Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Richard Maxwell, scholar and gentleman

Richard Maxwell, who preceded me as editor of POWYS NOTES, died on July 20, after a nine-month battle with cancer. Richard taught at Valparaiso University for many years and for most of the past decade had held a position at Yale. Like all truly dedicated reader of John Cowper Powys, Richard was not just a narrow cultist but also someone for whom Powys was one of myriad arteries through language, history, and imagination. Richard was a truly wide and comprehensive reader, for whom no byway was too obscure. When I learned of Richard's death I was reading a provocative review-article by Frank M.Turner in the Victorians Institute Journal, lamenting that we had gone away from Matthew Arnold's small circle of privileged texts and loosened the gate sot admit, in canonical terms, all and sundry. No reader was a better reflection of the benefits of the broadening of the canon, though, than Richard; he delighted in Naomi Mitchison and Harrison Ainsworth, Anthony Powell and Mervyn Peake, the most obscure of Sir Walter Scott's novels, the rediscovered critical writings of Clara Reeve. His vision of literary study included old books and new theories, the subversive and the antiquarian. Richard combined this of course with a thorough appreciation of the Big Names; Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hugo. As this list shows, Richard was multilingual both literally and figuratively, and was one of the few people I have known truly worthy to teach in a Department of Comparative Literature.
     Richard was a man incredibly genial, gracious man. He was erudite but not pedantic or pretentious, and had gentleness and a compassion that made him approachable whereas otherwise his sheer intellect might have made him intimidating. He was tremendously encouraging to me, and delivered even criticism in an affirmative, caring way; he was in academia to help people and to share knowledge, and he made those traits abundantly clear. He seemed to have friends everywhere, among academics and creative writers, literary types and common readers.
Richards great summa on the historical novel came out last year, his co-edited Companion to the Romantic-period novel in 2008, and I really saw these years as Richard’s coming into his own; still in the prime of his career, he seemed likely to have many more books in him. As abundant as his production has been, his early death robs us of so much more. But his sly humor and his ferocious energy as a reader of literature remain as inspirations.
Now that Richard is gone, both the blurbers for Understanding Anthony Powell are dead. This was probably not a surprise in the case of Congressman John S. Monagan, who was over 90 when he blurbed the book, though John also seemed to have enough energy and intelligence to last forever. However, it is truly a shock that Richard is gone so soon. His blurb, incidentally, was both generous and tactful, and it is a rare bird that can show both traits. In any event, I was lucky to have two such distinguished and virtuous people endorse my book.

2 comments:

Linda Gebhard Scheimann said...

My late husband Richard Scheimann and I knew Richard and his first wife Patricia Erdoss at the start of his time at Valparaiso University in the mid 1970's. Their home was a wonderful place of gathering for students and teachers alike. I am so sorry to learn of his death, all too soon.
Linda Gebhard Scheimann

Nicholas Birns said...

That was long before I knew Richard, but not surprised to hear he was warm and nurturing back then as well. Thanks for writing.