Paul W. Friedrich, an anthropologist, linguist and poet whose sweeping scholarship ranged from agrarian reform in Mexico to Russian lyric poetry to ties between Thoreau’s Walden and Hindu scripture, died at his home on Aug. 11. He was 88 years old.
Friedrich taught for five decades as a professor at the University of Chicago, while reaching across disciplines, cultures and languages in his research and writings. He described his work in an interview published in Annual Review of Anthropology as a triangle in which the corners were cultural theory, language and poetics—on both abstract and concrete levels. He discussed how he immersed himself in a subject to elucidate in his work the “hundreds if not thousands of little connections, many of them lying very deep.”
“By the time you get to writing, you’ve already thought about two dozen fields that are connected with what you’re doing,” he said in the 2013 interview.
Friedrich was a sought-after teacher at the University, known for his intensity and openness to new ideas. In recognition, a group of students published a collection of essays: Culture, Language and the Individual: A Tribute to Paul Friedrich.
“He was known and revered as a dedicated and passionate teacher, always encouraging students to write about what they felt strongly was an important and significant issue,” said Robert B. Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Committee on Social Thought, where Friedrich held an appointment in addition to the Anthropology and Linguistics departments.
Friedrich was born into an academic family; his father was Carl Joachim Friedrich, an internationally known political theorist and professor at Harvard University. After a year and a half at Williams College, the younger Friedrich served in the U.S. Army and returned from service to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Harvard. While a graduate student, Friedrich was hired by the newly established Russian Research Center at Harvard to interview captured and dissident Soviets in post-war Berlin about their lives.
For his dissertation research in 1955-56, Friedrich traveled to Michoacan, Mexico with his first wife Lore Bucher Friedrich and their two young daughters, Maria and Susan, living closely with the Tarascan. The results became Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village, a classic in Latin American Studies, and The Princes of Naranja: An Essay in Anthrohistorical Method. Both works focused on oppositional indigenous politics and their organization by social forces.
Friedrich received his PhD from Yale in 1957 and did fieldwork and taught in India before joining the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. He moved in 1962 to the University of Chicago, where his scholarly work eventually included Slavic languages, Classics, comparative literature and books ranging from Music in Russian Poetry to The Gita within Walden. He taught dozens of courses including cultural anthropology, Russian literature, and Homeric Greek with James Redfield, the Edward Olson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus.
“When we taught together,” Redfield said, “the rule was that he taught the Greek and I taught the linguistics. That way we were always teaching each other.”
With his second wife, the material culture specialist Margaret Hardin, Friedrich returned to Michoacan in the mid-1960s to further study the Tarascan language. Friedrich’s later books covered subjects from Proto-Indo-European Trees to The Meaning of Aphrodite, to which his third wife Deborah Gordon Friedrich made significant contributions. In his last years, he collaborated with his fourth wife, Domnica Radulescu.
Parallel to—and intertwined with—his academic and scholarly publications, Friedrich produced seven volumes of poetry. He was known in the “ethno-poetics” movement and brought together in his teachings poetry from more than 20 different literary traditions.
“Every time you ran into him he wanted to talk about ideas. It was an energy and excitement he conveyed and this sense of freshness that wasn’t naïve or staged,” said Catherine O’Neil, PhD‘96, a former student of Friedrich who is now associate professor of Russian at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Friedrich held a passion for language, rhythms and sound. Music was a concept that pervaded his work not only in the way sound meets words in poetry, but the rhythms and frictions in social context and relations between people, said Mary Scoggin, PhD‘97, a former student of Friedrich who is now professor of anthropology at Humboldt State University.
“Paul had a visceral approach to natural objects like the trees and birds that suffuse not only his work but his everyday language, as he observed and savored our surroundings,” Scoggin said. “He approached a thing not merely as a symbol to be interpreted, but a tangible presence that smells, pokes and yields to the touch.”
Friedrich received the University’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring in 1999, and the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association awarded him the Wilbur Cross Medal in 2007.
Friedrich is survived by four ex-wives; his children Maria, Su, Roland Peter, Kat and Joan Lenore Friedrich, and Nicholas Radulescu; his step-son Alexander Radulescu Tanson; his three grandchildren Nora and Isabelle Friedrich McTwigan and Asa Geismar Friedrich; and his sister Matilda Cornwall Friedrich.
The departments in which Friedrich held appointments are planning a memorial on campus in the fall.