Historian and biographer Robert Dale Richardson III died on June 16, 2020 at Cape Cod Hospital from complications suffered after a fall. He was 86.
He was born in 1934 in Milwaukee, Wisc., to Robert Dale Richardson Sr. and Lucy Marsh Richardson. He grew up in Medford and graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1952.
He received a bachelor of arts degree in English from Harvard College in 1956 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1961. He taught for two years as a fellow at Harvard and then went to the University of Denver, where he taught and wrote about American literature for the next 23 years.
Richardson is best known for his three biographies, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (for which he won the Melcher Book Award in 1986); Emerson: The Mind on Fire (which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Melcher Book Award in 1996); and William James: In the Maelstrom of Modernism (the Bancroft Prize winner in 2007). He wrote or co-wrote another 10 books on literature and writing.
These three biographies, wrote John Banville in the New York Review of Books, “form one of the great achievements in contemporary American literary studies. 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.”
Richardson was an avid outdoorsman who climbed peaks in the Swiss Alps, canoed throughout the northern U.S., skied the Rocky Mountains, hiked one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism (Mt. Emei in China), and for decades sailed the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces in a two-masted wooden schooner with friends and family. He was patient, kind, and a gifted teacher who was ever generous with his time. He had a dry sense of humor and loved to play folk songs on guitar and banjo.
He also taught at the University of Colorado, Wesleyan, Barnard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Queens College, the City University of New York, and Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. He received research fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Henry E. Huntington Library, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
In recent years, he divided his time between homes in Wellfleet, Key West, Fla., and western Virginia.
He is survived by his wife, the writer Annie Dillard; two daughters, Lissa Richardson Biddle of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Anne K. Richardson of Los Angeles; three stepchildren; his brother, David; a niece, a nephew, and three grandchildren.
He will be buried in accordance with his wishes at the family plot in Concord, where his mother, father, and brother John already lie. A small memorial for family will occur at a time to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Partners in Health, the Thoreau Society, or the Friends of the Free Concord Public Library.