James Robert Hightower

A noted translator and scholar of classical Chinese literature, James Robert Hightower spent the better part of sixty years, first as a student, then as a professor, in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Born in Sulphur, Oklahoma and raised mainly in Salida, Colorado, Hightower became familiar with Chinese poetry through the translations of Ezra Pound, which he discovered while pursuing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Colorado. Inspired, he decided to study Chinese. After a period of study at Heidelburg and the Sorbonne, he returned to the United States to begin graduate study in Chinese at Harvard. 

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In 1940, he completed one of the first A.M. degrees to be offered by the Department of Far Eastern Languages. After graduation, he moved to Peking, where he continued to study Chinese literature and served for a time as director of the Sino-Indian Institute at Yenching University.

After Pearl Harbor, Hightower was interned in a prison camp for over a year. Upon repatriation in 1943, he served in the Military Intelligence Division of the Army, where he worked under Edwin Reischauer on the team that broke the Japanese military codes. After the end of the war, he returned to Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in Chinese literature in 1946. Upon completing his degree, he received an appointment at Harvard, but spent 1946-48 on leave in Peking, where he served as associate director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and director of the American Institute for Asiatic Studies.

Hightower returned to Harvard in 1948, and remained a regular face around the department for more than a decade after his formal retirement in 1981. During his tenure at Harvard, he chaired the Committee on East Asian Studies (1960-64) and the Department of Far Eastern Languages (1961-65). In addition to numerous lengthy articles on such topics as the Song dynasty lyricist Liu Yong, genre theory in the Wenxuan, and the Hanshi waizhuan, he published a series of outline literary histories and bibliographies under the title Topics in Chinese Literature (1950, 1953, 1966). Other significant publications include The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien (1970), and, with Florence Chia-ying Yeh, Studies in Chinese Poetry (1998). Hightower also taught a wide range of graduate seminars in Chinese literature and a long-running and popular survey course on the Chinese classics.in the general education curriculum.

Inspired in part by the model of the fourth century eremitic poet Tao Qian, whose literary representations of pastoral idyll he studied at length, Hightower committed himself to a lifestyle of frugality and rural self-sufficiency. He and his wife Florence raised their four children in a home in Auburndale, Massachusetts, where they grew their own food and where Hightower exercised the carpentry and other skills he had used to support himself during his impoverished years as a graduate student. Even after his retirement and well into his 80s, he continued to ride his bicycle ten miles each way to his office at Harvard. His commitment to scholarship and a deliberative lifestyle left a lasting mark on all who knew him.