I heard yesterday that Rhys Isaac has died and I feel diminished, even though I could not in any way claim to ‘know’ him and even less could I say that he knew me.
Rhys was Emeritus Professor with the History program at La Trobe University, and even when I was an undergraduate student there in the 1970s, I remember seeing his name on the door. He holds the distinction of being the only Australian historian to win a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790. The excitement that greeted the announcement of his prize is part of La Trobe History folklore- many of the academics who were part of the faculty are still there and speak of the clamour of the press and the feeling of shared pride as news of the prize filtered through.
Rhys was part of what has been known as the ‘Melbourne School’ of historians- rather a misnomer as many of them were based at La Trobe. Rhys, along with Inga Clendinnen, Greg Dening, Donna Merwick, Ron Adams write deeply textured, lyrical histories, strongly influenced by the ‘anthropological turn’ of the 1970s. Their works are things of beauty.
He, along with the other ‘Melbourne school’ historians have been generous in their encouragement of other historians and postgraduates. Rhys often attended our postgrad seminars on Thursday nights; this is the sphere in which I came into contact with him and that’s how I’ll best remember him. A small, twinkly, elfin man he would wait until all the other questions had been exhausted before he’d raise his voice with a chortly laugh and you’d turn to him, knowing that his question would take the discussion somewhere else. “Where IS he going with this?” you’d think, and suddenly a whole new perspective would open up as he’d draw things from the paper that we’d just heard, weave them together then suddenly your mind would explode into question upon question. You were aware of his rapier-sharp intelligence- he’d unsheathe it at times- but when he was dealing with postgrads in particular you felt as if you’d been helped to clamber up a step in your understanding, and the world looked bigger from there.
Rhys was a word-master. He had an unusual accent, influenced by his lengthy stays in America and his South African background, and there was a certainty and deftness in his language. On special occasions he wrote special pieces- unfortunately often as obituaries- which captured and honoured the essence of a person or event. I only wish I could find the words, and a fuller knowledge of the man to do the same for him. I need not fear, though. I have enough faith in the influence he had on cohort after cohort of colleagues, graduates and writers to know that someone else will.
Thank you Rhys.