August 10th, 2010 | News, University

Richard Maxwell, 1948-2010 | Comp. lit. lecturer was ‘brilliant’ thinker, writer

Fifteen of Richard Maxwell's family members and friends read excerpts from his novella "Demonstration House" at Yale in March. Maxwell, above, greeted the audience beforehand.
Fifteen of Richard Maxwell's family members and friends read excerpts from his novella "Demonstration House" at Yale in March. Maxwell, above, greeted the audience beforehand. Photo by Omar Njie.

Comparative literature lecturer Richard Maxwell, a teacher for more than 30 years and a novelist, poet and essayist, died of a brain tumor at his home in New Haven on July 20. He was 61.

Born in North Dakota but raised in Los Angeles, Maxwell attended college at the University of California, Riverside, before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He joined Yale’s faculty in 2002, after teaching for nearly 25 years at Valparaiso University in Indiana. At Yale, he taught a variety of literature classes, including “World Poetry and Performance” and the Directed Studies literature seminar, until last year, when he took leave to receive medical treatment.

Though Maxwell and his wife, English and comparative literature professor Katie Trumpener, had known since the initial diagnosis last year that Maxwell’s cancer was terminal, Trumpener said her husband was reluctant to tell friends and colleagues the details of his illness for fear that he would be treated differently. For some who knew Maxwell, this meant the news of his passing came without warning.

“It’s still very painful that I wasn’t able to tell him about the impact he had on me,” said Travis Gidado ’12, a student in Maxwell’s last Directed Studies literature seminar, in spring 2009. “Not just in an academic way but also as a person I’d want to be.”

Gidado, like several of Maxwell’s friends and colleagues interviewed, said they remembered Maxwell as a humble intellectual, a kind friend whose encyclopedic knowledge and grounded nature often helped to put things in perspective.

Thinking of Maxwell, Barry McCrea, the Comparative Literature Department’s director of undergraduate studies, recalled a stormy afternoon following a frustrating faculty meeting when Maxwell’s words helped to calm McCrea in exactly such a way.

“Richard just sort of idly said, ‘I’m going to go home and drink some tea and read some Proust,’” McCrea said. “And I thought, ‘This is somebody who knows how to survive the challenge of daily life.’ And so I think of the image of Richard at home, drinking tea and reading Proust, as a thought that makes the world seem alright.”

Though he was no longer teaching, Maxwell nonetheless spent his last year knee-deep in academia, Trumpener said. He spent much of the year reading and composing essays, she explained, recalling how she once returned home to find that he had dictated a full essay to a friend even though he was lying supine at the time, nursing a broken rib.

“In general, he wrote to figure out what had happened to him, what was happening to him and what would happen to him,” she said. “There was always an effort to break into the big picture.”

Among the several essays and poems Maxwell composed this past year is a novella titled “Demonstration House,” a fictionalized account of a historical visit by a Soviet delegation to Maxwell’s hometown of Los Angeles. The book, which Maxwell began writing roughly around the same time he received his diagnosis, was presented as a draft this past March at a reading in the Comparative Literature library that was attended by dozens of the department’s faculty, as well as Maxwell’s current and former students.

Too weak to read from the novella himself, Maxwell had several of those closest to him — including his father, Trumpener and one of their sons — read from the piece as Maxwell sat in the audience.

“He considered the event to have been a sort of memorial service,” Trumpener said.

René Steinke, another one of the guests invited to read that day, had been a student of Maxwell’s in the 1980s at Valparaiso, and the two had since maintained a friendship. A writer and novelist herself — Steinke’s historical novel, “Holy Skirts,” was in fact nominated for the National Book Award in 2005 — she recalled how Maxwell had mentored her decades ago at Valparaiso, how he had taken her to her first opera and, after roughly 20 years of friendship, how he had given her 2-year-old son his first book from the “Little Golden Books” series.

“He told me that a lot of the Golden Books were written by Eastern European refugees who had come to America, and that’s how a lot of them made their living,” Steinke said. “He was always so full of information like that — his interests were so wide-reaching and so unpretentious.“

She paused for a moment, then added: “He’s definitely one of the most brilliant people I have ever known or ever met.”

Trumpener is currently organizing a memorial service for Maxwell, to be held Oct. 18, which she said will be similar in format to the “Demonstration House” reading in that some of the pieces Maxwell composed in the past year will be previewed.

In addition to Trumpener, Maxwell is survived by their two sons, Alexander and Nicolas Maxwell; his brother, John Maxwell; and his father, Richard C. Maxwell.