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This article was written on 24 Jul 2019, and is filled under Actualities, Literature, Theory.

Incomparable: Richard A. Macksey, 1931-2019

It is with deepest sorrow but also with recharged inspiration and resolve, that the critical community has learned of Dick Macksey’s dying, on July 22, 2019, on the eve of his 88th birthday. As a scholar, poet, critic, theorist, media specialist, and overall purveyor of culture and the arts, Macksey became renowned for his polymath erudition, his astonishing recall, his interdisciplinary approach, his crafty deployment of multiple paradigms, and his avidness as a book-collector. Yet he is perhaps most vividly remembered for the precedents he established in the Humanities, over a 50+ year career, in the ways of teaching and mentoring students, in disproportionate measure vaulting the Johns Hopkins University into an international position of preeminence in the humanistic fields. His role in co-organizing the epochal 1966 “Structuralist Controversy” conference in Baltimore, with the participation of Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes among many notables, and the first Western hemispheric exposure of Jacques Derrida, identified him early on as lightening-rod and bellwether to the wide swath that French critical theory was to cut through the global academy over its transformative and, incidentally, ongoing run. And it would not be long thereafter that he would assemble at the Hopkins a cadre of younger scholars that would launch critical theory in the same catchment area as a field in its own right.

Yet Macksey successfully adapted his inimitably generous and hospitable teaching style to the long succession of student-generations that he inspired and instructed. His protégés numbered eminent academics, Oscar-winning mainstays of the Hollywood film-industry, and practitioners at the forefront of medicine. (Having seriously considered medicine as a vocation while still an undergraduate, the Humanities in Medicine program he established during the 1970’s at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine remains the prototype, internationally, of this now widespread curriculum.)

Raised in Montclair, N.J., he was born on July 25, 1931. Among his earliest memories was viewing with his family the wreckage of the German dirigible Hindenburg off of Asbury Park, NJ, in May, 1937. His B.A. degree from Princeton was in Physics. At the Hopkins, he was free to explore his remarkably swashbuckling literary vocation, taking his Ph.D. and joining the faculty in 1963. His mentors during his advanced studies numbered Ludwig Edelstein and Franz Boas.

Yet despite the dual stream of students, advanced and undergraduate, who flocked to the uniquely tolerant and interactive teaching environment that he established there was also, invariably, a strong one-to-one component to his teaching. He took the time, and established the venues and channels, to mentor his students one at a time. Amid the polyvalent complexities of interpretative frameworks such as psychoanalysis and psychiatry, French structuralism, deconstructionism, and hermeneutics, this personal approach became standard operating procedure across the panoply of settings where critical theory was taught. This environment established, the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, which Macksey developed with and eventually took over from the eminent Dante translator and scholar, Charles Singleton, succeeded in training generations of writers and scholars who contributed notably to disciplines including Afro-American Studies, Comparative Literature, Feminist Studies, Media Study, Philosophy, History, and the full range of area Language and Literature departments. At the outset of his tenure at Johns Hopkins, in the 1960’s, Macksey was deeply involved in poetry. His correspondence encompasses the major English and French-language poets of the day. His active involvement with and participation in the Johns Hopkins Creative Writing Seminars dates from this period and was ongoing.

Macksey taught by example. This was the mainstay of his pedagogy. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the U.S., he rendered inestimable service to the History of the Book by accumulating a world-class private library in the Humanities, Media, and the Arts. The library gradually outgrew its ample shelf-space in his home even while encroaching digital technologies were bringing about a revolution in print-culture. By holding seminars in his library over the decades, Macksey exploited his unique collection for its pedagogical value. His frequent visitors would emerge from seminars, screenings, concerts, and other special events with a penchant—and powerful model—for establishing their own research modules, at whatever scale.

Macksey’s amazing erudition and staying au courant in a bewildering range of disciplines was immediately evident to anyone on whose oral examinations he sat or who had submitted an essay to him. Yet many of his energies, over the years, were diverted toward administrative support of the disciplines, journals, colleagues, and students to which he was unstintingly devoted. The annual Comparative Literature number of Modern Language Notes, which he edited for 30 years, became a disciplinary standard-bearer and launched many a distinguished career. As a consummate scholar who infused disciplinary wisdom into strategic curriculum and planning, Macksey established a notable precedent: administrative wellbeing demands the intervention of the more engaged colleagues. The Johns Hopkins University in which he operated through the 1980’s, as a preeminent U.S. research university on the smaller scale, was not as advanced in its development into a multi-national corporation, “brand,” and sports franchise as it and its peer institutions have become today. Through his all-out, year-in, year-out commitment to the Hopkins, Macksey succeeded in parleying the “give” in the University as of that juncture, whatever “soft structure” persisted, into the exceptionally tolerant, flexible, and supportive learning environment of the Humanities Center. He invariably pulled out of the hat one additional year’s stipend for a graduate student in the throes of closing out a Ph.D. thesis. On more than one occasion, he eluded the prospect of retirement; he continued hosting his seminar in the legendary library until well into 2018. Among the accumulated treasures there is the squiggle-line from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (a particularly cherished work) rendered in red neon by an adoring student.

Unavoidably, Macksey’s open-door style of pedagogy impacted upon his immediate family. As would be directly inferred from the man, his family was an unusually cohesive and loving one. It rose and adapted to the specificities that Dick brought to his academic calling. Dick shared his passion for French letters with his wife and lifetime partner, Catherine Chance Macksey (1930-2000), a French scholar and translator, with whom he was married in 1956. Catherine also taught French at the University. With legendary generosity and patience, she and their son Alan shared Dick with students, colleagues, and frequent visitors alike. After attending Yale, Alan Macksey returned to Baltimore and launched a career in business and finance. He serves as Managing Director of the Courtney Group. Dick’s extraordinarily close collaboration with Alan and Alan’s wife, Brigit Macksey, continued unabated until the end. It is particularly notable and a propos that their daughter, Elizabeth Macksey, is currently an upperclassman at Princeton, pursuing, among other subjects, French Literature.

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