James Lee Rice


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 Ricešs 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 conferencešs 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 Ricešs 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 articlešs 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 writeršs work and life. He said at the end of an article on Tolstoy that "[t]he psychobiographeršs 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 Turgenevšs 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