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  • Richard Macksey and the Humanities Center
  • Stuart W. Leslie

For four days in October 1966 Johns Hopkins became the beachhead of a French invasion that would fundamentally transform the humanities across the American academic landscape. "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy" put Hopkins on the map as the place where the leading lights of French literary theory and their American interlocutors began a generation-long debate about texts, language, reading, and methods that would reshape scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences. Some of the participants, such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, had already made their mark internationally, and others soon would, most prominently Jacques Derrida. Some had previously taught at Hopkins, including Georges Poulet, and many would subsequently teach there with joint appointments or as visiting faculty, including Derrida. Even the no-shows, such as Michel Foucault, who did serve on the advisory board for the symposium, would become an important part of the Hopkins circle.

What began at Hopkins as a wide-ranging discussion about structuralism and post-structuralism, semiotics and deconstruction, soon spread to other universities. The short-lived Hopkins School migrated to and enriched many other top departments of comparative literature. J. Hillis Miller and Paul de Man moved together from Hopkins to Yale a few years after the landmark symposium, and recruited Derrida to join them as a regular visitor. Miller and Derrida subsequently decamped for UC Irvine as the founders of its Critical Theory Institute. Hopkins would nonetheless remain an essential contributor to the broader [End Page 925] conversation. The symposium participants, nearly a hundred in all, representing most of the top universities in the northeast, recognized even at the time that something special had happened at Hopkins. Jan Miel of Wesleyan University's Department of Romance Languages spoke for many of his colleagues in saying: "'The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man' reminded me that it seems to be a habit at Hopkins to be first, and that this is usually achieved not by force of numbers or dollars but by listening attentively to what is going on elsewhere and bringing ideas and scholars into a critical intersection" (Macksey, "Final Report" 61).

Rene Girard, who had joined the Hopkins Department of Romance Languages in 1957 and already made a name for himself with the publication of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), provided the intellectual heft for the symposium (Haven, Evolution of Desire). Richard Macksey did most of the heavy lifting. He drafted the grant application to the Ford Foundation, handled the complicated logistics of the meeting, and later translated and edited the essays for publication, a volume which became a bestseller for the Johns Hopkins Press.

Prodigy and polymath, Macksey had come from Princeton to study with Georges Poulet, and wrote his dissertation, in French, on aesthetics in Proust. While Macksey held an appointment in the Writing Seminars his passion was literary theory and criticism. He preferred reading, discussing, and collecting books to writing them. He amassed a legendary library at his stately Guilford estate, but he never published his dissertation or any other monograph, and only a relative handful of essays and articles, a thin dossier by later standards. Like Hopkins scholars of an earlier era, he aspired to erudition and could hold his own in any number of diverse fields, from mathematics and medicine to classic and contemporary literature (de Vries, "Vocation for the Humanities" 1003–1009). An incurable insomniac prone to composing long letters in the wee hours, and to leaving his Gilman office about the time his colleagues arrived in the morning, Macksey was a gifted and generous teacher who gave away his best ideas, whether in the classroom, around the seminar table in his personal library, or in detailed commentaries written as formal or informal reviews of other scholar's books and articles. Characteristically, he shared his reader's report of Barbara Johnson's Critical Difference with the author, a second-generation Yale School member trained by Paul de Man. "I feel like a surfer riding the most exhilarating wave he has ever encountered," she replied. "Your reading of my manuscript is a more intelligent, critical, and...


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