Having the Last Word

Legendary writer and UT prof Richard Marius led a life full of conviction and controversy. His recently released posthumous novel caps a colorful career.

His friends and students called him larger than life; his detractors claimed he was too big for his britches. Richard Curry Marius, author, teacher, and political activist, was actually a little of both, sometimes fighting windmills for the sake of the fight, and at other times staking his reputation for causes he firmly believed in. Charismatic, buoyant and expansive, a loyal friend and a stalwart opponent, he could ignite conflagrations of considerable proportion whenever his liberal views and massive ego came face to face with a conflicting ideology. But conflict was Marius' metier because it led to discussion and deconstruction, and when the dust settled, he was usually the one who had the last word, whether by persuasive dogging or conciliatory charm.

Marius fought relentlessly for his beliefs by leading student protests against the Vietnam war, working for faculty rights through the American Association of University Professors, and promoting freedom of speech against the religious right. In a eulogy in the News-Sentinel on Jan. 16, 2000, State Historian Wilma Dykeman compared Marius to her late husband Jim: "Both men enjoyed a fierce disdain for bigotry...for racial or religious or class prejudice and the hypocrisy of individuals or institutions that harbored such attitudes."

Richard Marius was born in Dixie Lee Junction in 1933 and died from pancreatic cancer in Belmont, Massachusetts, on November 5, 1999, having worked and written his way from humble beginnings on a 20-acre farm to the hallowed halls of ivy at Harvard University. And now, even after death, Marius, the man who took on Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, Al Gore, and numerous critics, once again gets the last word with the publication of his recently published posthumous novel, An Affair of Honor (Knopf, $26.95), released in September.

This enormous story, set in the early 1950s in Marius' mythical town of Bourbonville, Tenn., is a page-turner reminiscent of old Southern writers like Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor—full of violence, sex, picturesque characters, and the tangled relationships that evolve in a closely knit and deeply religious community. A double murder, to which protagonist Charles Alexander is witness, changes the chemistry of the town, causing many of the townspeople to re-examine their own values. Charles, who by the author's own admission is based on himself as a young man, promises not to tell what he has seen. Already wracked by his dwindling faith in God, he now has to deal with whether it is more honorable to lie than to tell the truth.

Although Charles exhibits none of the exuberance so typical of Richard Marius, he serves as the vehicle that allows the author to relate, in detail, the doubts and confusion that he himself suffered when he decided to abandon the church—issues such as his physical lust and loss of faith, which now allow readers access to Marius' most personal agonies. When Charles stops wrestling with metaphysical issues, the book's preachers take them up, but even their argumentations represent Marius' last thoughts on questions of divinity. As he was finishing up this book he knew he was dying. He held nothing back, and thus made his readers privy to his last thoughts on the subject that had governed his entire life.

Any story about Richard Marius has to begin eight years before his birth, when his older brother Jim was born with Down Syndrome. His mother Eunice, a devout Southern Baptist, prayed constantly when she discovered that she was pregnant again, promising God that if her baby was born healthy, she would dedicate his life to God. So when Richard was born, his life had already been pledged to the ministry. "I remember my mother taking me aside," Marius said, "and saying, very quietly, 'I know that God has a great work for you to do because I prayed so hard for you to be normal.'"

In the fundamentalist atmosphere in which Marius was reared, how could a boy disappoint his sainted mother without consequence? "I remember thinking: This is why I was born," he said. "...[W]hen I decided to become a minister my senior year in high school, it seemed the only thing to do." And then, during his freshman year at UT, lightning struck. Marius discovered the work of W. T. Stace, a Princeton philosopher, who argued against what Aristotle (and Marius' mother) called "final cause"—that everything exists for a reason and that God has planned all the world. "The realization that everything that Stace said must be true and everything that my mother had told me must be false plunged me into a terrific depression," Marius said. "It was the summer of 1951, I was 17 years old, and back then you didn't go to a therapist, you just toughed it out. But...I had all the symptoms of a major clinical depression."

Still hopeful, he thought he might adjust to this new information and reshape his ministry. But he internalized his doubts. Even his closest friends didn't realize his agony. UT Professor of Religious Studies Ralph Norman first met Marius in Divinity School at Yale in 1958. "I didn't know that [disillusioned] young man," says Norman. "In all our conversations, he never hinted about a loss of faith."

Even though Marius went on to the seminary in New Orleans, he was soon mired in depression and decided to transfer to Louisville. But in the interim he was awarded a scholarship to study in France. He spent the year in Paris reading existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who believed that humans are responsible for and sole judges of their actions as they affect others. Like Camus, Marius was fascinated by the horror and absurdity of death. Marius' younger brother John, a retired TVA engineer and former Assistant Manager in the Appalachian District Office, still lives with his wife Phyllis on the family farm in Dixie Lee Junction. "Almost every conversation Dick had," he says, "eventually got around to the subject of death."

Death is also a recurring topic in An Affair of Honor, setting up dozens of additional ruminations on whether life stops at the grave. The book, though rich in fluid language and colorful characters, is densely overpopulated, as if Marius had so many stories left to tell that he squeezed them all between the covers of this one last novel. Most characters, however, are based on people from his early life, which had all the elements of a southern Gothic novel. Guilt, particularly, played a heavy role—on the part of his mother for having an imperfect child (she felt a judgment upon her, Marius said, for not having gone into the mission field); on the part of his father for not interfering with Eunice's plan for Richard; and on Richard himself for abandoning his ministry.

Alienation was also a theme, because, until shortly before her death from lung cancer, Marius had been estranged for years from his sister Nancy, who was 13 years older. As for his brother Jim, who appears in the book as Charles' retarded brother Guy, Marius accepted his condition as "the way things were," although he claimed he often felt emotionally slighted by his parents. But Marius and his younger brother John forged a mutual love and respect that never wavered, and when Marius talked about the farm where the two grew up together, his memories bordered on the rapturous: "I recall with special delight the way the trees in the woods broke up the setting sun so that shafts of light and shadow streamed through space, giving the world a magical look."

As Marius grew older, the farm seemed to grow smaller, and a trip to Philadelphia sharpened his desire to travel. From 1952 through '54, he wrote a column called "Ramblin' with Richard" for the Lenoir City paper, and he soon realized that writing would be his ticket into the larger world.

"I don't remember a time when I didn't want to write," Marius said in a 1997 interview. "When I was in the fifth grade, I actually typed out a newspaper for my school on my mother's typewriter...five or six copies at a time...." His parents were avid readers, and there were always plenty of classic books at home—Dickens, the Bible, Mark Twain, Zane Gray, Poe, Kipling, Sherlock Holmes. Even as a child he had an eye for concrete detail and a reporter's gift for observation. Bruce Wheeler, a UT professor of history who knew Marius for 35 years, remembers Marius telling a colleague that if he didn't write a certain number of words a day, he would become physically ill. He suffered from an almost obsessive-compulsive need to tell the stories thundering inside his head and heart. "He was a bundle of energy," says his close friend Milton Klein, a history professor and former UT Historian. And when he stayed at Ralph Norman's house on trips home to Knoxville, "He could never relax," Norman remembers. "It was that old Protestant ethic. He worked so hard. He would talk for a while and then before long he would be off, writing on his laptop." Indeed, there was something about his restlessness that seemed to be not so much wanting to jump out of his own skin as wanting to know what it was like in everybody else's.

Norman also recalls that Marius kept a notebook in his pocket to record his first impressions of people. "I'd argue against his impressions," says Norman. "Richard had a selective memory, but his versions were so good that we began to believe they were true." Even Marius' frequent letters to Milton Klein "were like essays, as if he were writing for posterity." Klein began to notice, too, that the letters were numbered consecutively.

John Muldowny, Marius' former office mate and recently retired Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at UT, remembers Marius making quite a splash in the staid Department of History when, in 1965, he left the seminary and returned to the university where he had experienced his earth-shaking epiphany—this time as an assistant professor armed with fresh convictions and unshakable resolve. As a child, he had developed his civil consciousness when his father was a foreman at the Lenoir City Car Works, which manufactured boxcars for the Southern Railway. There, blacks worked side by side with whites all day, but were required by law to be off the streets by 6 p.m. Marius vowed to fight against such inequities. But it was the Vietnam conflict that provided his baptism into a lifetime of political protest. In 1995, in what he called "The Saga of Al and Me: A Circular Letter from Richard Marius to His Many Friends," Marius wrote, "...I realized by 1965 that our government had lied to us and that we could win the Vietnam War only by destroying Vietnam and ourselves in the process...."

In 1970 he was one of four junior faculty members who brought suit against Chancellor Charles Weaver for refusing to allow the black comedian and anti-war activist Dick Gregory to speak on campus. What followed were threats so menacing that Marius slept with a revolver under his pillow. Finally, with the pro bono legal counsel of legendary radical attorney William Kunstler, the group won the suit in federal court on First Amendment grounds.

In 1966, Marius verbally attacked "an arrogant preacher from Texas" invited to give a religious 'Convocation' at UT. "He told us we were all going to Hell if we didn't accept Christ." Marius retorted that "his sermon had been worthless because none of us believed in hell and that he did not believe in it himself and that by such stuff he was able to ignore the real problems in American society." All over town, ministers reacted. Out on Magnolia Avenue in front of the Knoxville Baptist Tabernacle, the Reverend Bob Bevington's billboard proclaimed: "Dr. Marius: This church believes in Hell."

Rev. Bevington, who founded the church in 1952, is now 74 and still preaching as well as speaking regularly on his radio show, "Revival of the Air." Bevington says he never heard Marius speak and never met him in person, "although I was told that his mother listened faithfully to my radio program." Now Bevington, who has had his own heartaches, sees the incident from a more mellow perspective. "My own son was a lot like Richard," he says, "in that he attended the seminary but had a lot of liberal ideas. He ended up as a voice coach at Dollywood and died from the bite of a brown recluse spider at the age of 44."

Marius went on facing criticism and loving it. In May 1970, he and faculty member Charles Reynolds, then an assistant professor of religious studies, led a demonstration at a Billy Graham evangelistic Crusade on campus. Graham, whom Marius described as "Nixon's faithful lapdog," had invited the President to the crusade shortly after four young people at Kent State were killed when the Ohio National Guard fired on an unarmed crowd of student protesters.

The UT protesters planned to carry placards that read "Thou shalt not kill," and stand silently on the field, but police, forewarned, confiscated their signs as they entered Neyland Stadium. When Nixon rose to speak, many of the protesters shouted epithets, but Nixon pressed on. "We're down here at the 20-yard line," he shouted, "but we're going to push this crusade over that goal line." The students jumped up and yelled, "Push him back! Push him back! Way back!"

"We were, after all," Marius said sardonically, "in the Southeastern Conference."

In a commencement speech at UT in December 1992, he argued that the Christian right threatened the First Amendment, at one point saying, "The United States is not a Christian country." His remarks prompted hostile reactions, and in the published version of his talk, someone in the UT Alumni Office deleted the offending sentence.

In the meantime, he worked constantly, producing an immense output of work. He taught Western Civilization and Renaissance and Reformation History at the University of Tennessee from 1964-1978 and was director of Harvard University's Expository Writing Program from 1978-94. He was the author of four novels, the first of which, The Coming of Rain (1969, reissued in 1998) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and was called "best novel of the year" by the Friends of American Writers. Next came Bound for the Promised Land (1993), After the War (1995), and now, An Affair of Honor. His Thomas More: A Biography (1984) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the second of his studies on Martin Luther was a main selection of the History Book Club. He worked for 25 years on The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More and published several books on writing and a collection of Civil War poetry. He was also director of the Governor's Academy for Teachers of Writing, appointed by former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander.

But Marius' most widely covered skirmish came when he was hired by Al Gore as a speechwriter and just as quickly fired. When he heard the vice president's speech at the Democratic National convention in 1992, he decided that Gore's prose "was as graceful as an effort to ice skate on a wood floor." Marius wrote to Roy Neel, then Gore's chief of staff, offering his services as a speechwriter. Almost immediately, Neel asked for a speech on religious freedom. Gore's team loved it. More speeches followed. Marius was never paid, nor, he said, did he expect payment, although once Gore sent him a basket of fruit "after a particularly successful effort."

Then, enter Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic and part-time lecturer in social studies at Harvard. In March 1993, Gore invited Marius to the White House to discuss a speech he was to deliver in Madison Square Garden on April 18 to commemorate the uprising of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto 50 years before. On the flight to Washington, Marius penciled the draft, which he based on a visual image of the Holocaust—"a photograph of a young boy with hands raised over his head, walking at the head of a long, doomed line of Jews marching out of the smoke and ruin of the Ghetto..." He contrasted that gruesome aspect to the idyllic life he and his brother John had lived on their farm during the war. When he read the speech to Gore, Gore's national security adviser Leon Fuerth, and Gore's secretary, Marla Romash, "Leon was so overcome with emotion," said Marius, "that he had to leave the room...The VP and I sat there with tears in our eyes."

But soon afterward, Romash called Marius to say that "a friend of the vice president's" had also written a speech for Madison Square Garden and asked Marius to read it. "In it came," Marius said, "a farrago of statistics powerless to evoke the human suffering of the Holocaust. I called back and said...that it was garbage."

Embarrassed, the secretary told Marius the speech had been written by Martin Peretz, who, she added, had exploded when he discovered that Gore was considering using Marius' speech. Furthermore, Peretz had told the VP that Marius was an anti-Semite. "A-ha," said Marius. "I know what that's about."

Marius had first met Martin Peretz at a Harvard reception shortly after he arrived in Cambridge in 1978. Marius' version is that Peretz showed up dressed in a silk shirt open to the navel. "In one of those mad flights of original sin that sometimes (over)take me," wrote Marius, "I went over and introduced myself...to discover whether he is an innie or an outie...He swaggered about the room holding his glass in two hands and looking a bit like an emperor...among his peasants, and if I am not mistaken, he had recently had a permanent...[I]t was hard for me to see why anyone could take him seriously."

But Gore did. Peretz had been his tutor at Harvard. It turned out that in the March/April 1992 issue of Harvard Magazine, Marius had written a review of a book called Season of Stones, by Helen Winternitz, in which he said: "Many Israelis, the Holocaust fresh in their memory, believe that that horror gives them the right to inflict horror on others. Winternitz's account of the brutality of the Shin bet, the Israeli secret police, is eerily similar to the stories of the Gestapo...arbitrary arrests in the middle of the night, imprisonment without trial, beatings, refined tortures, murder, punishment of the families of suspects." Israeli supporters flooded the magazine with angry letters, and some asked Harvard President Neil Rudenstine to fire Marius.

When Gore ultimately used the speech, Marius put the incident behind him, and in 1995, Jack Quinn, the VP's chief of staff, offered him $70,000 a year to write speeches for Gore, beginning July 23, 1995. Harvard granted Marius an 18-month leave of absence, and his wife, Lanier Smythe, an artist, resigned her job. The couple rented their house, started house-hunting in Washington, and began to pack their belongings. But on Sunday, July 9, an early morning telephone call came from Lorraine Voles, Gore's assistant.

"Richard," she began, "I have very bad news. As you know, we have very close relations with the Jewish community." Several people, she continued, had "complained bitterly" about Marius' appointment and now that Gore had finally read Marius' 1992 review, he could not hire him. "We will expect you to say that this was your own decision," Voles continued. "You can say you changed your mind. And we'll say the same thing." However, she added, the VP hoped that Marius would keep writing for him "on a contractual basis." That way, he would not be a political appointee, and no one could attack Marius or the vice president. "Later on," said Marius, "I thought, Why do I want to cover the vice president's badly exposed rear end? Academe can be tough at times, but no one in my academic career has ever told me to lie—one more reason, my brother John says, that I should never think of going to Washington."

The next week Lloyd Grove from The Washington Post left a message on Marius' answering machine, asking for an interview, and the two talked several times. Gore, informed that the story would appear in the Post on July 19, at last called Marius on the 18th. "He said he had tried to call me but that I had been unreachable. I told him I would not argue, and I said at the end, 'I think we'll miss each other.' That was it."

But that wasn't it. Stories popped up in The New York Post, the Jerusalem Post, the Crimson (Harvard's student newspaper), and the Associated Press. Marius said that the most gratifying reaction to the tempest came from his longtime friend Milton Klein, most of whose European Jewish family had been killed in the Holocaust in Hungary. On the final night of the Governor's Academy that summer, Klein said that in the 26 years he had known Richard Marius, they had often argued about Israel and Palestine, but that never once had Marius uttered a single phrase that could indicate the slightest anti-Semitic feeling.

Then, in April of 1999, Marius faced his greatest battle. Following his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer came nine agonizing months of illness—and in the midst of it, another confrontation. When his second study of Luther, Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death, was released, it prompted a firestorm in the dangerous arena of academic criticism. In this case, Marius' opponent was Heiko Oberman, regents professor of history and director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies at the University of Arizona. Oberman's own book, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, suggests that Luther's "rebellion against the Church and his exhortations against the temptations of the Devil can be understood only by relating them to Luther's times, when belief in the Devil was a commonplace." Conversely, Marius applied modern knowledge to Luther's personality. Historian Steven Ozment, writing in Vol. 31 of the Sixteenth Century Journal, defended Marius' negative portrait of Luther by explaining that Marius " ...believed it to be the historian's duty to subject the past to the moral lessons hindsight gave those writing in the 20th century."

Numerous ironies emerge in the battle of wits and words between Marius and Oberman. First of all, Oberman's review of Marius' book, which might be one of the most scathing criticisms in the history of scholarship, appeared in Martin Peretz's New Republic. Secondly, Oberman himself had recently been diagnosed with leukemia and malignant melanoma, so both men were facing death. In another interesting twist, Oberman's student, Robert Bast, was later hired by UT to teach the exact courses that Richard Marius had taught over 20 years before—Renaissance and Reformation history. And Bast, like Marius before him, had also attended the seminary, then elected to go into academics. "The difference," says Bast, "is that I am still a believer."

Although Bast never met Marius, he blames the vicious rhetoric in the Luther feud partly on the fact that both combatants were argumentative, charismatic and flamboyant, and both had sizable egos. "They were like two little boys, flailing at each other," Bast says. "The whole exchange was not edifying." Marius' wrath in this case seems eminently justifiable, however. Many historians were aghast at Oberman's invective. "It was not a scholarly review," says Milton Klein. "It was a diatribe." Other scholars were outraged, especially at below-the-belt assessments such as this: "Marius' tendentious and ignorant book...is what the Romans called apia fraus, a 'pious fraud.'"

Marius' reply was understandably vitriolic, but not nearly so damaging as Oberman's. "So," he wrote, "you come to the banquet called scholarship, and instead of engaging in civilized discussion where all of us can admit the tentative nature of most of our conclusions, you leap onto the table, fling crockery and tableware against the walls, urinate in the faces of the other guests, and berate the host for inviting anyone but you to the feast."

Marius concluded his nine-page letter by writing, "We are like two old men shouting through a lead door at each other...Time will judge us both, will find that both of us have done worthy work, that both of us have made some errors, and I am content with that."

But Oberman was undaunted. In another review in Historian, Summer 2000, he called Marius' Luther book "historical fiction," and ranted: "Luther is assigned the role of a late-medieval Jimmy Swaggart [and] Erasmus is the valiant opponent, bearing the unmistakable features of a Harvard professor."

Richard Marius died six months later. Oberman was to live for another two years. Marius had asked that old hymns be sung at his funeral, says his wife Lanier. "He wanted rousing hymns, not out of belief, but out of his childhood." He chose "Amazing Grace," "I'll Fly Away," and "On Jordan's Stormy Banks," and, says his wife, he mischievously added, "And a rousing chorus of 'The Marseillaise.'" Marius actually wrote his own funeral oration, because at his memorial, his friend Kristen Stendahl read Lawrence Arceneaux's sermon from An Affair of Honor. Derived from Psalm 139, the passage reads: "The verses I have read from the Psalms...do not tell us who or what God is...They do not tell us why there must be pain, grief, mystery, and death...We hope for a God like the God of the Psalmist, for whom the night shines like the day and who is to be found with us in the uttermost parts of our despair and our ignorance. That is the best hope we can have, that if we make our bed in the grave God is there."

Marius is survived by his wife, Lanier, and their son John; his brother John Marius; and sons Richard and Fred with first wife Gail Needham. In the last weeks of his life he told some that he had come to believe in God, but many who knew him believe that his assertions were merely a compassionate attempt to comfort those who cared about the fate of his immortal soul. "As much as he talked about death during his life," says his wife, "he talked about it very little when he was dying."

Now Richard Marius' ashes are buried just below Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, close to the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Bronson and Louisa Mae Alcott, authors with whom we can imagine he might have sat up all night, talking politics and poesy.

Perhaps his most fitting tribute comes from his friend Ralph Norman, who read at his Knoxville memorial service in January 2000: "We want to ask, we have to ask, what it is about Richard Marius that resists us so when we try to tell the whole story. The answer is that whole stories are by definition finished, and we do not sense that we will ever be finished with stories by or about Richard Marius...So we will now and forevermore be looking for help to his several gestures, the many moves and edges and incidents that made up the long conversations through which we came to be privileged to know him."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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