Geoffrey Hartman GRD ’53, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and comparative literature, has been a member of the Yale community for more than 55 years. In the 2008-’09 academic year, Hartman announced his retirement from Yale. scene celebrates the legacy of this famous professor with two interviews and a review of his most recent book.
William Lampson Professor of English Paul Fry and Karl Young Professor of English Leslie Brisman reflect (separately, over e-mail) on Hartman’s legacy at Yale and beyond, his future teaching and the changing English department.
Q Geoffrey Hartman is well known for playing a prominent role in literary criticism at Yale during the ’70s, alongside Harold Bloom GRD ’55, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. However, his was a complex career. How would you characterize his legacy?
A Paul Fry: Hartman’s legacy has several facets, but perhaps he should be best known, first, as a great romanticist, arguably the finest Wordsworth critic who has ever written; second, as a dazzling literary essayist, especially in the two incomparable books, “Beyond Formalism” and “The Fate of Reading,” whose fluid synthesis of interpretive subtlety and literary-historical generalization is unrivalled; third, as the head of the Fortunoff Archive of Holocaust testimonials whose work on trauma theory in relation to the Holocaust is indispensable in that field; and finally, in a cluster of recent books, notably including “Easy Pieces,” as a commentator on 20th-century intellectual and political culture.
Q During his tenure at Yale, Hartman was particularly interested in the study of Wordsworth and Romantic poetry. What impact has Professor Hartman had on the Yale English department in terms of its curriculum today?
A Paul Fry: I’m not sure there’s much influence on the curriculum, especially as the times they are a changin’, as naturally they would by this time. But Hartman and Bloom together are the reason why we are still the best department in the country for anyone who wishes to study Romanticism. One could perhaps even say, “wishes to study poetry,” but the reasons why that too may well be the case involve other figures in other fields, not only contemporaries of theirs like Thomas Greene ’49 GRD ’55, but their many predecessors during the generation of the New Critics. Yale has always been the place for “close reading” (not at all to everyone’s taste lately), and Hartman is unsurpassed by any close reader we’ve ever had.
A Leslie Brisman: This is a question with a happy and an unhappy answer. Yale still is, in my view, not just the most important institution, historically, for the revival and profound exploration of Romantic poetry, but the place where the most exciting work in the Romantics, which I distinguish from the tepid historicism still dominant elsewhere, is still going on today. To see the legacy of Geoffrey Hartman at its best, look at the stunning work of Christopher R. Miller, whose “Invention of Evening” makes its author the greatest Hartman heir of his age in both substance and style. Professor Miller’s second book, “Surprise: The Poetics of the Unexpected in the Long Eighteenth Century” traces the domestication of the sublime into the surprising in 18th-century prose, an extraordinarily Hartmanian intellectual journey, though through territory not explored by Hartman himself. That Miller should now be teaching the novel in ways that I think would have been impossible without the work of Hartman on poetry is a tribute to Hartman’s legacy. The sadness: The study of poetry generally is on the decline, and Professor Miller himself, alas, will be leaving. At a department meeting today, one of my colleagues spoke of the need to bring something new and distinctive to our department, and he suggested an expert in superficial readings, by one account the latest new school of criticism. Whether the suggestion was made seriously or mockingly is no matter; it represents the turn to something as unHartmanian as could be imagined.
Q Much of Hartman’s work has been used as evidence in the research of his academic colleagues, from Bloom’s “A Meditation on Priority” to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s essays on race. How will Geoffrey Hartman be remembered as a literary critic?
A Leslie Brisman: My short answer to this complex question is in two parts: the midrashic imagination and “the evening ear.” By the first, I mean to point not just to the body of midrash as such which is a special love of Professor Hartman but to the playful imagination that makes interpretation itself a high art and that understands, on so many levels, the Talmudic maxim, “These and those are the words of the Living God” — i.e., that totally disparate interpretations can each have their truths: There is no one truth. By “the evening ear,” I mean to indicate that quality of gentleness that requires, as Wordsworth said, “no extraordinary calls / To rouse them.” What makes “To Autumn” without turn, without argument, the greatest of Keats’s great odes is what makes Hartman among the very greatest of literary critics.
Q When M.H. Abrams came to lecture this fall about the fourth dimension of a poem, he acknowledged the remarkable clutch of scholars at Yale, past colleagues and current professors, from Jacques Derrida to Geoffrey Hartman. How has your own work been challenged and/or inspired by the lineage of Yale scholarship, especially that of Professor Hartman?
A Paul Fry: My work has been profoundly influenced by Yale scholarship, and that’s the more surprising because I had been a Harvard graduate student. But when Helen Vendler reviewed my first book (she was not then at Harvard but across the river!) she accused me of being Geoffrey’s student. It was an understandable mistake, I freely admit. Bloom and Hartman cast the shadow of what both of them would have called “covering cherubs” over my first two books. But then I fell under the spell of the older English critic William Empson, and that gave me a certain distance, both in tone and outlook. I realized I had a more empirical and materialist outlook than the “Yale” romanticists. But I keep backsliding!
A Leslie Brisman: With the possible exception of Marvell’s “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Faun,” I can think of no text of poetry or prose that I teach or write about that I do not approach with something of Hartman’s in my ear: It may be as specific as a phenomenological approach or as general as a reservation, a lingering doubt that he still teaches me to express, to brood about, to make public.
Q Will Hartman ever teach again?
A Leslie Brisman: In our last conversation, Hartman told me that he needs to say farewell at least one more time. So I do hope he will be back in a Yale classroom, in some way, next fall!