Richard Macksey: The man who introduced Derrida to America—and inspired Writers in Baltimore Schools

Richard Macksey’s seminar table and home library, circa 2010.

This week, the Beat will be posting work from writers in the Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS) program. This work was created at WBS’ Young Writers’ Summer Studio, a six-day writing camp held each year in August. This year, the Beat’s Lisa Snowden-McCray and Brandon Soderberg worked with the students for two of those six days. Some of the work here and much more will be published in WBS’ Writers’ Studio anthology out soon. We will begin with a tribute from WBS founder Patrice Hutton, who reflects on the loss of her writing mentor, Richard Macksey, amid her preparations for the Studio…

I gained my most important mentor just as I began to mentor young writers.

I was in my final semester of college and registered for a class that began at the respectable hour of eight o’clock in the evening. It was my first and only class on Tuesdays and met at the professor’s home, a ten minute walk north of the Hopkins campus. Richard Macksey, then fifty years into his teaching career at Hopkins, greeted me at his front door. I was welcomed graciously, but I didn’t yet know the extent of what welcome could mean or how it would shape me.

In late July, as I was preparing for Writers in Baltimore Schools’ 8th annual Writers’ Studio, DrMacksey passed away a few days shy of his eighty-eighth birthday. I, like dozens who could write their own version of this, have found myself reminiscing about a friendship with the professor who knew everything and welcomed everyone.                           

Richard Macksey was the shopper who knew all the overnight cashiers at Super Fresh in Hampden because that was when he bought his groceries. He knew the names of the employees’ kids and who had to make the long commute from Cherry Hill. Richard Macksey was the professor who gave me no deadline for my final paper of college, which meant that the registrar’s office called a few days before graduation, asking how to get in touch with my professor for a final grade. “Uh, it’ll be done soon,” I promised. “But don’t you have Dr. Macksey’s phone number? He’s taught at Hopkins for fifty years.” Richard Macksey was the cat parent who played Schubert for his beloved red tabby T.R. on his final night. Richard Macksey was the volunteer at The Book Thing who shelved overnight because that was when he had the time. Richard Macksey was the man with a pipe in hand, greeting at you at his door, welcoming you into a house that seemed to be constructed of books.

In academic circles, Dr. Macksey is known as  “the man who introduced Derrida to America,”     

One night a week [usually 2-5 a,m,] I do shelving/reshelving [at The Book Thing]—thus can look out for authors & titles the kids may want.

(Dr. Macksey, May 2014)

Those Tuesdays, we sat around the seminar table in his home library. Wine flowed. I hoped to God I didn’t spill wine on the handwritten letter from Umberto Eco that sat on the table. Trader Joe’s Chocolatey Cat Cookies for People were passed around the table, which was heaped with books. Books lined the library, wall to ceiling. Books lined the walls of every room, even the pantry between his dining room and kitchen, where the shelf of cat nutrition books sat, ready to advise care of his two felines, Sassy and Buttons. Other memoriams will surely list the first editions that, like the Eco letter, were often strewn about the house. Dr. Macksey’s home housed some 70,000 volumes, yet it seemed he could retrieve any one of them at a moment’s notice. 

Incidental news: at a too advanced age, I’ve returned to parenting–a waif kitten, lively, affectionate, & demanding.  Trying to convince Sassy that we’re not trading her in for a new model.

(Dr. Macksey, January 2011)

Dr. Macksey was the man who introduced me to Jacques Derrida, alongside many others, in text and in person. I’m afraid to say the Derrida didn’t stick⁠—I haven’t read the renowned French theorist since taking Dr. Macksey’s graduate seminar Narrative and Temporality, a class that was the (im)perfect send off to the real world. That fall, interning at the Kennedy Center, I’d daydream about my days of writing about liturgical time in Chekhov’s “The Bishop” while making file labels for my boss. I remember setting internship goals with said boss, and when she suggested I supplement my goal of “learn about regional trends in arts education” with the more practical “learn how to take meeting minutes,” the days around Dr. Macksey’s table felt but a dream.

Miraculously, I ended up back at Macksey’s table. I was out of college but back in Baltimore, trying to figure out how to write apart from workshop deadlines. A classmate of mine, close with Dr. Macksey, arranged for our writing group—which had met once at my own kitchen table—to meet at the professor’s house. This, I think, was key. Week after week we showed up at Dr. Macksey’s house to workshop our fiction.

“We” was an evolving cast. We started as a group of three—three of us who’d been friends from our undergraduate Writing Seminars days at Hopkins. First, a Writing Sems grad student joined us. Then came three Hopkins seniors, one of whose father had studied with Dr. Macksey. Jess, Patrick, Ryan, Katie, Alex, and Solara. “Some of the best writing friends I’ve known,” Ryan recently called us in a memorial post on social media.

While I’m not crucial to the seminar–and you lot are welcome to the house whether I’m here or not–perhaps we can discuss an alternate possibility for that week when we meet tonight.

(Dr. Macksey to the writing group, October 2009)

Week after week, I kept writing, kept turning in stories. The story I passed around that table most often became the first piece of fiction I had the courage to submit, and the first piece I had published. The time and space Dr. Macksey gave us kept us honest. The community he afforded us was life-giving. I think for many of us the years right after college can be the loneliest years. For the first time in your life, you’re forced to build a community without the aid of an educational institution. I loved Baltimore, but many of my friends were gone. I felt like a ghost lurking around Hopkins. But I felt like somebody at Dr. Macksey’s table. He didn’t care that I was out of school. Week after week, he read my words, this man who had brought Derrida to America. (And Dr. Macksey connected our words to everything, seemingly free-associating with anything in the history of the world. “[My story] had a thing about Molly Pitcher’s grave in there, so of course [Dr. Macksey] went on every Molly Pitcher tangent possible,” I wrote to my partner, Vijay, in September 2009).

Dr. Macksey let me bring others to his table. Vijay was the one who first who put the professor on my radar. Graduating the year before me at Hopkins, Vijay received the inaugural Richard A. Macksey Award, which was given for high achievement across a broad curriculum. Vijay graduated without taking one of Dr. Macksey’s seminars, but many of those Tuesdays, after work in D.C., Vijay would drive to Baltimore to join Dr. Macksey’s graduate seminar, and later, our writing group.

At some point our writing group migrated to Dr. Macksey’s dining room table. Perhaps because we introduced dinner to our meetings, and the grease of pizza boxes seemed best kept off that seminar table. Dr. Macksey always apologized that he wasn’t feeding us more than wine and cheese. We felt the least we could do was feed the old man pizza. (Once a member of our writing group returned from California with a venison steak her dad had hunted, and we cooked it as part of a full-course dinner in Dr. Macksey’s kitchen). The dining room table was where I brought Terrell, then a 9th grader at Baltimore City College High School, to talk about writing with Dr. Macksey. Two years prior, I’d been Terrell’s creative writing teacher at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle, my first year of running the Writers in Baltimore Schools program. Terrell was a kid who sent me home with a fantasy novel in a spiral notebook, a kid who reported that he wrote three days a week, no less than three hours a day, and that when he was writing, he never looked at the clock or thought about time. (Today, Terrell serves as the Head Counselor for the WBS Summer Studio).

Ryan the Provider,

Just made my 5:00 am raid on the Stupor Fresh–they still keep 24 hours.  Captured some ice cream to go with the Dark Pie.

Think you can go to the Giant desk with the sad story & receipt and recapture your kewpon.

a presto, Dick

(Dr. Macksey to Ryan and the writing group, May 2011)

That same year, 2009, Vijay and I attended Dr. Macksey’s retirement party. There’s a photo of us I love from that party: eager grins, wine-stained lips, posing in front of a make-do bookshelf. We were kids, and the party was full of giants. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The family of late literary theorist Hugh Kenner. Baltimore’s own John Barth. Dr. Macksey’s introduction of Derrida to America occurred when he hosted the “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium at Hopkins in 1966. Conference festivities spilled over to his house, and my memory of one Dr. Macskey’s stories goes that Derrida (or was it Derrida’s father? His stories meandered, often obscuring the culprit) broke a tobacco pipe that fell into and clogged a toilet. When, in college, I called to excuse myself from class due to a migraine, Dr. Macksey offered to loan me a tome on migraines that, he said, philosopher Richard Rorty had found useful when visiting and suffering a headache himself.

These were the types who passed through Dr. Macksey’s home, and Terrell, barely out of middle school, was welcomed at the same table. In the early 70s, recent City College High School graduate Melvin Brown found himself at Dr. Macksey’s table. After high school, Melvin started at the Hopkins MSE Library as a page, alongside three other City College grads. He’d been assigned to shelve books on D Level, the floor that sat four stories into the earth, where the literature lived. Melvin spent his free time reading poetry on D Level and soon began writing his own. Frank Moorer, a graduate student he’d befriended, passed Melvin’s poetry along to Dr. Macksey. Dr. Macksey read the poetry and passed a note back to Frank: “This cat is GOOD. He’s got the big emotions–loneliness, compassion, nostalgia, absurdity; but what’s more, he’s got the gift of acting them out in words, of playing the tones against each other, of playing the ironic riffs.” Not long after, Melvin assumed the editorship for CHICORY, a literary magazine that published work primarily by African Americn youth, produced by the Enoch Pratt Library and funded though War on Poverty legislation. Half a decade later, Melvin enrolled in the Hopkins Writing Seminars program and went on to publish two poetry collections, In the First Place and Blue Notes and Blessing Songs. “I was never in any formal class setting with [Macksey], but we used to sit in his big library, and sometimes students would be there while we were visiting,” Melvin told me. “People like that always make you feel like they have a real interest in what you’re doing. They make you feel like what you’re doing is worthwhile.”

“Editing CHICORY must be especially exciting for a writer; Vico and Wordsworth were probably right that we all started out as poets before we started to grow up and lose our voices. Reading some of your writings ought to be a required item for people trying to understand ‘urban affairs.’”

(Dr. Macksey to Melvin Brown, September 1971, upon receiving a copy of CHICORY)

Often I ended up at Dr. Macksey’s home outside of our writing group. When I was in a pinch, Dr. Macksey let me hold WBS’s writing camp orientation at that dining table. When I didn’t have a TV, he had me over to watch Olympic figure skating and NCAA basketball finals, coming to cheer on Johnny Weir and the Butler Bulldogs alongside me. When entering his house to return his Army of Shadows DVD, I socked myself in the eye with a bottle of wine. Dr. Macksey filled a tobacco bag with ice, which I held to my eye as he, Vijay, and I enjoyed the wine and discussed Melville’s film. When needing to help a college student find housing, Dr. Macksey was my first call.

Hi All,

As Keeper of the Cats, I’m not sure I am a voting member of the Group, but we seem to be moving in the right direction: live for a while then as departures warrant move to the net. I’ll need some advice about FessBook, since I’ve been trying bootlessly to extract myself–they claim they’ve trapped me but also insist my password is invalid [entered by accident, and I refuse to give them more information about my grandmother’s out-of-wedlock child, Uncle Roy.]

Alex on deck for tonight? I have a quantity of food from top-dollar Eddie’s [cheese, deli, fruit, enough grapes for a winery], fresh yesterday from a class of ’66 gathering here; they drank all the champagne save for a 1/2 bottle].

Elsewhere a triple-header weekend–a wedding, a beatification, and an assassination.  Has the Donald entered his demand for a Pakistani death certificate yet?

ZSleepless in B’more,

Dilatory Dick

(Dr. Macksey to the writing group, May 2011)

The writing group is spread across the country now, and the truth is, we haven’t kept reading each other’s fiction. The seniors graduated. Soon after, the other two members left. I realized that I was to be the last one standing, the last left in Baltimore, on a hazy night in the Hopkins Young Alumni tent. Jess announced that she was moving, and Alex, back in town for the occasion, had to field my tears. We needed to visit Dr. Macksey immediately, he and I decided. Dr. Macksey slept rarely—in fits, in armchairs, never deep enough to refuse a visitor—so we fled the tent and ran to his house. No one answered our knock. Alex and I locked eyes. We knew where the spare key was kept. Somehow, though, in a moment of clarity, we decided that it was best not to barge in our sleeping friend.

“I do miss you guys,” Dr. Macksey wrote Alex that fall. “There are some new originals and talents, but as Proust reminds us the only true paradises are the ones we’ve lost.”

Time, space, and community—it is no coincidence that the gifts Dr. Macksey gave me sit at the core of my work with young writers in Baltimore. “This Studio allows you to feel like you’re somebody,” a student wrote in his WBS Studio evaluation one year. I understood. Dr. Macksey had helped me feel like somebody–helped me feel seen, feel heard–when the structures I’d come to depend on were gone.

I am still writing thanks to Richard Macksey.