Tuesday, March 5, 2024

obituary: Richard Plotz

A notable figure in the history of Tolkien appreciation passed from us last Saturday. Richard Plotz was the founder of the Tolkien Society of America. Though not the first Tolkien fan club, it was the one that took off and served as foundation stone of the Tolkien fan boom of the 1960s.

Dick was a bright 16-year-old high school student from Brooklyn, auditing classes at Columbia University, when he saw some graffiti in Tolkien's Elvish at a subway station. Various similar comments went by for some time, until finally Dick impulsively scrawled the date and time for a meeting of a Tolkien club on campus.

On the date, half a dozen people showed up - none of whom was the original subway scribbler, but one of whom, Deborah Webster Rogers, later became co-author of the Twayne's English Authors series volume on Tolkien. They talked Tolkien for an hour.

This was February, 1965, before the Ace paperbacks, let alone the Ballantine paperbacks, were published later that year. All these people had read The Lord of the Rings in hardcover.

Clearly there was a surging interest in this. The group continued and formalized. Dick placed a classified ad in The New Republic and attracted more people. W.H. Auden, known to be a Tolkien fan since his laudatory reviews of The Lord of the Rings in the New York Times, attended a meeting, and an attending reporter wrote about it in The New Yorker.

Rather to Dick's surprise, the group continued to grow. Mail poured in. An at-first sketchy magazine called The Tolkien Journal was published. Dick's friend Bob Foster started compiling an annotated glossary of names in Tolkien's world, later published as A Guide to Middle-earth. Seventeen magazine sent Dick to Oxford to interview Tolkien. Tolkien, exhibiting more patience with the fan group than he inwardly felt, wrote Dick several letters, informative on himself and his creation. The most valuable of these was a declension of Quenya nouns, the only first-hand material on Elvish grammar then available; it was passed around in a semi-hushed fashion among devotees until it was finally published over 20 years later, and it may now be found on p. 522-23 of the new edition of Tolkien's Letters.

Come 1967, Dick graduated high school and went off to Harvard. College pressures as a pre-med student forced Dick to give up the Society, which was taken over by Ed Meskys, a science-fiction fan from circles there which had been discussing The Lord of the Rings since its publication. When Ed's health problems in turn forced him to give it up in 1972, the Mythopoeic Society (founded in 1967, another fruit of the college and teenage Tolkien boom) took it over.

Dick eventually got his medical degree, became a physician specializing in cancer research, married a woman he'd met in the TSA, and devoted his leisure time to family genealogy. He left active Tolkien fandom behind him, but his contributions haven't been forgotten.

Obituary for Richard Plotz

Recent video interview with Richard Plotz and Robert Foster

Thanks to Carl Hostetter and Gary Hunnewell for information.

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