In Praise of the Fox

[Posted 12:34 PM by Alexander Nazaryan]

In a recent piece from the New York Sun, which continues its excellent coverage of serious literature, Morris Dickstein reviews A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe by Geoffrey Hartman.

Hartman, a professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Yale, has long toiled under the shadow of the bloated Harold Bloom (the definitive takedown of whom was executed with this Hudson Review cruise missile, lobbed by the estimable Joseph Epstein). I had the pleasure of studying his first work, The Unmediated Vision while writing my thesis at Dartmouth, and the depth of his insight into Romantic poetry, at once deeply intelligent and disarmingly heartfelt, astounded me as few works of literary criticism had.

As Dickstein notes in his review, Hartman narrowly escaped the Holocaust as a child and spent his childhood in England, where he grew to love the poetry of Wordsworth. Appropriately enough, his subsequent career - largely spent in New Haven - would be devoted to a search for the sublime, the kind of quixotic but crucial task that all too few scholars undertake these days.

And though Bloom is better known, Hartman - whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak when he came up to Hanover - is unquestionably the keener mind. Dickstein writes: "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." He was no pompous bombast, but sought those elusive, maybe even inglorious, details that make poetry, at its finest,"a momentary stay against confusion," in Robert Frost’s famous formulation.

In short, an excellent review of a volume that I hope becomes essential for anyone interested in serious, unpretentious literary thought.

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