Remembering Dick Macksey

I first met Dick sometime in the mid-Sixties, years before I joined him on the faculty of the Humanities Center.  By then, I’d sat in at seminars held around the table in his astonishing library, and I’d heard the stories about his book collecting—begun, precociously, before he was ten–and about the breadth of his interests and accomplishments–in languages and mathematics and the arts, in philosophy and film and medical history.  I had wondered at the energies and cast of mind that had allowed him to do all this:  to be told that he was “insatiably curious” or that he “didn’t need much sleep” was only somewhat helpful. Then, in a Gilman classroom, one afternoon after we’d become colleagues, I had an illumination.

Dick had invited me to conduct a discussion in the freshman class he taught each year.  I forget the topic—perhaps one of Freud’s case histories in which he knew I was interested.  So I arrived with my notes to find a dozen students there with their paperback texts.  After a couple of words of introduction, Dick turned the class over to me and took a seat in the back row.  I began by asking the students to turn to a particular page and to look at its second paragraph.  I had someone read it aloud, then asked what I hoped was a useful leading question. In the back row, Dick immediately raised his hand. I was puzzled and prepared to be irritated: was Dick planning to teach the class himself after all?  But no: he was simply responding to my question.  He had done his homework, he had an answer.  He was speaking from a position in which, over the years, he had no doubt often found himself: that of the brightest, quickest, best prepared, most intellectually curious kid in the class!

Dick’s perennial boyishness is what I’m talking about: a professor, he thought of himself as a student; a wide-ranging writer and editor, he thought of himself as a reader and learner.  His remarkable generosity to all his students—freshmen in his introductory courses, young M.D.’s-to-be in East Baltimore, dissertation writers at Homewood—grew out of such identifications.

So did his institutional instincts.  He had come to Hopkins in the early Fifties, when both Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine were much smaller than they are today, and much smaller than those of comparable research universities. Dick saw this as a boon, not just as a personal opportunity to teach movies (before there was a Film Studies major) or women novelists or African-American fiction (before there were such programs), but as an occasion to give institutional presence to his view of what learning in humane letters could be.  It was with this in mind that, in the mid-Sixties, he helped found the Humanities Center.  And the Center, because it had a name and a budget, could then go on to sponsor occasions like the 1966 symposium that introduced America to contemporary French thought.

Arriving at Hopkins almost 70 years ago, curious about its past, engaged in its changes over the years, Dick Macksey became a walking (and, I’m bound to add, talking) fount of institutional history, naming the names and telling stories of those who had taught him or who were his contemporaries—George Boas and Georges Poulet (his dissertation advisers), Elliot Coleman, Earl Wasserman, Don Cameron Allen, Charles Singleton, Leo Spitzer, René Girard, Eugenio Donato (at Homewood), George Udvarhelyi and Ludwig Edelstein and Owsei Tempkin in East Baltimore. The list, Dick’s list, was a long one; he could take it back past his own arrival in Baltimore, to include Charles Sanders Peirce or William Osler.  Dick had many stories to tell.  As the affectionate tributes to him, last month, in the pages of the Baltimore Sun or the Washington Post made clear, he too has now become the occasion for such fond storytelling.

Neil Hertz