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Thoreau biographer Robert D. Richardson, praised for ‘fluent, agile prose,’ dies at 86

Mr. Richardson, next to a statue of one of his subjects, Henry David Thoreau, at Walden Pond Reservation.

-- LIBRARY TAG 05232002 Globe South
Mr. Richardson, next to a statue of one of his subjects, Henry David Thoreau, at Walden Pond Reservation. -- LIBRARY TAG 05232002 Globe SouthRathe, Joanne Globe Staff/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Robert D. Richardson was well into his college teaching career and a continent away from his Massachusetts boyhood when he was called home, creatively speaking.

During a prestigious fellowship at the Huntington Library in California, he found himself drawn to the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson — the Transcendentalists of Concord, where Dr. Richardson’s family had moved during his high school years.

Inspired in part by reexamining their books, Dr. Richardson devoted years to writing a trio of award-winning intellectual biographies about Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. They drew praise for their depth and clarity, and also for Dr. Richardson’s narrative writing — flowing, easy to read, and divided into dozens of short digestible chapters. The first was “Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind,” published in 1986.

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“I wanted to put him center stage, and narrative let me do that,” he told the Globe in 2002. “It changes your whole way of writing, because what you are describing has to live in the senses.”

Dr. Richardson, who lived in Wellfleet and Key West, Fla., died in Massachusetts last Tuesday from complications of a fall. He had turned 86 two days earlier.

“These three books taken together — may we call them a trilogy? — form one of the great achievements in contemporary American literary studies,” John Banville, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, wrote in a 2009 New York Review of Books essay about Dr. Richardson’s work, which along with the Thoreau biography included “Emerson: The Mind on Fire” (1995) and “William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism” (2006).

“Aside from his learning, which is prodigious, Richardson writes a wonderfully fluent, agile prose; he has a poet’s sense of nuance and a novelist’s grasp of dramatic rhythm; he also displays a positive genius for apt quotation, the result of a total immersion in the work of his three very dissimilar yet subtly complementary thinkers,” Banville added.

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Dr. Richardson knew well that “first you catch the reader,” said his wife, Annie Dillard, the essayist and novelist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

He also realized that even inviting prose might best be read a little at a time.

“Bob had the brilliant idea of writing in short takes, very, very short chapters, so that the reader got a sense of accomplishment — he could read five of them at a time or 10 of them or 15 at a stretch,” Dillard said.

Dr. Richardson recalled in the Globe interview that a Harvard professor had once advised him: “Write in short takes; people are busy.”

In a 1995 New York Times review of the Emerson biography, David S. Reynolds praised the “felicitous phrasing” in Dr. Richardson’s writing, such as: “Emerson’s adult life seems to have been half epiphany and half cordwood. He needed both ecstatic experience and pie for breakfast.”

Though Thoreau might arguably be assigned more in schools, Dr. Richardson was surprised to see his Emerson biography sell more copies.

“Thoreau has his devout bands of followers, but it turns out an enormous number of people are interested in Emerson,” he told the Globe. “I don’t know how to account for this, unless to say that Emerson taps a deeper strain in Americans than we are aware of. Maybe it’s because some people feel an absence of a spiritual dimension in their lives, or crave a life of the spirit, which is something that Emerson preeminently stands for.”

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Robert Dale Richardson III, who occasionally used the byline Robert D. Richardson Jr., was born in Milwaukee on June 14, 1934, and was a boy when his family moved to Medford.

His namesake father was a Unitarian minister. His mother, Lucy Marsh, wrote and published an account of her life and family. She remarried after the elder Richardson died and was Lucy Richardson Furber when she died.

The oldest of three brothers, Dr. Richardson was a Phillips Exeter Academy student when his family moved to Concord. He graduated from Harvard College in 1956 and received a doctorate from Harvard in 1961.

He began teaching as a fellow at Harvard and taught at other universities, including 23 years at the University of Denver and shorter stints at the University of Colorado, Barnard College, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Queens College, the City University of New York, and Sichuan University in Chengdu before finishing at Wesleyan University, where Dillard also taught.

Dr. Richardson received research fellowships from the National Humanities Center and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His literary awards included the Melcher Book Award for his Thoreau biography, another Melcher and the Francis Parkman Prize for his Emerson biography, and the Bancroft Prize for his James book.

Those were among the more than a dozen books he wrote or cowrote, his family said.

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In 1959, he married Elizabeth Hall, who worked in land conservation and stewardship. They had two daughters, Dr. Lissa Richardson Biddle, a veterinarian in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Anne Richardson, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles. Their marriage ended in divorce.

“He always immersed himself in the culture of wherever he was,” Lissa said, recalling that her New Englander father embraced the west’s outdoor opportunities upon moving to Denver — skiing in the Rockies and canoeing in the northern states.

In the east, Dr. Richardson sailed the Maine coast and up to Newfoundland on a wooden schooner, and throughout his life he traveled extensively, including climbing the Matterhorn in Europe and fishing in Costa Rica.

He also “was very committed to being a good dad,” Anne said.

“He encouraged people to really follow their love,” she added. “People who have reached out to me have always mentioned how kind he was to them and how he saw them as who they were and encouraged them to find their own path.”

In 1988, Dr. Richardson married Dillard, who had sent him a fan letter for his Thoreau book.

“Everybody liked him,” she recalled, adding that “he had a wonderful face and enormous patience. He was a lovely man.”

A memorial service will be announced for Dr. Richardson, who in addition to Dillard and his two daughters leaves a stepchild, Cody-Rose Clevidence of Arkansas; a brother, David of Vineyard Haven; and three grandchildren.

Along with the biographies for which he is well-known, Dr. Richardson once wrote a short essay about Dillard.  

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“Her sentences stay relentlessly in the senses, avoiding abstraction and ‘theory’ as one avoids cholera,” he wrote. “When someone asked her if he could ‘be a writer,’ she replied, ‘Do you like sentences?’ "

For Dr. Richardson, the answer to such a question clearly was yes.

In the Thoreau biography’s opening chapter, his description let his subject all but step off the page.

“He was not, on the whole, a striking or compelling figure except for one feature, his eyes, which were strong, serious, large, and deep set; bright blue in some lights, gray in others,” Dr. Richardson wrote of Thoreau. “As he walked around Concord people noticed that his eyes rarely left the ground. When he did look up, however, he swept in everything at a glance. His eyes had a startling earnestness, and they were alight with intelligence and humor.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.