Faculty at the EMC

In Memoriam


Richard Helgerson, 1940-2008
"Now cracks a noble heart."

            Richard Helgerson, one of the leading scholars of Renaissance literature, died in Santa Barbara, California, on April 26 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  Helgerson, who was known, among other things for his studies of the ways in which the earliest European nation states described themselves to themselves and to the world, was a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, an institution at which he had taught since 1970. A memorial service will be held at the UCSB Faculty Club from 4:00-6:00 p.m. on Friday, May 23.
            Helgerson was the author of six important books, including an edition and translation of the French Renaissance poet Joachim Du Bellay, and more than sixty articles and reviews.  His most influential publications were Self-Crowned Laureates, a major study defining the distinctively Renaissance career patterns of three major English writers, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, and John Milton, and Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England on the early discourse of nationhood.  Published in 1993, Forms of Nationhood won multiple scholarly awards, including the British Council Prize for the best book in any area of British studies and the Modern Language Association James Russell Lowell prize for the best book in any area of literary studies.  This book in particular established Helgerson’s international reputation as one of the leading Renaissance scholars of his generation. 
            Helgerson was the recipient of many grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, a University of  California President’s Fellowship, and awards from the Folger and Huntington Libraries.  In 1998 he was chosen Faculty Research Lecturer at UCSB, the highest scholarly honor the campus can bestow, and in 2005 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Spenser Society.  Helgerson was chair of the UCSB English Department from 1989 to 1993 and also served in other important administrative and consultative roles in the university and the scholarly profession at large.  He was particularly noted as a mentor to graduate students and his former doctoral students are now established scholars at colleges and universities all over the United States.
            Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, Helgerson immediately launched a new scholarly project, a wide-ranging discussion of the classical, imperial, and personal themes of the “new poetry” of the late sixteenth century in Spain, France, and England, as refracted through a single early Spanish sonnet.  Completed within a year, A Sonnet From Carthage was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2007 and has been hailed by, among others, David Quint of Yale University as “beautiful,” an “elegantly crafted scholarly and critical essay.”
            Helgerson was born August 22, 1940, in Pasadena, California, where he attended school.  He graduated from the University of California, Riverside, in 1963 with a B.A. in English.  From 1964 to 1966 he served in the Peace Corps in Atakpamé, Togo.  He received his Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University in 1970, after which he joined the faculty at UCSB as an assistant professor, advancing through the ranks to full professor in 1982. 
            Helgerson is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Marie-Christine Helgerson, who is well-known in France as the author of novels for children; by their daughter, Jessica Helgerson, a “green” interior designer based in Portland, Oregon, and her husband Yianni Doulis, an architect;  by two grandchildren, Max and Penelope; and by his sister Jan Ondeck, of Walnut Creek, California.
            Tributes to Richard Helgerson have poured in over the two and a half years since his diagnosis.  Below are some reflections by a few of his colleagues at UCSB among the many who held him dear to their hearts:

Mark Rose:  “He was one of the most distinguished scholars ever to have taught in the humanities at UCSB and his influence has been felt wherever the literature and culture of the European Renaissance is studied.  He was also one of the most generous and committed teachers of graduate students that I have ever seen.”

Patricia Fumerton:  “His academic and personal life were at all times marked by exemplary acuity, curiosity, dedication, leadership, humility, generosity, and grace.  He was a laureate critic and a laureate human being.  The praise once directed to William Shakespeare could as equally be spoken of Richard Helgerson: ‘He was not of an age but for all time.’”

Michael O’Connell:  “As a scholar, colleague, mentor, and friend, Richard was the soul of generosity.  In the more than 37 years I knew him, he never failed his colleagues and students with the help they needed, the right advice at the right time, the shrewd critique, the penetrating question.  His own extraordinary scholarship was characterized by a deep humanity, asking questions that mattered and answering them in ways that made Renaissance texts as vivid and lively as our own world.”

Alan Liu:  I recently dedicated a book to Richard, and I can't say it any better than I said it there: 'I do not know of a more consummate citizen and leader of our profession: at once disciplined and open, rigorous and generous, pragmatic and idealistic, careful and caring, great and good.'  Richard cared deeply about his students, his department, the university, scholarship, and general society and culture--all at the same time.  Those were all one mix for him.  I don't know how those of us in the English Department who are in younger generations can live up to his measure, especially without the advice and mentorship that he always so generously gave.

A fund in honor of Richard—the Richard Helgerson Graduate Achievement Award—has already been established.  Donations should be made out to “The UCSB Foundation" and indicated "for the English Dept. Richard Helgerson Achievement Award fund"; they can be sent to Joni Schwartz, Department of English, University of California – Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3170.

For those who would like to share their memories of Richard, a weblog has been set up.

Professor Harry Berger, Jr. also offers a more extended reflection upon Richard Helgerson's laureate career in an essay titled "An Intellectual Appreciation."


Richard Helgerson
(Ph.D., Johns Hopkins, 1970)
Professor, English Department
U. California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3170
tel: (805) 893-2988
fax: (805) 893-4622
email: rhelgers@english.ucsb.edu
Richard Helgerson

Areas of Interest



Edition and Translation

Edited Collection

Recent Articles and Notes

Recent Courses Taught