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  • A Vocation for the Humanities:Honoring Richard Macksey*
  • Hent de Vries

Some weeks ago, I received an e-mail from someone somewhere in China, I think it was Beijing. It was sent by a prospective graduate student who had majored in English and was wondering whether he should consider applying to the Humanities Center when Prof. Macksey might no longer be there to give him feedback on the progress in his studies, which, as he implied, would undercut some of the rationale for his coming here and destroy the very image he had made for himself of our program. I think, I hope, I was successful in convincing him that, yes, he should apply by all means, and, yes, he would have ample opportunity to study with or otherwise learn and profit from Professor Macksey's presence and the omnipresent signs of his legacy on and around campus, among his many pupils, members of other faculties, and the like. A moving picture on Johns Hopkins's opening webpage was only the most visible among them, a lively video portrait of Dick Macksey on our departmental site another.

Indeed, since his studies in ancient mathematics at Princeton, the completion of his PhD at Johns Hopkins in 1957 with a dissertation on Marcel Proust, written in French, his early teaching career in the Writing Seminars, from 1958 onwards, and his subsequent directorship of the Humanities Center and affiliation with the Medical School in East Baltimore (where for many years he taught his course on "Physician and Society," invited countless speakers, such as Umberto [End Page 1003] Eco and Richard Rorty, Jack Barth and Paul Fussell, and organized an interdisciplinary conference on memory); indeed, given his many contributions to the flourishing of the Comparative Literature issue of MLN, to the editorial board of the Johns Hopkins University Press, in addition to his service as a general editor, together with Anthony J. Cascardi, for the book series "Literature, Culture, Theory," published by Cambridge University Press, his name and career have been intimately connected with this university. His many distinctions are merely the official confirmation of what everybody observed and appreciated all along.

In 1992, he received the university's George E. Owen Teaching Award, given annually for outstanding teaching and devotion to undergraduates. In 1999, he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. In the same year, a Professorship for Distinguished Teaching was established in his name by a former student, Edward T. Dangel III and his wife Bonni Widdoes, and a Richard A. Macksey Graduate Student Fellowship has helped run the Honors Program in the Humanities for many years. In 2010, he was among the recipients of the Heritage Award for his longstanding service.

But the e-mail also put a particular emphasis on what I, once again, realized was—and continues to be—a remarkable epoch of instruction in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins: an epoch that stretched over more than forty years and whose beginning and subsequent grandeur remained intimately connected with the name and intellectual persona as well as extraordinary radiance of this esteemed colleague, whose contributions and accomplishments as a teacher and scholar we were fortunate to celebrate this last academic year.

This connection is engraved in the institutional memory of the Humanities Center, in particular, and the wider Hopkins community, in general, and as the presence and appreciation of so many alumni gathered during the recent retirement reception for Professor Macksey proved beyond any doubt, it remains part of a chain of living memory that links impressions and anecdotes, readings and writings, tradition and innovation.

Some of this, but not all, dates all the way back to the famous colloquium, organized by Richard Macksey in close cooperation with Eugenio Donato and René Girard, which took place in October of 1966 and was devoted to "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man." Its proceedings became the landmark study entitled The Structuralist Controversy and set an intellectual standard that no conference [End Page 1004] in the humanities at Hopkins—or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter—has ever since been able to match and measure up to in intensity and sheer...


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