The Scholar as Poet: Remembering Geoffrey Hartman (1929-2016)

By Dickstein, Morris | Tikkun, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

The Scholar as Poet: Remembering Geoffrey Hartman (1929-2016)


Dickstein, Morris, Tikkun


Geoffrey hartman, who died in March 2016, was known as one of the most eminent literary scholars of the past half century, going back to his book based on his doctoral thesis, The Unmediated Vision (1954). His book on William Wordsworth, published ten years later, remains a standard work, perhaps the single most searching study of Wordsworth's poetry to appear in the twentieth century. He subsequently became a leading figure in the turn toward literary theory beginning with the essays collected in Beyond Formalism (1970) and The Fate of Reading (1975), as well as a general study, Criticism in the Wilderness (1980). In the 1980s his work took yet another direction: towards Jewish issues, including biblical and Midrashic interpretation, as well as the conditions for understanding and assimilation of the Holocaust. Along with his wife Renee, a Holocaust survivor, he was instrumental in the founding of the Yale Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, which paved the way for the much larger archive of oral recollections created by Steven Spielberg after the worldwide success of Schindler's List.

I met Geoffrey Hartman some fifty-five years ago when I was a fledgling graduate student, quite miserable, and he was on the verge of leaving Yale, having been unaccountably turned down for tenure. I looked him up in one of the college's remote basement offices after reading an essay he wrote for the Chicago Review on Maurice Blanchot, a mesmerizing European critic altogether unknown to me. Soon afterward I ambled down York Street to the offices of Yale University Press, where I bought one of the few remaining copies of his first book, The Unmediated Vision, still available at its original price of four dollars. I never studied with him, but we formed a bond rooted perhaps in mutual unhappiness along with an instinctive sense of intellectual kinship. In the Yale of 1961, a gentleman's university still dominated by complacent academic and social routines, we both felt like outsiders.

Undoubtedly, there were also shared Jewish feelings neither of us mentioned. He became an informal mentor to me - in both the new currents of literary theory wafting over from Europe and the nascent revival of interest in Romanticism that had already attracted me as an undergraduate at Columbia. Geoffrey was working on his Wordsworth book, which would come to make his reputation. It would mark a signal turn in the new Romantic scholarship, transforming Wordsworth from a decorous nature poet and Victorian icon into a probing, dark modern poet of consciousness. Soon after the book came out I began to work on a thesis on Keats, far more modest but along the same lines.

But Geoffrey was far more than an admired and fitfully emulated scholar for me. I loved his genuine warmth, his sparkling and urbane intelligence and wit, his cosmopolitan range of interests. He was a living heir of the émigré comparatists and philologists like Erich Auerbach and René Wellek who had been his teachers at Yale. Ideas and texts had an almost visceral reality for him; his exhaustive scholarship was part of the air he breathed. This might help explain his brief romance with deconstruction - the sheer ingenuity of Derrida or de Man must have proved irresistible for him. When his own essays turned knotty, dense with learned puns and allusions, it was because he loved being playful and challenging. The plain style, he once told me, held little interest for him, though he mastered it effectively. The Hebraic side of his later work and his unexpected engagement with issues of Holocaust memory and representation spoke more directly to me. In helping to create a pioneering archive of oral witness, he became a public person, an actor as well as a thinker. But above all else I'll always recall and cherish the sweetness of his personality, along with his scrupulous attentiveness and insight as a reader and essayist. He served as a beacon and role model for many former students, just as he did for me. …

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