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Richard Marius

Richard MariusRichard Marius

from the Harvard University Gazette, Nov. 11, 1999

Richard Marius, noted Reformation scholar, acclaimed novelist, and popular teacher, died at his home in Belmont, Mass., on Nov. 5, 1999 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He retired from Harvard in 1998, having been a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and director of the Expository Writing Program since l978. He was 66.

Marius’s major studies of Thomas More (l983) and Martin Luther (1999) provoked consternation and applause. In both cases Marius challenged prevailing orthodoxies by presenting his subjects devoid of the sanctity attributed to them by their enthusiasts. He instead revealed them as men of their time, struggling to reconcile their beliefs, fears, and earthly ambitions, sometimes without admirable result, but always fully human. More was nominated for a National Book Award, and both biographies were History Book Club selections.

A Time reviewer wrote of More: “It is Marius’s persuasive thesis that, far from being the serene humanist . . . , More was a soul tormented by the little death knells of tick-tocking time, and haunted even more by the silences of eternity.”

Marius wrote four novels, based in a fictional Bourbon County, Tenn., revealing individuals interacting with the major historical events during the years between 1850 and 1950. The first, The Coming of Rain (1969), a main selection by the Book-of-the-Month-Club, interwove the lives of small town characters into the post-Civil War traumas of the border states. Bound for the Promised Land (1976) followed a character from Bourbon County west in the year after the Gold Rush. A third volume in the series, After the War (l992), took on the dislocations of the First World War and immigrant struggles in the United States. A fourth, set after the Second World War, is expected to be published next year.

About 30,000 freshmen had their first taste of college-level writing in Expository Writing, the only course required of all students in Harvard College. Marius was immensely involved in the Program, attending every section at least once and always teaching one or more himself. Two books, A Writer’s Companion and A Short Guide to Writing About History, grew out of these experiences. A popular teacher of Twain and Faulkner, each spring he coached the student orators for Harvard’s Commencement, and, with deftness and grace, wrote Harvard’s honorary degree citations.

A prolific writer, Marius published widely in journals such as Daedalus, the Sewanee Review, Soundings, The Boston Globe, Christian Century, and Esquire, as well as writing a bimonthly book review section in Harvard Magazine. While a professor of history at the University of Tennessee he published an early study of Luther in l974, and he also edited three volumes of the Yale edition of The Complete Works of St. Thomas More. In l994 he edited the Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry.

Richard Curry Marius was born in Loudon County, Tenn., on July 29, l933. His father, who had been educated in Belgium, was a Greek chemical engineer who worked as a foundry manager for the Lenoir Car Works of Southern Railway. His mother had worked as a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Marius was first recognized as a writer while an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. His popular weekly column in the Lenoir City News contained sketches of many of the characters who were later to appear in his novels. Receiving his B.S. in journalism in l954, Marius explored becoming a Baptist minister. He received his B.D. from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in l958. In l956-57 he was a Rotary Fellow in history at the University of Strasbourg.

Immediately upon leaving the seminary, Marius enrolled in Yale’s Graduate School, concentrating in Reformation history under the tutelage of Sydney Ahlstrom, Hajo Holborn, and Roland Bainton. During that time he also served as the pastor of New Milford Baptist Church, and as an instructor in Yale College. On receiving his Ph.D. in l962 he taught for two years at Gettysburg College, and then took up his professorship at the University of Tennessee. In l999 he received the Hileman Distinguished Alumni Award from the School of Journalism at Tennessee.

An expansive personality, a gifted raconteur with a jaunty aspect, devoted to bow ties and bicycling, Marius cut a wide swath whether in faculty common rooms and Boston clubs, or in his beloved France. He is survived by his wife, Lanier Smythe, an art historian and chair of humanities at Suffolk University in Boston; three sons, Richard Henri Marius and Frederick Stewart Marius (from an earlier marriage), and John Bartlett Marius; and two grandchildren.

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