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

Geof­frey Hartman
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

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 divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions