Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.
I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.
So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.
When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”
“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.
“How can I do that?”
“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)
When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”
Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.
“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.
When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.
I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.
Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.
But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.
Robert Richardson Jr., Biographer of Literary Giants, Dies at 86 (NYT)
Opinion: How America can shift to the right direction (WaPO)
The featured photo is from this article in USA Today about his biography of Thoreau
The email I wrote in 2018? looking for him when he was still there.
Dear Bob — I was looking for you online this evening and happened on a page that said you were dead. Someone left a note that was a tribute to your work on Emerson. I was stunned, wondering, “Is this true?” I kept looking and found nothing else that indicated you were no longer “here.” In doing that, I found out a lot about your recent projects and something about your current life. I hope you remember me. I think about you pretty often and how lucky I was that you were my thesis adviser, how right you were about who I am (though back at the University of Denver I didn’t have much of a clue).
I tihnk the last time we corresponded I had just finished writing a novel (with which I was in love) and I wrote asking what I should do next. You said, “Find an agent.” I followed your advice and went out in search of one — and that was the SASE days when one might be blessed with a rejection slip on actual paper. One of these said, “You need an editor,” and he was right.
My writing life has been fruitful, minutely rewarding financially, entirely without an agent and very enlightening. It’s brought me many of the happiest moments of my life. Most of all, I’ve loved what I’ve written and the work that’s gone into the books. Turns out I’m a Swiss Medievalist Historian — i know this is true because I was labeled by two Swiss Medievalist historians. You can see what I’ve done if you want to here at marthakennedy.co
Of your work I really enjoyed the little book, “First We Read, Then We Write” — I wanted to assign it as a text in one of my writing classes, but at that point I was teaching mostly Basic Business Communication at San Diego State and Freshman Comp at a couple of community colleges who had sold their souls to the beast of Prentice/Hall, so that didn’t happen. I love the William James book. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was my father’s favorite book. He carried a little copy with him when he was in the Army and that book was his last Christmas present to me before he died in spring 1972. Having learned (tonight) of yours I will have to get one.
Mostly I want to know that you are still here. I retired from teaching (what?) after 30+ years (double what) in 2014 and moved from the San Diego area to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I love it. I’m surrounded by mountains; the Rio Grande traverses it, I’m 1 1/2 hour from Taos, I have real snow, the light is amazing, the people are warm and friendly. I’m in Monte Vista, a town of 4000 and the home of the first pro-rodeo in Colorado.
I hope you get this and I hope to hear from you.
121 1st Ave
Monte Vista, CO 81144