Campus & Community

James Robert Hightower dies at 90

4 min read

Chinese literature expert

Professor of Chinese literature James Robert Hightower died Jan. 8, at the house of his daughter, Josie, in Germany. He was 90.

Robert Hightower (as he preferred to be called) was born in Sulphur, Okla., on May 7, 1915, and grew up mainly in Salida, Colo., with his father, Loris Denzil Hightower, a teacher and superintendent of schools. His mother, Berta Mckedy, died when he was 2.

While earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Colorado, Hightower discovered Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry and arranged to study Chinese. After graduating in 1936, he traveled in Europe, determined to be a poet. He studied Chinese at Heidelberg and the Sorbonne.

When he concluded that he could study poetry but not write it, he returned to the United States to take up graduate study of Chinese at Harvard. His father paid his first year’s tuition. After that, living on practically nothing, Hightower received a scholarship; he was financially independent from then on. One of his jobs while at Harvard was working in a boardinghouse, where he learned to bake.

In June 1940, with a master’s degree from Harvard, he married Florence “Bunny” Cole. The newlyweds were soon in Beijing (Peking then), where he continued to study Chinese and Chinese literature and directed the Sino-Indian Institute. With the Japanese occupation of Peking, his wife was allowed to return to the United States, but Hightower was for a time interned in a prison camp.

Upon repatriation in 1943, he served in the Army’s Military Intelligence Division at the Pentagon, where he worked on the team that broke Japanese military codes; the head of the team was Edwin O. Reischauer, a colleague at Harvard and later U.S. ambassador to Japan. Hightower was discharged with the rank of captain in January 1946.

After receiving his Harvard Ph.D. in comparative literature (1946), he was appointed an instructor there but in 1946-48 was on leave, again in Peking, with his wife and two small boys. He continued his literary studies and served as associate director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and director of the American Institute for Asiatic Studies. The family left China before the communist victory in the civil war. From 1948 until his retirement in 1981, Hightower held Guggenheim, Fulbright, and other fellowships and was a visiting professor at universities in Oxford, Hamburg, and Vancouver. He chaired Harvard’s Committee on East Asian Studies (1960-64) and the Department of Far Eastern Languages (1961-65). His publications included “Topics in Chinese Literature” (1950, 1953, 1966), “The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien” (1970), and, with Chia-ying Yeh, “Studies in Chinese Poetry” (1998), as well as numerous journal articles. His translations and interpretations were, and are, highly regarded by his peers.

In 1952, the Hightowers bought a house in Auburndale, Mass., where they raised their four children, and a summer place on Bustins Island in Casco Bay, Maine. Both houses provided opportunities for Hightower to exercise his carpentry and painting skills. After Bunny’s death in 1981, he took over her lavish flowerbeds, adding vegetables and fruit trees. Even into his late 80s, he remained staunchly committed to a frugal, active, and independent way of life, doing his own cooking, cleaning, and baking, hanging out laundry even in winter, and bringing home groceries on a bicycle, which he still rode 10 miles each way to his office at Harvard. In 2003, no longer in robust health, he was persuaded to sell the house and live with his oldest son in Ohio; seven months later he moved to Germany to live with his daughter.

He is survived by four children, James Robert Jr. of Garrettsville, Ohio; Samuel Cole of Troy, Maine; Josephine “Josie” Steiner-Neukirch of Elsen, Germany; and Thomas Denzil of Amsterdam; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned at Harvard University.