Critic and Champion of Literary Classics
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
Richard Poirier, 83, a literary critic and writer who was one of the founders of the Library of America, a monumental effort to keep American literary classics in print and accessible to the reading public, died Aug. 15 at Roosevelt Hospital in New York.
He suffered injuries in a fall at his home in New York, said a friend, poet Frederick Seidel.
Dr. Poirier taught English for many years at Rutgers University, where in 1981 he founded Raritan: A Quarterly Review, a journal of literary criticism and cultural commentary. Writers published in Raritan include poets John Ashbery and Richard Howard, the Palestinian American writer Edward Said, critic Harold Bloom and feminist writer Camille Paglia.
Wide-ranging and prolific, Dr. Poirier (pronounced POR-yer) was a critic and man of letters in the tradition of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. He wrote books, essays, articles and reviews about America’s most perceptive writers and thinkers — Henry James, Robert Frost and Norman Mailer, among others — but he also explored such cultural phenomena as the American invasion of the Beatles.
In “Learning From the Beatles,” an essay originally published in Partisan Review in 1967, Dr. Poirier was one of the first commentators to argue that the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” represented an intermingling of pop and “serious” cultures that deserved close critical attention.
He also wrote about the impact of Vietnam on the culture and the significance of the 1960s revolution, and he once compared Bette Midler’s command of parody to that of the writers Mailer, Ralph Ginzburg and Thomas Pynchon. In a 1968 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, he argued that the nation was at war with its restive young.
“The intellectual weapons used in the war against youth are from the same arsenal — and the young know this — from which war is being waged against other revolutionary movements, against Vietnam, against any effective justice, as distinguished from legislative melodrama, in matters of race and poverty.”
In a collection of essays and reviews called “Trying It Out in America: Literary and Other Performers” (1999), Dr. Poirier maintained that writers and artists, in the pioneering spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, are constantly experimenting, constantly avoiding fixed forms of language, thought and assumptions. They are, so to speak, “trying it out” as they attempt to view the world in new ways.
“Richard Poirier likes what he likes and he lays waste to what he doesn’t,” reviewer Dawn Trouard wrote in The Washington Post in 1999. “It has long been a pleasure to read him in the process of doing just that.” In “Trying It Out,” he was “delightfully himself,” Trouard wrote.
Dr. Poirier, who wrote books about James, Frost and Mailer, was a major force behind the Library of America, the ambitious ongoing effort to publish the works of the greatest writers America has produced. With grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the nonprofit venture began publishing in May 1982, with works by Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Walt Whitman.
Nearly 200 volumes collecting the works of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and other writers have been published to date.
Dr. Poirier joined the project in its planning stages in 1977 and served on its board of directors until 2006, when he stepped down as chairman. The success of the Library of America, he said in 1985, shows “that so many people — not a whole country, but still a great many people — are giving a signal that they still think there’s something good going on in books that are hard to read and to make.”
Richard William Poirier was born Sept. 9, 1925, in Gloucester, Mass., where his father was a fisherman.
After high school, where an English teacher had nurtured his interest in reading, he joined the Army and served in Europe during World War II. At Amherst College in Massachusetts, he became acquainted with Frost, who gave readings each semester and talked to English majors about poetry.
Dr. Poirier received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst in 1949, a master’s degree from Yale University in 1951 and his doctorate from Harvard University in 1959, all in English. He taught at Williams College and Harvard before joining the Rutgers faculty in 1963. He retired in 2002. Before founding Raritan, he was an editor of Partisan Review. He had no immediate survivors.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Seidel, who knew Mr. Poirier for more than 50 years. “He was fantastic, rambunctious, beefy with energy.”