward.
When he began writing his first biography, he already had an established career as an English professor at the University of Denver. He ran the honors program, was an editor for the Denver Quarterly, and devised the key principles for a plan to transform campus academic life. He had published books with well-regarded presses. With his colleague and good friend Burton Feldman, he collaborated on The Rise of Modern Mythology, which became a standard in its field.
And yet, the sheen of his CV belied his unfulfilled yearning to make a lasting contribution. Of his first book Literature and Film, one reviewer wrote, “His essays read like nothing so much as lesson plans for College English Departments seeking to jazz up their curricula with visual aids.” Another called it “a book which will fill a need until a better one comes along.” His next book, a few years later, edged closer to the subject that would transform his career, yet this effort did not garner many readers. “Academic monographs seemed to have become printed memoranda for colleagues,” he later remarked. He was doing respectable work, but had not yet done anything that met his own sense of ambition or made the kind of difference he wanted to make.
The beauty and meaning of literature had led him into a career that was, as he reported it, defined by dreariness. He told Feldman, “I toil away at mountains of paper work, [and] feel like a clerk in a Babylonian bureaucracy, filling up the days with form letters.” This note of frustration sounded repeatedly in his letters of the early 1970s. “I move around from place to place so fast that my feet no logner get any traction so I reamin suspended, a few feet oustside pioneer Hall, endlessly rushing in place to a meeting of the unwilling that began a wuarter of an hour ago, will accomplish only the glum distribution of yet more purpble printed sheets and will leave everyone feeling, as HenyrMiller put it, like a fucked-out piece of cheese.” He seemed bored by the formality of having to play anything straight—renaming Feldman “Bertolucci Feldomini” and referring to a popular author as “Von Curtegut.” His rechristenings and misspellings read not merely as playful, but also as another sign of discontent.
He was on the lookout for some new venture. With Feldman, he made plans for launching a journal on myth and then got the idea of founding “another real press in Denver.” Neither of these schemes were realized, but he knew he could do something greater than he had so far. As he was fond of saying later in life, “While others judge us by what we have already done, we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing.” This quotation recites Longfellow precisely, except it silently switches the two halves of the original sentence. Richardson’s rendering turns a defeating perspective into one of motivation. It emphasizes the importance of holding on to the feeling of capability, where deliberate action starts.
The breaking point—or break-through point—arrived with the reception of a paper that used Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques to understand Thoreau’s writings on indigenous Americans. After working on it for a year, he thought he had come up with something wonderful, and presented it at a scholarly seminar. When he asked for feedback after delivering the paper, an academic replied, “Well, it doesn’t make much sense because we’re now all reading the Geneva School, isn’t that right?”
The response triggered self-doubt. “Am I that horsepower sort of person who can make a big mark on literary criticism,” Richardson asked, “or just part of the machine?” That question led to three realizations, which I’ll present in Richardsonian list-fashion: 1) “There’s nothing as out-of-date as fast as yesterday’s newspaper or last year’s critical thought.” 2) “I really don’t need this wall of theory in between me and the books I love.” And 3) “I want to write for somebody besides the professors. I don’t want to ignore them, or be ignored by them, but they’re not the exclusive audience.”
He wanted to write for the broadest audience: the general reader.
Another colleague, the novelist John Williams, expanded Richardson’s conception of what was possible. “He insisted there was no line between writing literature and writing about literature. This gave me the courage to begin to think of myself in a small way as a writer and try to work on my style and make it readable.” Richardson learned that life-writing should be gripping, vivid, and intense, while giving a sense of the person’s daily existence that “links the reader’s life with the subject’s.”
For a subject, he chose Thoreau, in defiance of academic expectations. The respectable 19th-century American writers for study were those with an “adequate vision of evil”: Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe. Those writers considered more optimistic—Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman—were seen as lightweights. And yet, Richardson found himself sneaking into his basement to read them. “I would feel better about life and about myself and about my students and my kids and everything. And I realized what I was doing: I was sort of down there slumming among the optimistic writers, and that I had better drag this up into the light of day.”
Even at this point, he didn’t plan on writing biography, but backed into it accidentally. He set out to write a book on Thoreau’s transformative reading life. Richardson the author slipped behind the curtains and put Thoreau onstage. No more sentences starting, “I will show that…” Instead, he told a story. He wanted it to “live in the senses,” to be “a pleasure to read.” He sent an early draft to his friend Philip F. Gura, who responded, “Do you realize you’ve written a biography?”
After finding an unsatisfying success along the conventional path, Richardson defied expectations at every turn, and found himself transformed, a biographer. It was not an overnight process. The book took nine years to research and write. And when he finished, he quoted his mentor, the biographer W. J. Bate, on the dedication page, signaling to the reader that through biography “we find that we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call ‘circumstances,’ ” that “we can become freer—freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”
From the time he was 18 and found himself reading The Brothers Karamazov in the wake of his 15-year-old brother’s death, he approached his reading as a quest for help. He became, as he later described Emerson, “a person who expects his reading to be useful above all,” and carried this notion of helpfulness into his own writing as a mandate. “The question for a biography,” he declared, “should be, ‘is it useful?’ ” He had noticed that in Bate’s biographies “every page offered up a usable truth, in do-it-yourself language,” and he adopted that principle, even if it was for something as seemingly small as instructions on how to effectively read poetry aloud. To make the usefulness apparent, he did not depict the success of his subjects as retrospectively assured, but captured the sense of uncertainty that permeates the present. “A book that referred comfortably to ‘the future poet’ would miss the element of the unexpected that marks so much of actual life.” He focused especially on the trials in these lives as a way of offering readers encouragement. “You, too, can get through this,” I hear him say as I turn the page. Following Bate, he would “convert the burden of the past into a survival kit for the present.”
Survival is miracle enough in dire times, but Bate wanted to offer more—to convey what he called “the greatest of classical discoveries”: “that human nature is able to remake and remold itself.” Like Bate, Richardson wrote about so-called great people as examples of the harnessing of life he believed available to all. It was not a person’s “reputation or standing” that mattered; biography “was only about achievement in that it offered the hope of achievement” to readers. For Richardson, the usefulness of biography often meant pointing out the specific steps his subjects took toward self-transformation and how they are available to others. He had come to see the study of the past as potentially “liberating, encouraging, empowering,” leading the reader to a place, he hoped, where “the question is not what is there left for me to do, but rather, what is it going to take to do what I want to do?”
The people he chose to write about were themselves figures of self-transformation, and were interested in the process of metamorphosis and of opening its possibilities in others. Richardson first recognized this in his reading at age 40. “I was struck speechless by Henry Thoreau saying, ‘This is the heroic age itself.’ And also: ‘I walk out into a nature—the same nature—such as the old prophets and poets, Moses, Homer, Chaucer walked in.’ I remember thinking, if it was true for Henry in the 1800s, it is probably true for me now.” This is not so much a knocking down of idols as a recognition that the world at the present moment is no more or less real than it ever was, that, as he summarized Thoreau, “We must show up for our own lives.”
For the second of his three big biographies, he chose Emerson, a writer who knew death, having lost his father at eight, two brothers before he was 33, his bosom friends Thoreau and Margaret Fuller in their early forties, his wife three years after the couple met, and his son who was only five. Just one of these losses would be life-defining. No wonder he wrote, after one of them, “So falls one pile more of hope for this life.” Yet Richardson discovered a fire of renewal in Emerson’s string of losses. “His whole life is about … how you remake yourself after some kind of disaster…. This man has become the great writer about hope, about rebuilding oneself, about the regenerative possibilities of the soul and the heart.”
Richardson offered the Emerson who wrote in his journal, “I am defeated all the time, yet to victory I am born,” who learned to feel “a perfect exhilaration … glad to the brink of fear,” simply from walking across “a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky.” This ecstasy of the ordinary, available on any day we have breath, is the spurned promise of the present moment. “What I love about Emerson,” Richardson said, “is the sense he manages to get through to me all the time, which is: you can do it now, you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”
The most life-giving part of Richardson’s Emerson is that he gives readers back their own selves. “His lifelong search,” Richardson said, “what he called his heart’s inquiry, was, ‘Whence is your power?’ His reply was always the same: ‘From my nonconformity.’ ” Emerson called on readers “to go alone, to refuse the good models.” He did not ask readers to follow him, but to use whatever hope and energy they take from him to find a new path. “Refuse, then, even Emerson,” Richardson said.
For his final big haul of a biography, Richardson chose to write on psychologist and philosopher William James, who faced many demons and for a long while was utterly lost in life and not terribly successful at the things he tried. He spent the winter he turned 25 “on the continual verge of suicide.” Later, he was seized by what he described as a sudden and “horrible fear of my own existence,” which created in him “a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before.” Richardson described the young James as “full of self-distrust and self-loathing, unable to accept himself, and therefore unlikely to be able to accept real affection or approval from another.” Even at 55, James wrote, “The constitutional disease from which I suffer is … torn-to-pieces-hood.”
Richardson said he wrote this biography “partly because I think it’s encouraging to know that somebody who was as bad off as William James was as a young man could amount to something.” That James was able to convert to “a life of outward-looking happiness or reasonable living—this gives one hope.” But Richardson showed that recovery and composure—even for someone like James, who bent his life to studying this effort—was not a steady or straightforward process, that James’s pattern from age 26 to 31 was “one of crash, resolution, and only partial recovery, followed by another downward spiral … halted painfully by new resolutions followed by uncertain, easily sidetracked recovery, then down again, and so on around the whole discouraging circle.” And yet, Richardson tells us, James “had a remarkable capacity to convert misery and unhappiness into intellectual and emotional openness and growth. It is almost as though trouble was for him a precondition for insight, and accepting trouble was the first step in overcoming it.”
James could not bring himself to an optimistic belief, but he could accept the grim reality on the ground—a costly acceptance, but one that helped him move past trouble and made him feel mastery over his existence. Simultaneously, he accepted the fluidness of life and personhood, and pivoted on this double acceptance to reclaim what Erik Erickson later called “the power of choice.” James’s key to self-transfiguration was to become conscious of available choices and then direct them to a better end. All of this took heroic effort, but what Richardson found so valuable and worth sharing about James is that “he is able to persuade you that you have more energy in you than you have yet learned how to use.”
By the time of his James biography, Richardson’s transformation into a biographer was complete: in this and all future publications, he dropped any mention of his pre-biographer books. After spending most of three decades writing three large, innovative biographies, he was 71. He could have retired, knowing he had made a herculean contribution to American letters. Instead, in the next decade, he transformed himself again, producing three little book gems, all following out of his dedication to life-writing, but none a traditional biography, and in some ways more original than the books by which he is best known.
In the first of these books, a speculative history, he returned to Emerson, opened the coffin, and asked: What would you say if you wrote an essay about writing itself? Again, he aimed at usefulness. He aimed to make Emerson not a burden or an obstacle of impossible-to-scale genius, but rather a colleague—someone in the same endeavor with writers now, who would cheer at their accomplishments on the page just as we cheer his. Richardson aimed to hand a new generation of writers a set of tools they could use to further their mastery of the craft. Tools, not rules—things that have worked in the past and may work again and may lead to discovering new ways to make a page sing—tools for a writer’s transformation. This biographer, who had excavated the inner lives of his subjects by reading what they read, now shared with living writers tips for using their reading to plant and harvest their own language gardens. His purpose was to empower readers, to wake them up, unshackle them, elevate them to their best selves, and push them beyond that and back out into the world.
The last of his winter gems, written in his seventies and early eighties, was perhaps the most miraculous of his transformations. An intertwined biography of two people, he pushed the form still further by picking people separated by seven centuries and a continent, connecting a 12th-century Persian desert poet to his 19th-century English translator. At the end of a career focused almost entirely on one American century, Richardson now looked abroad, deeper into history, and past the English language. He took up Farsi, and spent an hour writing in the language each morning, producing beautiful practice sheets. He stretched himself to see and articulate connections.
The job of a biographer is to create a sympathy between past and present, and now he pulled the reader further than he ever had before, and ended his last book by listing the “gifts for the present age” that were offered by a translation of centuries-old Persian poems—because for Richardson, good writing was always a gift awaiting a reader’s receipt.
Richardson’s writerly transformation paralleled and was informed by a perpetual spiritual conversion. According to a conference bio he wrote about himself, his spiritual journey unfolded like this:
“He started out as a Unitarian Christian (there is one god at most), transitioned to Unitarian-Universalism (it’s Thursday; today we’ll be Buddhists). He is now a lapsed U-U, finding more hope and inspiration in Lucretius than in formal religion. There may be gods, sure, but they have not the slightest interest in us. The earth and everything on it came into existence by chance, which is another way to spell freedom…. Richardson subscribes to what Chesterton called the ‘mystical minimum,’ which is exultation that things just are, that there is something rather than nothing…. Richardson also believes, he says, in the mystical two-step, the joyful and commonplace dance of relatedness that is possible between oneself and almost anything or anyone else.”
He seemed to like the suggestion “that God may not be a noun, but a verb,” linking this notion to “the hope of beauty that sets” creators on their paths.
While Richardson convinces me that the possibility of some kind of transformation is open to all, and that the hard times he and his subjects experienced were nothing short of genuine, I also note these writers’ social advantages. A white male tenured professor has benefits that help him achieve his self-transformation. And although Richardson sometimes gave the impression that anyone can do anything at any time, he also wove in notes of counterpoint, like his depiction of “the mature Emerson who knows that there are forces at work that can utterly and majestically defeat any individual effort.”
A focus on self-transformation, without a larger sense of one’s obligations to society, would be narcissistic, but for Richardson, the larger purpose of self-transformation was to turn around and use that same process and those same energies for social reform, to take away barriers and make the opportunities of personal transformation more available to everyone through the transformation of society. “The decisions we make about how to live,” he wrote, are ballots we cast “for a particular kind of world.”
While he found himself deeply shaken by the state of the nation in recent years, he tried to “see things under the aspect of eternity, really see without flinching,” and let that guide his attention and his actions. And so he gave his time, wallet, brain, and body—to environmental restoration, free higher education, homelessness, AIDS relief, and racial justice, among other causes.
This work of social transformation also defined the lives of his biographical subjects. “Anything that’s working to improve the world to a pattern that doesn’t yet exist is a form of practical idealism,” he said. “And the Transcendentalists were nothing if not practical idealists. One of the hooks that persuaded me early on to pay more attention to Emerson and Thoreau and Fuller and [Elizabeth] Peabody and Lydia Child was when I noticed that every single one of them began in the study … [and] ended up in some practical social endeavor.” This group, “impatient with the ordinary forms of social life,” became activists for abolition, education, women’s rights, indigenous American rights, anti-imperialism, environmentalism, and experiments in intentional communal living. He noted that Emerson today would “be with the movement,” not the establishment, as “he was always more interested in what was coming next, and he always sort of deprecated merely defending property and merely defending the status quo.”
In James, Richardson located an explanation of society’s root problem, which he summarized as “our absolute inability to understand the motives of people unlike ourselves.” We feud in comment threads and holiday dinner tables, talking endlessly at each other and seldom feeling heard or understood. The reason people are unsuccessful in changing others’ minds, James said, is that “they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation.” And so, when people argue, they should “enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents.” If people feel listened to, they are more likely to listen, to empathize, to change. The way forward as a society, Richardson and James proposed, is to truly try to listen, and let that trying guide our responses to others. In empathy is our salvation.His whole life was devoted to the idea that literature can change a person and a person can change society.
In some ways, Richardson’s last book, the dual biography, might seem most removed from the time and place of its writing, centered as it is on poems written nine centuries ago in what is now Iran. But it is, as a whole, his book that has the social troubles of his time most firmly in its sights and aims most transparently at social transformation. Published in 2016, it included a critique of rulers who thought “there can only be one truth and one leader,” that “everyone else was subordinate or wrong.” But its broader, urgent concern was the danger of cultural absolutism, to which he countered the possibilities of understanding within and between cultures. When he began the research, George W. Bush had recently declared Iran part of an “axis of evil.” At a time when Iranians were demonized in the United States, Richardson chose to spend a decade studying their cultural heritage.
The final gift Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat has for us in our present moment, Richardson said, is that, when we read it, “one civilization speaks to another, as equals,” each with things to teach the other about what is “more humane.” In his book’s first chapter, he writes, “The long continued interest in the Rubaiyat, both in the East and in the West, suggests that instead of an inevitable clash [of civilizations], there again could be, as there has already been, within limits, an attainable but not yet attained convivencia or convivium, a way to live together.” In the last chapter, he finishes the thought: “If we can begin with conviviality, we might end up with another Convivencia, the name given to the four-hundred-year-long stretch of history from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries in which the Jews, the Muslims, and the Christians all largely got along with each other in Spain.” This 81-year-old used the last page of his last book to suggest (or plead), “Maybe we can live together.” It may sound grandiose to say that literature can change social circumstances, but his whole life was devoted to the idea that literature can change a person and a person can change society.
The context of this final book’s title, Nearer the Heart’s Desire, is telling. It comes from the following Khayyam quatrain:
“Ah Love! Could you and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits—and then
Remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”
Our biographer comments: “it is only a short step to a belief in the power of imagination to place before us the world we most want.” But again he links the making of a better world, personal or communal, with the starting point of acceptance, quoting Rumi: “The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.” From this sad but stable ground, he posits, an abiding peace can be imagined, and then built.
Robert D. Richardson—“Bob” to friends—rebuilt his boat midstream, and the enthusiasm from this feat never left him. He is known as an intellectual biographer, concerned with the thinking of his subjects, but it was his enthusiasm for their ideas’ life-altering potential that seized him and inspired his books. Behind all the ideas that most interested him is simply the motivating principle that it all matters—every quark, every tittle—and that it demands our attention, now, an attention that elevates as it transforms.