In A Scholar’s Tale the distinguished literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman offers a moving chronicle of his life in reading and criticism. His is a 20th century story of rupture and exile, uprooted from his native Germany, to his youth as an émigré in England as a member of the Kindertransport in March, 1939, at the age of ten, to a new life in America, graduate school in comparative literature at Yale, and a long career in the academy. Thus Professor Hartman is ideally situated to comment on the academic study of literature — above all, the uses (or misuses) to which literary theory has been put in the profession of reading.
Professor Hartman’s method is retrospective; he looks back on a long career and discerns continuities and discontinuities along the way. He calls the thread (or theme) that runs through his life “my hang for independence.” Indeed, for academic specialists — and A Scholar’s Tale is written primarily for those with an interest in the political and aesthetic twists and turns of academic literary criticism since 1945, what the author terms “the theory era” — Professor Hartman’s personal reflections on his own relation to that history will be deeply rewarding. We learn, for example, of his complex relation to and opinion of famous (or infamous) literary scholars like Erich Auerbach (the Jewish émigré scholar living and writing in Turkey) and Paul De Man (the Yale deconstructionist who wrote pro- Nazi journalism as a youth in Belgium).
In the end, what is perhaps most compelling about Professor Hartman’s story is his life-long engagement with the matter of Judaism, his own complex relation to Jewish identity. “I did not have to break away in order to return and find myself,” he says about the meaning of Judaism in his life. Significantly in this respect, a major portion of Professor Hartman’s energies have been devoted most recently to writing about memory and trauma, and to establishing the Holocaust Video Archive at Yale. “What is unexamined is not lived,” he claims. A Scholar’s Tale provides an extended commentary— a midrash — on the truth of its author’s own maxim.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.