Shared from the 6/24/2020 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition


Robert Richardson, eminent biographer

Robert Richardson, 86, a prizewinning biographer who chronicled the lives of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James, reconstructing their intellectual development in part through an unconventional method — devouring almost everything they had ever read, from Persian poetry to abolitionist tracts — died June 16 at a hospital in Hyannis, Mass.

His wife, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard, said the cause was complications from a fall.

Mr. Richardson was an English professor at the University of Denver before embarking on a career as a biographer, drawing praise for works of vivid prose and authoritative scholarship. He wrote widely on literature, film, and poetry, but his specialty was the “intellectual biography,” in which he aimed to understand the life through the work, as he put it, and “not the other way around.”

His reputation rested largely on three books, accounts of American intellectual giants who, like Richardson, graduated from Harvard University and spent years in New England: Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006).

The books were split into roughly 100 chapters, each only a few pages long, making for a propulsive reading experience that drew rapturous reviews.

Mr. Richardson drew on the meticulous journals and diaries of his subjects to reconstruct their reading lists, then spent years working through the books himself.

While he gave a narrative account of his subjects’ lives, he largely avoided analysis and speculation, focusing instead on their growth as writers and thinkers while making room for surprising personal details, such as Emerson’s fondness for pies at breakfast.

His other books included First We Read, Then We Write (2009), about Emerson’s approach to writing; Splendor of Heart (2013), about his Harvard University mentor Walter Jackson Bate, a Pulitzer-winning biographer; and Nearer the Heart’s Desire (2016), a dual biography of Persian poet Omar Khayyám and Rubaiyat translator Edward FitzGerald.

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