In memoriam: Geoffrey Hartman, renowned scholar helped found Yale’s Holocaust testimonies archive

Geoffrey Hartman, a renowned literary scholar and co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, died on March 14 at his home in Hamden. He was 86 years old.

Geoffrey Hartman, a renowned literary scholar and co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, died on March 14 at his home in Hamden. He was 86 years old.

Geoffrey Hartman

Hartman, who was Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, also played a role in establishing Yale’s Judaic Studies Program.

In the 1970s Hartman joined with his colleagues Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller to form the nucleus of the “Yale School” of criticism. The Yale Critics, with whom Harold Bloom and Jacques Derrida were also associated, focused on the instability of linguistic reference in literary and philosophical texts, as exemplified in the collection of essays that all five scholars published together, “Deconstruction and Criticism” (1979). Despite being linked with this group, Hartman himself was not himself a deconstructionist, and however much his earlier phenomenological criticism evolved, he always held to his conviction that texts have meaning and pathos beyond verbal play.

Langdon Hammer, current chair of Yale’s English Department, said: “Geoffrey combined Anglo-American close reading and a deep knowledge of English and French and German poetry with Continental philosophy and Jewish traditions of interpretation to become a distinctively new type of literary critic. He moved fluidly between poetry, psychoanalysis, ethics, and philosophy, as if literary creativity and intellectual argument were essentially one. After the narrowing of scope represented by the New Criticism, it was a great opening, raising the stakes of the enterprise for everyone involved in literary study. On the page and in person, he was playful, searching, and wise.”

Speaking at the memorial service for Hartman on March 16, Leslie Brisman, the Karl Young Professor of English, said: “My first conversation with Geoffrey Hartman, when I arrived at Yale in 1969, was about his recently published magnificent essay, ‘The Voice of the Shuttle.’  He had written, ‘Interpretation is like a football game. You spot a hole and you go through. But first you may have to induce the opening.’ … [What] has stuck with me all these years, is that if interpretation is like a football game, the other team is not ‘other interpreters,’ to be beaten, but the text itself, to be played with, in good spirit and without agonistic violence. ‘Think touch football,’ he gently suggested. And in his hands, a most touching intellectual sport indeed.”

Although his interest in poetry extended from the Renaissance to the contemporary (including his own), Hartman always returned to his favorite poet: William Wordsworth. These interests — and his pioneering work in Judaic studies, trauma studies, and studies of the Holocaust — are reflected in his many publications, which include “Wordsworth’s Poetry “(1964), “Beyond Formalism” (1970), “Criticism in the Wilderness” (1980), “The Fate of Reading (1975), “The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust” (1996), and “The Geoffrey Hartman Reader” (2004).

Aside from his book of poems, “The Eighth Day” (2013), Hartman’s last book was a memoir titled “A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe”(2007). In it, he describes how his career was influenced by his experience, at the age of 9, as one of the Kindertransport children who were sent away by their parents to escape the atrocities against Jews in Nazi Germany. Hartman spent the next six years at school in England, where he developed his love of English literature and the English countryside. He joined his mother in America in 1948 and later became a U.S. citizen. He graduated from Queens College and earned a doctorate in comparative literature at Yale in 1953. He was a member of the Yale faculty for almost 40 years, retiring in 2009.

The Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, for which Hartman was the first director and faculty adviser, had its roots in a grassroots organization called the Holocaust Survivors Film Project, initiated by local television interviewer and producer Laurel Vlock in association with Dori Laub, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale and a child survivor of the Holocaust. Hartman’s wife, Renée, was one of the first people interviewed. In 1979 the project organizers began videotaping testimony from survivors and witnesses in the New Haven area; when they decided to expand the scope of the project to include testimonies from across the nation, Hartman, one of its board members, urged the university to assist the project. The archive became part of the collections at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library in 1981. A grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation supported the transfer and cataloging of the testimonies, and made it possible for Yale to extend the collection’s reach to a national and international level. The archive became accessible to the public in 1982, and in 1987, the late Alan M. Fortunoff, president of Fortunoff specialty stores, provided endowment funding. Eventually the testimonies were moved from video to digital format.

“I think we were the first to systematically interview Holocaust survivors,” said Hartman in a 2014 interview in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. “We had to invent the whole structure of doing this, had to make sure that the survivors were properly questioned, that they had enough time to answer, and so we had to train quite a few helpers in that direction.” A decade later, when Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation prepared to launch a more extensive Holocaust testimony archive, the Fortunoff staff helped train the new interviewers.

A year after the establishment of the Fortunoff archive, President A. Bartlett Giamatti asked Hartman to help raise funds for a Judaic Studies Program at Yale. While the establishment of the new major was challenging, Hartman said in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger interview, “Judaic Studies at Yale is flourishing, even more than I expected.”

Hartman delivered hundreds of lectures during his career, and held visiting professorships or fellowships at more than 20 institutions. His numerous honors included fellowships in the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academy of Literary Studies. In 1997, the French government awarded him the Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et Lettres, which honors significant contributions to the arts and literature. His book “The Geoffrey Hartman Reader” received the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2006.

In addition to his wife, Renée, Hartman is survived by his daughter, Liz Hartman of New Haven; his son, David Hartman, also of New Haven; and his grandson, Shel Mizrahi.

Memorial contributions may be sent to the Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. 

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