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University of Oregon

In Memoriam

JAMES L. RICE, 1938-2011

James Lee Rice, Professor Emeritus of Russian Language and Literature at the University
of Oregon, died of heart failure on September 23, 20II. He was 73 years old.
Rice’s commitment to Russian literature was established early. In 1960 he graduated
from Harvard, magna cum laude, having concentrated in Slavic. He then moved
to the University of Chicago, his home town, where he earned the Ph.D. in 1965, with
a dissertation on the much maligned and ridiculed eighteenth-century Russian poet
Vasily Trediakovsky. Earlier Rice had had the opportunity to pursue his eighteenth century
studies in Leningrad under the notoriously acerb P. N. Berkov, who proved
not immune to Rice’s charm and scholarly energy. Although Rice’s Trediakovsky
studies never led to a publishable book, they did inspire several valuable articles. Typically,
a paper written for a symposium on Derzhavin was titled “Derzhavin i epokha
Trediakovskogo,” thereby polemically reversing the relative importance traditionally
assigned to the two figures, and, no doubt to his delight, provoking the editors to state
their vexation in the preface to the volume where the conference’s proceedings appeared.

Rice taught for a year (1965-66) at Harvard, another (1966-67) at the University
of Illinois, Chicago, but in 1967 he found his permanent academic home at the University
of Oregon, where he served for 34 years, becoming Emeritus in 2001. At Oregon
he was virtually an institution in himself.

Rice suffered all his adult life from a variety of ills of both mind and body. All the
more remarkable therefore are his achievements as a scholar. His intellectual curiosity
was boundless, and his mind constantly generated unexplored topics he planned to
pursue. On his death he left an “agenda” of seven such topics still awaiting him. But
so much was accomplished! Foremost, of course, are his three outstanding books.
Dostoevsky and the Healing Art (1985) ventured into an area cautiously tiptoed
around by most Dostoevskii biographers, the writer’s chronic illness, epilepsy, and its
effect on his writings and his life. Rice’s research for this pioneering work was not
limited to printed sources; as he often did, he made friends with live ones, in this case
the leading American medical specialists on epilepsy.

This first medico-literary book was soon followed by another, Freud’s Russia: National
Identity in the Evolution of Psychoanalysis
(1994). Here Rice explored the numerous,
hitherto little noticed ancestral and personal connections linking Sigmund
Freud to Russia, including one of his most famous patients, the “wolf-man,” revealed
as one Sergei Pankeev. Most important, Freud was fascinated by, and learned much
from the writer who was the subject of Rice’s life-long absorption, Fedor Dostoevsky,
who finally rose to become the central focus of Rice’s last book, Who Was Dostoevsky?
(2011).

Rice’s Dostoevsky is very much his own-a quirky, difficult genius, mentally unstable,
subject to periodic epileptic attacks, mostly painful and debilitating, but with
the occasional reward of euphoric auras. Rice’s very secular Dostoevsky is profoundly
distant from the “holier-than-thou” Dostoevsky of so many later exegetes,
“his art nailed to the Cross of a Russian Orthodox poetics.” Rice’s Dostoevsky is
rather a sick, erratic artistic genius who described himself as a “child of unbelief and
[religious] doubt” never overcome. This is not an image that has endeared Rice to
more orthodox or Orthodox Dostoevsky lovers, but at least it is a challenge they must
confront.

His articles reveal a broad range of interests. In addition to the items devoted to
Trediakovsky, they include studies of several nineteenth-century writers besides Dostoevsky
as well as of figures from both earlier and later periods. These shorter pieces
are invariably thought-provoking, and grounded in extensive scholarship. He only
turned to Nabokov once, in a relatively late piece where he described his reasons for
beginning his survey of Russian literature with Pnin. However, his commentary
would have been worthy of the novel’s author, taking the article’s readers
into various byways that undermine any superficial reading. His affinity for Nabokov
is cause for regret that he did not write more about him. Of particular interest among
the other articles are two on Turgenev as well as two on Tolstoy and dreams. In writing
on these two figures, as in his work on Dostoevsky, Rice was particularly interested
in the relationship between the writer’s work and life. He said at the end of an
article on Tolstoy that “[t]he psychobiographer’s work remains to be done.” In more
than one instance, though, he made at least a start to just such work. Thus his penetrating
analysis of letters that Varvara Petrovna Turgeneva wrote to her son during
1838-1844 complicates the usual image of the mother while providing fascinating
footnotes to several of Turgenev’s writings.

In that article Rice mentioned that he was only able to get copies of the letters after
six failed attempts during the Soviet era. He was a prodigious and tenacious researcher,
who explored topics overlooked or ignored by others and who investigated
every clue, every unanswered question until he had found out all that he could. He
was an equally prodigious correspondent, regularly sharing his findings with colleagues
and turning to them for assistance in chasing down obscure facts whose importance
often did not emerge until he had placed them in a larger context. Brilliant,
indefatigable, and as complex as those about whom he wrote, he pursued a unique and
rewarding path in his scholarship.

Hugh McLean, University of California, Berkeley
Barry P Scherr, Dartmouth College