Melvin Richter, 1921-2020

Arthur Goldhammer
25 March 2020

Tocquevillians recently suffered a major loss: Melvin Richter, the great historian of political thought, died a little over a week ago. Mel was the kindest of men, and intellectually generous in a way that not all great scholars are. He and I shared not only an interest in Tocqueville but also a past as military linguists: the Army taught Mel to speak Chinese as it taught me to speak Vietnamese. We liked to laugh together about the absurdities of military life and the pitfalls of translation. Tocqueville was not the only object of his scholarly interest–far from it–but I am happy to say that Tocqueville absorbed him right to the end of his life, and he has left us the gift of a book on the theorist of democracy now in press. I look forward to reading it and, as I do, remembering Mel’s voice, always constructively critical, always encouraging, always brimming with new insights. May he rest in peace. The rest of this post is a short obituary by Mel’s son, Anthony Richter.

My father Melvin Richter passed away on March 14, shortly before his 99th birthday. He died peacefully and at home after a long life, rich in ideas, shared generously through his teaching, writings and intellectual enterprise.

He grew up in an immigrant home where Yiddish and Russian were spoken and attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University.  He served in the Second World War in the Office of Strategic Services where, in the adventure of a lifetime, he learned to speak Mandarin at the University of Pennsylvania and served in China as an army interpreter, parachuting into Japanese-occupied Beijing in August 1945 on an OSS mission to liberate American POWs. Afterwards he returned to Harvard and completed a PhD in political science. He went on to have a prolific academic career at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he stayed some 40 years until his retirement in 1998. He co-founded two academic societies, including the Conference for the Study of Political Thought, and co-founded the journal Political Theory. He published widely on the history of political ideas, specializing in 18th and 19th century French liberal thinkers, was made a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government, and had two appointments at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton. He remained intellectually active until the very end, working daily to complete his final and forthcoming book on Tocqueville and the two Bonapartes.

My father was an extremely positive person, loving and loved by his wife, sons, and grandchildren. When it is safe for people to gather again, we will set aside a time for family and friends to visit with us and pay their respects. A memorial to celebrate Mel’s life and work is being planned.

9 Comments

  • Vivian R. Gruder says:

    I knew Mel many years ago. A truly kind gentleman.
    If there will be a memorial service, please inform me.

  • T. Scott Johnson says:

    I had the good fortune of meeting Mel while in graduate school at the CUNY GC where he, even in the last few years, would periodically engage in workshops and public talks. I know the New York intellectual community he has left behind will miss him sorely.

  • Pierre Force says:

    I first met Mel when he was in his mid-80s. We became friends and met for lunch once or twice a year on the Upper West Side. I remember his energy, his kindness, and the disarming way in which he said he needed the conversation to remain mentally sharp in his old age. Our conversations were wide-ranging: he was curious about everything. The news of his passing saddens me greatly. May he rest in peace.

  • Steven Smith says:

    I knew Mel, not well, but we had met a number of times over the years. One memorable occasion was a conference we attended for the bicentennial of Tocqueville’s birth at a conference center at Cerisy-la-Salle in the Normandy region of France. We all visited the Tocqueville’s home and the D Day cemetery. Mel was a great travel companion and a wonderful scholar. His memory will be a blessing.

  • Danielle Charette says:

    Thanks for this, Art. I know I’m grateful for the Conference for the Study of Political Thought and the journal Political Theory, alongside his scholarship.

  • Bernd Reiter says:

    I am saddened by his news and wish to extend my sincere condoles to the Richter family. I will always remember Melvin Richter as my professor and mentor. I had the fortune to take a Tocqueville seminar with him in 1998. It was my first year the the Graduate Center and his last time offering such a seminar. As I was in financial trouble, he hired me, not so much because he needed me, but to support me. In retrospect, it seems that he invented tasks so he could pay me some money. At some point, I packed up his books and we shipped them to Hungary. I spent time at the Public Library, going through different entries on Koselleck’s History of Terms and Ideas for him (Begriffsgeschichte) . We went to a storage place together to pack up and store more things and I sat at the front desk of a conference he organized at Hunter College. We walked and talked together. He was one of the kindest people I have ever met.

  • Chris Seeger says:

    Professor Richter was my professor and mentor when I was a student at Hunter College. He inspired me when I was his student and continued to inspire me throughout my adult life. I’m so saddened to hear he has passed. What huge loss! There are not many like him. I thought about him all the time. In fact, I found out about his passing because I just did a Google search to find out whatever I could about him. Just before this crazy pandemic hit, I was trying to locate him. I knew he was on in years but I hoped I’d get to see him and talk to him again. It’s so saddening to now realize I’ll never get to talk to him again. I was what he called a “born again student”. I worked as a carpenter for a few years after High School and then decided to go to College. I got an “A” in his course my first semester in College and it gave me all the confidence I needed to continue: Doing well in his course and my frequent talks with him. I went on after College to Law School. I credit a lot of my success in life to him. He inspired me. He gave me confidence and made me believe I could succeed in my studies and life. What a great man. I hope that I can do for a young person what he did for me.

  • Peter Rajsingh says:

    I studied with Prof Richter and he was on my doctoral dissertation committee. He was an extraordinary person, a great intellectual and scholar, ever gracious and kind, and a delight to have known. My condolences to the family and enduring admiration for a life well lived.

  • Eric A. Johnson says:

    Mel and I first met in Princeton as IAS fellows in 1995. He had a strongly positive effect on my life, giving me helpful academic and family advice. Raised also in Boston we always had much to discuss. We kept up evert few tears since then. I will forever remember him hiking through fields, parks and seers with his backpack and smile and curiosity. One last hug Mel and thanks so much. Deep condolences to his family.

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