By Geoffrey Hartman (Fordham University Press, 2007)
“I feel embarrassed,” writes the great literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman in this short, epigrammatic intellectual autobiography, “when, occasionally, younger colleagues, usually Jewish, address me as ‘my teacher.’ I realize this is fond and purely honorific, a secular version of ‘Rabbi.’ But it makes me aware of the fact that I have never thought of anyone in so personal a way as a role model.” This charming and defiantly smart book helps the reader to see that no one ever could have been Hartman's role model. His is so quirky an intelligence — and so roundly informed by his own, sad past as a teenaged refugee — that his only teacher in fact was Wordsworth. Separated from his family during the war, lacking for friends, Hartman wandered the countryside with the Prelude for a companion. All that he has done since, all the difficult, brilliant essays and books, began in that war-haunted boy’s solitude with his slim volume of poetry. You can read this book for explanations of critical theory — though they are still too abstruse to make much sense to the neophyte — or you can read this book for the droppings of academic gossip (Paul de Man, Auerbach, Harold Bloom). But ultimately this book is worth reading above all for its depiction of the kind of mind that has gone out of fashion: the omnivorous European reader, fluent in many languages, autodidactic, with enough whimsy left to suggest that at Yale May Day be celebrated as Midrash Day. (“The idea had a longevity of two years,” Hartman writes, with a touch of gallows humor.) If we never really know the man — wife and family and pastimes hardly feature in this book — we know the mind, and we do get lovely reminiscences of the child, “father of the man,” as Wordsworth himself told us.