In Memoriam: Richard Helgerson

Richard Helgerson | 1940-2008Helgerson 1

“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 PM 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

Richard Helgerson | Ph.D., Johns Hopkins, 1970Helgerson 2
Professor, English Department
U. California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3170
tel: (805) 893-2988
fax: (805) 893-4622

Areas of Interest

Renaissance Literature and Culture


Full List of Research Activities


A Sonnet from Carthage: Garcilaso de la Vega and the New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)
Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting (University of Chicago Press, 2000)
Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System (University of California Press, 1983)
The Elizabethan Prodigals (University of California Press, 1977)

Edition and Translation:

Joachim Du Bellay. The Regrets, with The Antiquities of Rome, Three Latin Elegies, and the Defense and Enrichment of the French Language: A Bilingual Edition (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)

Edited Collection:

Literature and Geography. Special issue of Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (1998). Co-edited with Joanne Woolway Grenfell.

Recent Articles and Notes:

“Richard Hakluyt.” The Oxford Companion to Exploration. Ed. David Buisseret. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming
“Remembering, Forgetting, and the Founding of a National Literature: The Example of Joachim du Bellay.” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 21 (2005): 19-30
“William Gray.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
“Writing the Law.” Law, Liberty, and Parliament: Selected Essays on the Writings of Sir Edward Coke. Ed. Allen D. Boyer. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004. Pp. 26-69. [Reprinted from Forms of Nationhood.]
“‘I Miles Philips’: An Elizabethan Seaman Conscripted by History.” PMLA 118 (2003): 537-540
“Shakespeare and Other English Dramatists of History.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Histories. Ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. Pp. 26-47
“Before National Literary History.” Modern Language Quarterly. 64 (2003): 169-179
“The Folly of Maps and Modernity.” Literature, Mapping and the Politics of Space in Early Modern Britain. Ed. Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. 241-262
“Michael Drayton,” “Fynes Moryson,” and “John Stow.” Tudor England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney and David W. Swain. New York: Garland, 2001. Pp. 208-209, 500-501, and 675-676
“A Story of Generations.” Approaches to Teaching Shorter Elizabethan Poetry. Ed. Patrick Cheney and Anne Lake Prescott. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000. Pp. 245-248
“Writing Empire and Nation,” in Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1500-1600 (2000)
“Weeping for Jane Shore.” South Atlantic Quarterly (1999)
“Genremalerei, Landkarten und nationale Unsicherheit im Holland des 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Bilder der Nation: Kulturelle und politische Konstruktionen des Nationalen am Beginn der europäischen Moderne. Ed. Uli Bielefeld and Gisela Engle (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1998)
“The Buck Basket, the Witch and the Queen of Fairies: The Women’s World of Shakespeare’s Windsor,” in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (1998)
“Language Lessons: Linguistic Colonialism, Linguistic Postcolonialism, and the Early Modern English Nation,” Yale Journal of Criticism (1998)
“Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls: The Politics of Dutch Domestic Realism, 1650-1672,” Representations (1997)
“Murder in Faversham: Holinshed’s Impertinent History,” in The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain (1997)
“Doing Literary History on a Large Scale,” English Studies and History (1994)
“Nation or Estate?: Ideological Conflict in the Early Modern Mapping of England,” Cartographica (1993)
“Writing Against Writing: Humanism and the Form of Coke’s Institutes,” Modern Language Quarterly (1992)
“Camoes, Hakluyt, and the Voyages of Two Nations,” in Culture and Colonialism (1992)

Recent Courses Taught

Unread Shakespeare
The European Renaissance
A Home in the World: The New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Spain, France, and England
Seventeenth Century Poetry in Print
The Literature of Overseas Expansion: Comp Lit 265: New Worlds
Donne, Jonson, and Their Generation
Spenser, Sidney, et al.
Domestic Drama of the Renaissance