Richard Sewall GRD ’33, longtime English professor and Emily Dickinson expert, died at his home in Newton, Mass., April 16. He was 95.
In the literary world, Sewall is best-known for his books “The Life of Emily Dickinson” and “The Vision of Tragedy.” At Yale, where he taught for 42 years, Sewall is a legend. With a Yale College Teaching Prize named in his honor, Sewall served as the first master of Ezra Stiles College and started the popular writing course Daily Themes. He retired from Yale in 1976 at the age of 70.
Sewall spent 25 years on his biography of Emily Dickinson and made many trips to Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Mass. Sewall produced a two-volume work on Dickinson’s life and in 1975, earning a National Book Award for the biography. Associate Yale College Dean Penelope Laurans, who taught English 125 in the room next to Sewall, said his Dickinson biography marked “a seminal moment” in the study of the poet.
“He earned the confidence of an important member of the Dickinson circle and this woman trusted Richard explicitly and gave her mother’s papers to Beinecke [Rare Book and Manuscript Library] for his use,” Laurans said.
Despite his declining health, Sewall still maintained his wide knowledge of Dickinson and poetry, English professor Leslie Brisman said.
“He lived to teach the particulars of the smallest lyric of Emily Dickinson to the largest concepts of life as related through tragedy,” Brisman said. “I visited him several times in his declining years, but I could bring him back to his full glory by talking with him about a poem. He may have forgotten my name but not the importance of the lyric.”
A testament to his academic work and teaching style, an anonymous alumnus from the Class of 1942 established a Yale College Teaching Prize in Sewall’s honor in 1993. According to the Yale Teaching Prize Web site, the honor is bestowed on a teacher similar to Sewall — the one “who has given the most time, energy, and effective effort to helping undergraduates learn.”
“He invested himself deeply into the students and they loved him,” Laurans said. “Richard was the consummate adviser because he invested himself deeply in the lives of his students, pulling the best of who they were out from them.”
In addition to his academic prowess, Sewall played an integral role in undergraduate life. As the first master of Ezra Stiles, Sewall helped create a community within the newly-formed college. When Ezra Stiles was founded, along with Morse, Sewall was responsible for encouraging fellows and students from other colleges to come to Ezra Stiles.
Former Ezra Stiles master Paul Fry said Sewall did a remarkable job in attracting students to the new college.
“[Sewall] encouraged students to have a frontier spirit in moving to the new colleges,” Sewall said. “The large part of his success was his hands-on ways and charisma.”
Current Ezra Stiles Master Traugott Lawler said Sewall made the college a respectful community from the beginning.
“There was a very good intermingling of the classes, helped largely by his decision to spread sophomores throughout the college, and to encourage seniors and juniors to live all over as well,” he said.
Lawler said Sewall was proud of his work with the college.
“He would boast all the time about what a great fellowship he put together,” Lawler said. “He was a very persuasive man.”
Sewall’s son, Rick, said his father had a major impact on his students because he would often teach them life lessons and mold them as adults. Rick Sewall said he remembered his father grading papers in bed at night and emphasizing his belief that teaching students was more important than publishing scholarship.
“He recognized that these students were still adolescents and had to be guided and took a little more tender loving care than a graduate student,” Rick Sewall said. “He cared about people deeply — any person he met. He had a tremendous wit and sincerity.”
Emblematic of his popularity amongst students, two consecutive graduating classes decided to dedicate their yearbooks to Sewall.
“He protested the second one but they said they would do it to him anyway,” Rick Sewall said.