In Memoriam, Richard Locke (1941-2023)

August 31, 2023

Our beloved colleague—editor, essayist, and critic Richard Locke—who taught at Columbia for 38 years, died on Friday August 25, 2023 at the age of 81. Prodigious in his knowledge of literature, Professor Locke authored over 180 essays and reviews and the book Critical Children: The Use of Children in Ten Great Novels. He made a tremendous impact on the world of American letters, having served as Senior Editor for Simon & Schuster, Deputy Editor of The New York Times Book Review, Editor-in-Chief of Vanity Fair, Director and President of The National Book Critics Circle, and a judge for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. Under his visionary stewardship as Chair, Columbia’s Writing Program blossomed with a sense of dynamic and rigorous engagement among faculty and students.

Richard Locke

Those of us who taught alongside him knew Richard as a meticulous and brilliant editor who offered generous and close attention to his students’ writing both within his workshops and beyond it. He expected no less of his students than he did of the countless literary luminaries whose work he shepherded into publication during his time as an editor. Quite simply, he believed in their potential to lift language to its highest possibilities. He also shared with his students the benefit of a profound historical context in his lectures, which were always popular and well-attended. We remember fondly his sense of elegant formality that was no mask for his kindness, which he delivered to students as the gift of attention to their work. He was a long-standing friend and colleague to the Writing Program, even long before he began teaching here. He will be deeply missed by faculty and students.

He is survived by his wife Wendy Webber Nicholson; his daughters, Sarah Johansson Locke and Dr. Rebecca Johansson Locke, her husband Eric Sillman and their children Toby and Lena Sillman; and his stepson, Nicholas Nicholson and his husband David Mowers.

A memorial service in his honor will be held in the fall.

We invite you to share memories of Richard here.

"An eternally grateful goodbye to Richard Locke, the most generous reader I have ever had and an incredibly gifted lecturer. I first got to know him in those lecturers, and always felt like he knew his students well just from how they listened. I was fortunate to be in his thesis workshop, and was moved by his support. The weirder my essays got the more enthusiastic he was. He made me feel like anything I could write would be worth writing. He inspires me as a writer and as a teacher, and always will.  My favorite memory was an individual conference when I was trying to write about synesthesia and pulled out my phone to play Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" to illustrate a point. We listened, and then he said "Yes, she sounds like a dock worker" in the most complimentary way possible."

Maddox Pennington '15

"For a teacher with as formidable a resume, and as intimidating an intellectual, there was no professor more patient, more gracious, more gentle, or more empathetic in my time at Columbia. I cannot recall a single class where Professor Locke wasn’t happy to be there, eager for questions, or demonstrating an earnest desire to help his students. As an editor, he made line-level edits throughout lengthy manuscripts; as a teacher, he brought that same level of attention and care. The theologian Mircea Eliade once wrote that when we study a religion, we don’t go into as a non-believe or a skeptic - we approach as if the beliefs were true, and act accordingly. As an editor, Professor Locke was the same - he believed in your project, trusted your intention, and helped you shape your work accordingly. I will deeply miss him."

Nicholas Dilonardo '17