Literary and Critical Theory Geoffrey Hartman
Gina MacKenzie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0039


Geoffrey H. Hartman is one of the most important literary critics of the 20th century. His work spans six decades, beginning in the 1950s, and covers a wide range of topics, including romantic theory, literary theory, trauma theory, and Holocaust studies. Along with Paul de Man, Edward W. Said, William V. Spanos, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Daniel T. O’Hara, Lionel Trilling, Harold Bloom, and Northrop Frye, Hartman stands as one of the greatest minds of the great generation. Born on 11 August 1929 in Frankfurt, Hartman’s life began in the tragic horror of Nazi occupation, resulting in refugee status as a Kindertransport child. He arrived in England under those conditions and there was educated for six years before being reunited with his mother in the United States. In the United States, Hartman gained citizenship, attended Queens College, City University of New York, and earned his PhD from Yale University, the institution at which he spent most of his career. There he was named the Sterling Professor of English and Comparative Literature and became a founding member of the Yale School of Deconstruction. His first critical endeavors involved close critical analysis of romantic literature, primarily focused on William Wordsworth’s poetry but branching out to encompass both the British and French romantic movements. His work with French romanticism also led him to extensive study of Maurice Blanchot and André Malraux, helping to introduce both figures to Anglo-American audiences. While Hartman’s work consistently returns to the romantics, from the 1970s onward he was enmeshed in the great debate over the necessity of literary theory, consistently acting to defend theory’s place while advancing his own brand of literary theory (trauma theory), which overlaps with and informs his important work with Holocaust studies, particularly with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies that he founded at Yale University. Hartman’s work, along with some of the greatest literary thinkers of the middle to late 20th century, helped shape the current landscape of literary theory and defend its necessity in scholarship and culture. Hartman died on 14 March 2016 in Hamden, Connecticut.

General Overviews

Because Hartman’s work examines a range of scholarly interests and approaches, many readers find it necessary to begin with collections that provide an overview of his work in different fields. Hartman 1999 outlines major developments in his critical thought, while Hartman 2009 uses traditional autobiographical techniques to show the merger of his life and work. Hartman and O’Hara 2004 excerpts some of his most important works for study, and O’Hara 1985 reads Hartman’s career itself as a text and shows its invaluable nature. Atkins 2006 gives another overview of Hartman’s work and demonstrates his wide reach as a critic.

  • Atkins, G. Douglas. Geoffrey Hartman: Criticism as Answerable Style. Critics of the Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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    This text presents a thorough and insightful introduction to Hartman’s work, with particular emphasis on his developments in romantic and Judaic studies. It is also one of the few texts that consider the question of theory as the “intellectual property” of the professor, using Hartman as an example.

  • Hartman, Geoffrey H. A Critic’s Journey: Literary Reflections, 1958–1998. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

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    This text examines the art of criticism in its totality, beginning with his basic autobiography as an example. It explains criticism as an art of frustrating perplexity and looks at the indeterminate as essential to critical thought. It examines the Hebrew Bible, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sigmund Freud, returning to the idea that words have the power to inflict psychic wounds, creating a link to trauma theory.

  • Hartman, Geoffrey H. A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.

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    This intellectual autobiography explores Hartman’s childhood, and how that laid the groundwork for his early scholarly preference for romantic literature. The book explores his engagement with literary criticism and the dynamic changes to and defense of theory, beginning midway through his career. Hartman also chronicles his engagement with Judaic studies, particularly through the program he began at Yale University.

  • Hartman, Geoffrey H., and Daniel T. O’Hara, eds. The Geoffrey Hartman Reader. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.

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    This collection presents the most-important selections of Hartman’s body of work in six sections that highlight his work on poetry, theory, criticism, culture, and memory. The collection includes works both from his traditional literary scholarship and his focus on Judaic studies. O’Hara’s introduction gives a historical overview of Hartman’s career and develops the idea of Hartman’s position as a visionary critic through his own term, “psycho-aesthetics.”

  • O’Hara, Daniel T. “Afterwords: Geoffrey Hartman on the Critic’s Desire for Representation.” In The Romance of Interpretation: Visionary Criticism from Pater to de Man. By Daniel T. O’Hara, 93–120. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

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    Here, O’Hara rehearses the major moves of Hartman’s career and puts them in a dialogue with each other to show Hartman’s overall project, that of the need for the critic himself to be represented in the field of literary study. It places Hartman’s work among that of the great literary minds of the last several centuries.

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