Politicians, captains of industry, and media celebrities write memoirs — or talk them out to actual writers — in the belief, shared by publishers, that people are interested in the private lives of public figures, the story behind great success or notoriety. Others write therapeutic or voyeuristic memoirs that read like guided tours through hell, cautionary tales of failure, dysfunction, and, in some cases, stirring recovery, holding out hope for us all. As its title implies, Geoffrey Hartman's terse yet eloquent memoir, "A Scholar's Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe" (Fordham University Press, 195 pages, $24.95), is neither of these staples. It takes us through the author's five decades as a widely influential literary scholar, adding spare biographical details to fill out the bare bones of his personal history. He only touches on the "shocks, regrets, moments of acute self-doubt and self-blame" in his life. Yet the book's scrupulous reconsideration of his literary and academic life marks it as a deeply personal work.
Geoffrey Hartman arrived in New York in 1945, at the age of 16, a young refugee from Hitler's Germany. His mother had come here before the war, but he had been sent on a Kindertransport to spend the war years in England, where he developed a feeling for both the English countryside and English literature. These discoveries came together in his lifelong love of Wordsworth's poetry, the subject of his seminal book in 1964.
In a sense, Mr. Hartman was orphaned, since his father had decamped when he was a child in Frankfurt and he found it hard to reconnect with a mother he had not seen all through his formative years. More than America itself, literature and the university became his homeland, ensuring that he would never feel exiled or uprooted. Comfortable in French and German as well as English, he was drawn to comparative literature, re-creating in himself a European cosmopolitanism the Nazis had tried to stamp out. As a graduate student at Yale, he cast his lot with émigré scholars like Erich Auerbach, René Wellek, and Henri Peyre, who embodied this ideal, and today he remains their most distinguished successor.
"A Scholar's Tale" is a genuine rarity; this kind of intellectual autobiography scarcely exists in this country. Mr. Hartman alludes to Coleridge's "Biographia Literaria," an idiosyncratic work by an otherwise blocked poet and thinker, but he might have recalled "The Education of Henry Adams," or later memoirs by leading New York intellectuals, such as Alfred Kazin's "New York Jew" or Irving Howe's "A Margin of Hope." Mr. Hartman's book, altogether free of gossip, is quite different, however: a guided tour, neither defensive nor self-promotional, through important issues raised by his books and essays. The history of his reading and writing life is interspersed with portraits of other well-known scholar-intellectuals, including Auerbach, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and his lifelong friend Harold Bloom.
Unlike some of these outsized, charismatic figures, who attracted passionate disciples and fierce critics, Mr. Hartman, who prefers probing, tentative essays to full-length books, has pursued his career on a more modest scale. An instinctive pluralist, never one to close off discussion or impose his views, he takes pleasure in "literary criticism's rich, ungovernable variorum of interpretation," a main theme of this memoir.
Where Mr. Bloom became what Isaiah Berlin called a hedgehog, roaming the canon and imposing himself with large themes, Mr. Hartman played the fox: He knew many small things, haunting the byways of art with a zest for details too intriguing to set aside. In addition to poetry, his first love, he wrote about movies and mystery stories, about post-Holocaust trauma and about European philosophical criticism. On poetry he can hardly be matched at reading in slow motion as he opens up seemingly simple literary language. Teaching a class on Wordsworth's poem, "Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known," he warns students they may not get much beyond that first line. Yet he notes that his dislike of sweeping polemics, his refusal to love or hate anything wholeheartedly, can easily slip into temporizing or equivocation.
It was this affinity for multiple interpretations that drew him to deconstruction in the 1970s, though he was concerned that it would make critical prose "more difficult and involuted." It leads him even today to defend Derrida and de Man, who were his good friends as well as colleagues, against many plausible as well as foolish criticisms. Mr. Hartman once castigated de Man for not owning up to his earlier career as a literary journalist in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Now he suggests that de Man was simply in denial, as he was about his final illness — not really a convincing parallel. Both de Man and Derrida were brilliant readers, but in Derrida's "Glas" (1974), a dizzying commentary on the work of Hegel and Genet that Mr. Hartman particularly cherishes, close reading ran riot in an excess of wordplay that would have made Joyce blush. Still, the abstruse "terminological adventures" of literary theory in the 1970s did not put Mr. Hartman off. He felt that "the intellectual ante had to be raised," though he would later write a book partly defending the more accessible style of journalistic criticism. Here, too, his ambivalence has been at once a gift and a weakness.
Mr. Hartman's oscillation between pleasing himself with playful speculation and finding a common language has been reflected in his style and his sense of his audience, both of which have shifted with each new subject. Most of Mr. Hartman's early essays, like the first half of this memoir, are written in a language that is blessedly free of fashionable jargon but also punningly complex, allusive, almost poetic, directed to an academic audience that is also theoretically sophisticated. But, starting around 1980, Mr. Hartman grew closer to his own background and helped create not only a Judaic Studies program at Yale but the first archive of video testimonies by Holocaust survivors, a model for Steven Spielberg's expansive project of interviewing virtually every living Jewish witness to the Shoah. Other memoirs remind him that he was spared the traumas of living under fascism or communism, but he finds that "I could no longer ignore my wish to retrieve the past."
When Mr. Hartman writes about this stage of his life, his language changes. A voice of lucid witness and social concern replaces private, seminar-style rumination. As he notes about this "second coming of age," a "plainer style has emerged, opinions firmer and less qualified." This contradictory turn gives his memoir the structure of a Hegelian dialectic or triad. If the first phase climaxes with the vertiginous adventure of deconstruction, the second part more soberly records his involvement with matters that belong to history or psychology, in a communal language of public discourse. The one continuity is his new interest in Midrash, a tradition of rabbinic elaboration upon sacred texts that he likens to deconstruction, though its main resemblance seems to be the proliferating variety of viewpoints that are interesting rather than true. Can Midrash, with its homilies, legends, and oral traditions, really be a model for critical reading? Though Mr. Hartman did important work in retrieving Midrashic interpretation for literary scholars, it threatened to reinforce their sense that no empirical constraints needed be brought to bear. The fertile ingenuity of the critic could flower beyond the dry limits of the probable.
But in the last section of the "A Scholar's Tale" Mr. Hartman brings off a surprising synthesis. In wondering why he has remained so strongly interested in poetry — especially Romantic poetry — since his retirement from full-time teaching 10 years ago, he turns warmly contemplative, especially on the poetry's links to religion. He points to parallels between the sublimity of biblical texts, endlessly reshaped by interpretation, and the sublimity of poetic works that have had, at least for him, the same enduring power. But he feels that the poetic imagination, as a secular heir to religious myth, avoids the abuses perpetrated by true believers. It is shorn of ritual and clerical authority and free of the literalism of "dogmatic theology" and "sectarian politics," which are forms of narrow reading that close things off rather than open them up. For Mr. Hartman, as for Matthew Arnold, literature becomes a way of saving the kernel of intense feeling and intrinsic human need that animates religion while discarding the husk of intolerance that harbors inhumanity.
As a credo and personal testament, this is deeply moving. It gives pluralism a new dimension, setting out the spiritual basis of a life devoted to reading and writing. But as the audience for literature shrinks and fundamentalist faith gains ground, as literary scholars themselves become mechanics of the spirit, can a secular devotion to poetry, a faith in its saving power, still exert any real influence, or does it belong irretrievably to an earlier generation?
Mr. Dickstein teaches English at the CUNY Graduate Center and is the author of "Gates of Eden, Leopards in the Temple," and, most recently, "A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World" (Princeton).