Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 28, 2022

Entering the home of Professor Richard Macksey is like exploring the contents of a time capsule. The rooms are filled from floor to ceiling with every type of book imaginable. A bibliophile, educator and scholar, Macksey has been highly admired and celebrated throughout the University community and beyond for over half a century.

During his time in Baltimore, Macksey has witnessed changes both great and small within the city and the University. One of his favorite things about having been around for so long is getting to work with so many generations of students.

“I’ve seen 14 or more of these generations of college students come and go,” Macksey said. “It’s as if I have seen centuries of history.”

Macksey was educated at Hopkins, earning his B.A. in 1953 and his Ph.D. in 1957. He began working at the University the following year and later founded the Humanities Center and introduced courses in film, women’s and gender studies and African American history.

“[The Humanities Center] was a place where we could try out a lot of ideas,” Macksey said.

The classes he offers are unlike most. He opens his house to small seminars where he lectures to students and encourages discussion.

“Teaching gives you the chance to reinvent yourself,” Macksey said. “The teacher learns too, but the real rewards and excitements come when the student learns.”

Macksey has been teaching for five decades and plans to continue offering one new seminar a semester as long as the University will allow him to do so.

“I like to teach. It keeps me alive. . .more or less,” said Macksey.

This semester he is teaching a seminar on the evolution of the short story.

His personal library is the largest in the state of Maryland and is comprised of over 70,000 books, many of them rare, and is valued at over four million dollars. In fact, an article published by buzzfeed.com on Feb. 22 even listed the library as one of the 30 best places in the world to be for book lovers.

When asked what his favorite book is, Macksey replied that such a question would be like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. If he had to pick, Macksey said he would choose based on whom he was talking to.

“If you are interested in modern poetry it might be a copy of Yeat’s Wind Among the Reeds but if you liked Henry James I might say one of his.” Macksey said.

He said he likes to host his classes in his home as opposed to in a more traditional setting because of the closeness to his books, and, of course, coffee. Macksey also wants to honor the legacy of his late wife, whose presence he said still permeates the house.

A French literary scholar and translator, Catherine Macksey worked alongside her husband translating and editing his books up until she passed away in 2000.

“It is very hard for me to think of this house without her,” Macksey said. “She was a wonderful teacher. It’s not that we taught our courses together — my courses wouldn’t have existed without her.”

In addition to all of Macksey’s scholarly accomplishments at Hopkins, he is known for his incredible generosity, kindness and wisdom. Those who have class with him are welcomed into his beautiful home on Guilford by his two cats, Sassy and Buttons, who play together on colorful Persian rugs. A table is always set with food and drink and Macksey encourages students to help themselves.

“His library is amazing and there is something very ‘dead poet’s society’ about the whole in-class experience — like the kind of thing you dreamed about happening in college but usually doesn’t,” senior Bridget Baird Harkness said.

Senior Ben Ketter, who participated in a seminar with Macksey last spring titled “Fictions of Autobiography,” raved about his experience in the class.

“I loved how he chose literature from different time periods and styles and tied it all together thematically,” Ketter said. “Some of it was kind of obscure, but fascinating, and there was no other way I would’ve gotten exposure to it except through him.”

Ketter explained how the dynamic of the seminar differed from other classroom settings he had experienced at Hopkins.

“The class kind of centered around coming together as a group of people who were all studying the material, instead of focusing only on the material, if that makes sense,” he said.

The house, of course, was another key way in which the class was different from others.

“Here’s how I would describe the house: picture as many books as you’ve ever seen in your life crammed into a normal house living room, add some nice furniture and oriental rugs and sprinkle interesting objects like telescopes and sextants and old posters and enlightened manuscripts and pictures of him with different students he’s had in the past, throw in a couple of extremely energetic cats (who harass you while he’s lecturing), and you have his home,” Ketter said.

“It’s an extremely classy and sophisticated mess,” Ketter added. “I truly believe he knows how to find everything in that house, though, disorganized as it may be.”

Senior Sasha Brietzke, another member of the class last spring, agreed with Ketter.

“The class was a pleasant departure from campus and a supreme experience overall,” she said. “Having scholarly discussions while in one of the largest private libraries in the country was a treat that topped every week for me.”

Most students who enroll in his classes hear about them through word of mouth.

“I heard about the class from my big,” Brietzke said. “The course was listed in the depths of ISIS and declared ‘off site’, so I doubt I would’ve known about it or enrolled unless it was brought to my attention.”

“If you have the opportunity to take a Macksey class, take it, because he is one of the kindest, hilarious, and wisest professors I have ever had,” she added. “But don’t take the class if you have cat allergies, because that could get awkward.”

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