Nothing Lasts Forever

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. 

Warm regards,

Martha

121 1st Ave

Monte Vista, CO 81144

Cosmic Awesomeness and a Beautiful Book

“The Epicureans…believed that teaching is by personal contact; knowledge and wisdom pass from teacher to student, one by one.”

I wasn’t a great student. I was a better than great scholar, but student? No. I was lucky in graduate school, however, to have found a teacher who understood me and supported my style of learning and advised me in the writing of my thesis. He was also an extraordinarily demanding teacher of writing. I revised my thesis eleven times under his kind but critical instruction.

Because the department did not give me a third year appointment as a teaching assistant, when I finished my classes, I got a full-time job. I had no reason to go on campus while I was writing my thesis, so our meetings about my thesis usually took place at his house, in his study. It was lined with books and had a big desk, of course. There was a Victorianish red velvet sofa where I sat flanked by two black great Danes while he read and red-lined the current draft.

I graduated and we remained friends and in contact, but life carries us on. I read all the books he wrote in the interval, but had no contact with him for twenty or so years.

A few weeks ago, I was thinking of him so I googled him and found an obituary, but only one, and no confirmation anywhere that he had actually died. Instead I found he’d written a book that piqued my interest even more than it would have been piqued just finding a new book by him, Nearer the Heart’s Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat: A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald. It’s unlikely this book (beautiful and readable though it is) will ever be a best-seller, but my father’s favorite work of literature was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and I was raised on it. It was my early introduction to the importance of literature and the power of writing. It was also the main factor that led me to my personal philosophy which is that life is short, incomprehensible, often, but beautiful, and nature is my teacher and most stalwart friend. That Bob Richardson (Dr. Richardson to me in spite of everything) would have written this book was a wonder.

I found a contact form on his website, and I wrote him asking if he were dead or alive. I mentioned the book and my father’s love of the Rubaiyat and sent him a link to my website. He answered that he was very much alive and told me he was sending me a copy of the book and buying one of mine.

I finished the book last night. It’s full of beauty and appreciation both for Omar Khayyams verses and for the passion of Edward FitzGerald in learning Persian and transforming Omar Khayyam’s poetry into English. Omar Khayyam was a poet, mathematician and astronomer who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, during the glorious times of the Persian Empire. Coincidentally, Edward FitzGerald was an Englishman living in England during the “sun never sets” period of English history. Both were quiet iconoclasts.

The book is organized into three main parts; the first introduces the reader to Omar Khayyam, his life, verses and philosophy. The second follows a similar pattern with Edward FitzGerald. In the third part, Richardson puts the two together and discusses how and why the Persian poet spoke so powerfully to this rather eccentric Victorian gentleman scholar.

Richardson’s book is beautifully written. He uses stanzas from the Rubaiyat to help his readers understand Omar Khayyam the man. The court and era in which Omar Khayyam lived are vividly portrayed, and we really get to know the people and some of the political machinations of the time. There are parallels between Omar Khayyam’s time and ours — a period of intellectual flowering and liberal thinking gave way to a reign of repressive conservatism. Richardson does the same thing with FitzGerald’s life, and we are introduced to a “colorful” character who followed his own star.

The book is accessible literary analysis that is also very timely. Richardson writes:

FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat shows us an approachable eleventh-century Iranian, a nominal Muslim, of probable Zoroastrian heritage, thinking about life and love in terms immediately comprehensible to an Internet-adept, scientifically inclined modern person. In the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam one civilization speaks to another, as equals, across a thousand-year gap.

He makes the point that words have the power to unite sympathetic hearts across time and that the spirit in the Rubaiyat of sharing the “cup of wine” could be the spirit that brings peace to the world, and while it might not happen nationally, it can happen personally.

I thought about that, and about my own life which has been filled with people from most of the world’s nations. I thought of many parties at my house and the houses of students, most of whom were perfectly happy to relax their prejudices for the sake of a good time. I thought of how much that was the result of their having been in a classroom together for months learning the words with which they could share ideas with each other.

I then thought of some of my favorite poems. In his book, Richardson writes about the probable influence of FitzGerald’s work on that of modern poets particularly Yeats and Eliot. I’m afraid my mind doesn’t bend that way any longer, but there is a theme in the work of some poets that shares Richardson’s claim that words are bridges linking people existing across time. One is Yeats’ poem, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd:

Go gather by the humming sea
Some twisted, echo-harbouring shell,
And to its lips thy story tell,
And they thy comforters will be,
Rewarding in melodious guile
Thy fretful words a little while,
Till they shall singing fade in ruth
And die a pearly brotherhood;
For words alone are certain good…

 

Richardson also shows how FitzGerald’s literary background and philosophical loves influenced his appreciation of Omar Khayyam. It seems that FitzGerald admired — and took to heart — the thinking of Lucretius. I don’t have a background with which to evaluate this claim, but it makes sense to me. One of my favorite passages in the book is where Richardson explains the general perspective of Lucretius, saying, “…Lucretius looked for answers in Nature, not in Religion. What Lucretius knew and what FitzGerald loved in him was the fact that Nature IS the law.”

I love that a Roman writer was the key with which a British gentleman opened the words of a Persian poet. That is, for me, precisely how literature opens the world.

I loved the book and there was only one point made with which I had to take serious umbrage.

“FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat points unmistakably to the poety and philosophic superiority of eleventh century Persia over the prosaic, superstitious, intellectually primitive eleventh-century West, a West still sunk in poverty, overrun by barbarians, confused, illiterate, depopulated and primarily rural.”

To my surprise (and probably to Dr. Richardson’s) I grew up to be a medievalist, so I have my biases, too. 🙂

If you’re interested, here is a link to buy the book