Dr. Richard A. Macksey, a legendary Johns Hopkins University professor, polymath and bibliophile whose personal book collection was thought to be the largest private library in Maryland, died Monday of pneumonia at Brightview Assisted Living in Towson. The longtime Guilford resident was 87.
“A legendary figure not only in his own fields of critical theory, comparative literature, and film studies but across all the humanities, Macksey possessed enormous intellectual capacity and a deeply insightful nature,” wrote Rachel Wallach in the HUB, a Johns Hopkins University publication, in announcing Dr. Macksey’s death.
“He was a man who read and wrote in six languages, was instrumental in launching a new era of intellectual thought in America, maintained a personal library containing a staggering collection of books and manuscripts, inspired generations of students to follow him to the thorniest heights of the human intellect, and penned or edited dozens of volumes of scholarly works, fiction, poetry, and translation,” Ms. Wallach wrote.
Rob Friedman, who graduated from Hopkins in 1981, studied with Dr. Macksey.
“He was exuberant, funny, playful and an enthusiastic eccentric who lived on three hours of sleep and got up each morning at 6,” said Mr. Friedman, a businessman who lives in New York City.
“He loved everything and he loved to learn. There was nothing that didn’t enthrall him. He was extraordinarily generous, and he loved imparting his knowledge and listening to what you had to say,” he said. “For 60 years, he contributed his intellectual life to Hopkins and mentored generations and generations of students.”
Richard Alan Macksey, the son of Kenneth W. Macksey, a businessman, and his wife, Hazel Hennie, a stay-at-home parent, was born in two places.
“I was born in a delivery room that was half in Glen Ridge and half in Montclair, N.J., so I have birth certificates from both towns,” Dr. Macksey told The Gazette, the Johns Hopkins University newspaper, in a 1999 interview. “You could say I was born in two places at once. But they are so alike, you wouldn’t notice the difference.”
He was raised in Montclair, where he graduated from the Montclair Academy. When Dr. Macksey was 5, he planned to pursue a medical career and began collecting medical books.
“You needed a profession, and we didn’t have any medical people in my family, so I said, sure, I’m going into medicine,” he explained in the Gazette interview. “It got adults off your back when you said you were going into medicine. And then I gradually realized that it was a way to give meaning to your life or at least make a plausible story.”
Working as a hospital orderly soured Dr. Macksey on pursuing a medical career. He later explained, “I was fascinated by the human dimensions of the experience, but I didn’t have the temperament of a real clinician.”
A teacher directed him toward math and science. “While I lacked the drive and focus that made a great scientist, I had enough interest to learn some habits of inquiry that may have helped me as a teacher,” he told The Gazette.
As his interest in science began to wane, he became more interested in literature.
Dr. Macksey began his college career at Princeton and then transferred to Hopkins, where he joined the Writing Seminars and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1953. He remained at Hopkins, receiving his master’s degree and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1957 after completing his dissertation in French on Marcel Proust.
While he was writing his dissertation, he taught at what is now Loyola University Maryland. The next year, he began teaching modern writers in Hopkins’ Writing Seminars, and soon introduced a film course and the first courses on African American literature, women’s studies and scholarly publishing.
A man of sweeping intellectual breadth and curiosity, Dr. Macksey pursued interests as diverse as classical literature, foreign films, comic novels and medical literature.
“Conversations with him were marked by a tendency to leap from one topic to another, connected by his seemingly boundless knowledge, prodigious memory, and sense of humor,” Ms. Wallach observed. “For many at Hopkins and far beyond, he was no less than the embodiment of the humanities, both in intellect and spirit.”
In 1966, he played a pivotal role in the establishment on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, which was “an interdisciplinary incubator that sponsors courses in literature, art, philosophy and history,” according to The Gazette profile. Today, the center is known as Department of Comparative Thought and Literature.
Dr, Macksey served as its director from 1970 until 1982.
In 1966, Dr. Macksey, who was joined by French theorist René Girard and Eugenio Donato, an Armenian Italian deconstructionist, both of whom had been co-founders of the Humanities Center, convened an international symposium at Hopkins called The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man that brought Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Paul de Man, leading figures of European structuralist criticism to its Homewood campus.
Milton S. Eisenhower, former president of Hopkins, once said that going to Dr. Macksey with a question "was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water."
“Dick was courteous, generous, witty, and talking with him was exactly as Milton Eisenhower said,” Cynthia Haven, a Palo Alto, Calif., author and blogger, who had been a visiting scholar at Stanford University, wrote in an email.
“For that reason, he was a tough man to interview: as digression piled on digression — each one a fascinating key to literature, history, philosophy, or a range of other subjects — it could be hard to recall what you had asked in the first place,” Ms. Haven wrote. “He was absolutely unforgettable. There was no one like him, and no one will follow in his tracks. He was unrepeatable. It was a privilege to know him.”
Said Mr. Friedman: “His mind would go off one way and then he’d forget where he’d been.”
A story has been told that during Dr. Macksey’s orals for his Ph.D., his interrogators failed to stump him.
Caleb Deschanel of Pacific Palisades, Calif., an Oscar-nominated American cinematographer who graduated from Hopkins in 1966 and studied with Dr. Macksey, said, "Finally, exasperated, one of his interviewers asked him about 16th-century French cooking or something and he goes, ‘Well that’s great that you should ask that question because it happens to be one of my hobbies.’
“He was an amazing, amazing teacher. The problem with academia is they expect you to fit in one discipline, but Dick was so full of knowledge in so many areas that he was a trailblazer when it came to teaching and learning,” Mr. Deschanel said. “He was a great man who loved everything. He loved art, literature and music. You’d go to his house and he’d be there listening to classical music while reading a book.”
Mr. Friedman recalled being at an Orioles game in 1979 and during the seventh-inning stretch, the trivia question was to name the five most valuable players who were at Memorial Stadium.
“Dick got four out of five of them just like that,” he said.
Dr. Macksey was the quintessential professor who looked as though he just walked out of central casting.
“I never saw him without his tweed coat, shirt and tie, and pipe,” Mr. Friedman said.
At home, the center of Dr. Macksey’s life was his library, which came about after he and his wife decided to convert the garage of their 1921 Guilford home into a library measuring 16 feet by 28 feet, and whose walls contained shelves that rose 15 feet to the ceiling. In spite of the massive size of the room, which had a Palladian window and a heat pump to protect the books from humid Baltimore summer, his library of an estimated 70,000 books spilled onto tables and rose in piles from the floor, making it the largest private library in the state.
He had a signed copy of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” and rare first editions of Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton and other giants of literature.
A long French country oak table in the middle of the library was surrounded by Windsor chairs for the students who came to attend his seminars. There was also a pull-down screen for film screenings.
“My library is a social place, where you can sit and talk,” Dr. Macksey told The Sun in a 1996 interview. “It’s not a showplace room. It’s supposed to be functional.”
A 2003 buzzfeed.com article proclaimed Dr, Macksey’s library as “one of the 30 best places in the world to be for book lovers.”
Anne Finkbeiner, a Baltimore author who had taught science writing at Hopkins’ Writing Seminars and was a friend of Dr. Macksey’s, wrote on Ms. Haven’s blog, “The Book Haven,” "There should be a “central repository for Macksey stories.”
“He loved everything and he loved to learn. There was nothing that didn’t enthrall him."
Rob Friedman, who graduated from the Johns Hopkins University in 1981 and studied with Dr. Richard A Macksey
Share quote & link
Dr. Macksey was out walking late at night when a man hailed him and then proceeded to mug him. When Ms. Finkbeiner asked him why he stopped, he answered, “Because I thought he might have a bibliographic question.”
“Honest to God,” she wrote on the blog.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
"He was a real movie hound and after he screened a movie, there would be a discussion,” Mr. Friedman said. “And if you mentioned a book, he’d disappear and come back with a copy. You simply could not stump the man. He knew where every book was. I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss that man.”
Dr. Macksey retired from teaching last year.
His wife of 44 years, the former Catherine Chance, who taught French at Hopkins and was also a literary scholar and translator, died in 2000.
Dr. Macksey was a communicant of SS. Philips and James Roman Catholic Church.
A funeral Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Loyola Alumni University Chapel, 4501 N. Charles St.