A Scholar's Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe

A Scholar's Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe

A Scholar's Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe

A Scholar's Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe


For more than fifty years, Geoffrey Hartman has been a pivotal figure in the humanities. In his first book, in 1954, he helped establish the study of Romanticism as key to the problems of modernity. Later, his writings were crucial to the explosive developments in literary theory in the late seventies, and he was a pioneer in Jewish studies, trauma studies, and studies of the Holocaust. At Yale, he was a founder of its Judaic Studies program, as well as of the first major video archive for Holocaust testimonies.

Generations of students have benefited from Hartman's generosity, his penetrating and incisive questioning, the wizardry of his close reading, and his sense that the work of a literary scholar, no less than that of an artist, is a creative act.

All these qualities shine forth in this intellectual memoir, which will stand as his autobiography. Hartman describes his early education, uncanny sense of vocation, and development as a literary scholar and cultural critic. He looks back at how his career was influenced by his experience, at the age of nine, of being a refugee from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport. He spent the next six years at school in England, where he developed his love of English literature and the English countryside, before leaving to join his mother in America.
Hartman treats us to a "biobibliography" of his engagements with the major trends in literary criticism. He covers the exciting period at Yale handled so controversially by the media and gives us vivid portraits, in particular, of Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, and Jacques Derrida.

All this is set in the context of his gradual self-awareness of what scholarship implies and how his personal displacements strengthened his calling to mediate between European and American literary cultures. Anyone looking for a rich, intelligible account of the last half-century of combative literary studies will want to read Geoffrey Hartman's unapologetic scholar's tale.


Having written essays for more than fifty years, and seen the coming and going of critical movements during that time, I thought it might interest both suspicious and benevolent readers to view the personal impact these movements have had on someone who cannot call himself a theorist but who has been an engaged observer devoted to literary and cultural matters. These autobiographical reflections, begun in 2004, finished in 2006, say something about the growth of a critic’s mind. They occasionally lean on previous fragments, such as my “Polemical Memoir” prefacing A Critic’s Journey of 1999; “A Life of Learning,” the American Council of Learned Societies annual Haskins Lecture in 2000; and the title essay of The Longest Shadow: in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (1996). What I offer here is not a “Life” in the conventional sense but a memoir focusing on my intellectual development.

The Biographia Literaria of Coleridge has often been in my mind. There is a certain clutter and clotting in him too, but his opinions are firmer, and they focus principally on Wordsworth and Shakespeare, with recourse, when necessary, to the standards of Aristotle, and the impact, which he analyzes—and resists—of Locke, and such contemporary philosophers as Hartley and Fichte. But he avoids what is central to my own effort: commenting on one’s own books. I suspected too late that I might be trying to forestall interpretation or judgment. That is not what I had in mind.

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