Robert D. Richardson, prize-winning historian on American thinkers, dies at 86

Author Robert D. Richardson stands by the statue of Henry David Thoreau at the Walden Pond Reservation.
Robert D. Richardson, author on Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, stands by the statue of Thoreau at the Walden Pond Reservation.
(Joanne Rathe/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Robert D. Richardson, a prize-winning historian known for his elegant and authoritative biographies of such leading American thinkers as William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, has died.

Richardson died June 16 at a hospital on Cape Cod, Mass., after sustaining head injuries in a fall, his daughter Anne told the Los Angeles Times. Richardson, who was married to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard, turned 86 just days before his death.

A native of Milwaukee, Richardson grew up in Massachusetts and had a close affinity with Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other New England writers. A church in Medford he attended was the former meeting place for the Transcendental Club, whose members included Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. Concord, where Richardson lived when he was young, was home in the 19th century to Emerson and Thoreau among others.


Richardson won the Bancroft Prize in 2007 for “William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism,” which judges praised as “a virtual intellectual genealogy of American liberalism and, indeed, of American intellectual life in general, through and beyond the twentieth century.” In 1996, his “Emerson: The Mind on Fire” won the Francis Parkman Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle finalist.

“Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind” was published in 1986. Along with his first wife, Elizabeth Hall Richardson, Richardson conducted much of his research for the book at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

The book also had a personal effect on his life. The book’s fans included Dillard, who sent him a fan letter. The two eventually met, and after “two lunches and three handshakes” as Dillard later remembered it, they were married.

Richardson was also an avid outdoorsman who climbed peaks in the Swiss Alps, canoed throughout the northern United States, skied the Rocky Mountains and for decades sailed the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces in a two-masted wooden schooner with friends and family.

Richardson is survived by two daughters, three stepdaughters, three grandchildren and a brother, David. His youngest daughter, Anne, is a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles.

Times staff writer Steve Marble contributed to this report.