NEW YORK â€” Geoffrey H. Hartman, a literary critic whose work took in the Romantic poets, Judaic sacred texts, Holocaust studies, deconstruction, and the workings of memory â€” and took on the very function of criticism itself â€” died March 14 at his home in Hamden, Conn. He was 86.
His death was announced by Yale University, where he was the Sterling professor emeritus of English and comparative literature.
Considered one of the worldâ€™s foremost scholars of literature, Dr. Hartman was associated with the â€œYale School,â€ a cohort of literary theorists that included Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man. Their work was rooted in deconstruction, the approach to analyzing the multilayered relationship between a text and its meaning that was advanced by the 20th-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Dr. Hartman was renowned for his vast Continental erudition. His scholarly attention ranged over Wordsworth, to whom he was long devoted; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins; Judaica (he helped found the Judaic studies program at Yale); Alfred Hitchcock; Freud; detective stories; and the nature of trauma, the memory of trauma, and testimony about trauma â€” interests borne of his own wartime experience â€” as well as the ways in which traumatic recollections can be filtered through the creative imagination.
Among his best-known books are â€œWordsworthâ€™s Poetry, 1787-1814â€ (1964); â€œCriticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Todayâ€ (1980), considered a landmark in the field; â€œThe Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaustâ€ (1996); and a memoir, â€œA Scholarâ€™s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europeâ€ (2007).
He was the first director of what is now the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. Begun in 1979, the archive, which is open to the public, comprises more than 4,000 interviews with Holocaust survivors, witnesses, and liberators from around the world.
As a result of his association with the Yale School, Dr. Hartman was often called a deconstructionist, but his critical stance eluded tidy classification.
Deconstruction maintains that any given text is, below its surface, a roiling system of conflicting semantic signs. As such, the text has no one empirical reading; it is, rather, a network of competing meanings â€” a quicksilver state of affairs that a critical analysis of that text must take into account.
Early on, Dr. Hartman championed this approach. But over time he went deconstruction one better, arguing that a literary text is so pregnant with possible readings that to make an evaluative judgment about it â€” or even, perhaps, to extract an inventory of its meanings â€” is futile.
By longstanding tradition, as Dr. Hartman reminded his readers, literary criticism was seen as a handmaiden of literature â€” an adjunct whose sole raison dâ€™Ãªtre was literature itself.
In â€œCriticism in the Wilderness,â€ he argued that criticism should not only stand on an equal footing with literature but also be literature.
In elevating criticism to the status of literature, Dr. Hartman did not mean merely that it should be well written. What he also meant was that criticism should function for criticismâ€™s sake alone.
â€œThe spectacle of the criticâ€™s mind disoriented, bewildered, caught in some â€˜wild surmiseâ€™ about the text, and struggling to adjust â€” is not that one of the interests critical writing has for us?â€ he wrote in â€œCriticism in the Wilderness.â€
He continued: â€œIn more casual acts of reading this bewilderment can be muted, for there is always the hint of a resolution further on, or an enticement to enter for its own sake the authorâ€™s world. However, in containing this bewilderment, formal critical commentary is not very different from fiction itself.â€
Dr. Hartmanâ€™s critical writings occasioned, quite fittingly, a spate of critical responses. His style â€” suffused with puns, linguistic play, and self-referential asides that mulled the meanings of the very words springing from his pen â€” was praised by some observers for its transparency and damned by others for its opacity. Sometimes, in the course of analyzing one of his works, a critic was moved to both opinions at once.
Reviewing â€œCriticism in the Wildernessâ€ in The New York Times Book Review, the literary scholar Denis Donoghue wrote: â€œHis own style makes me wonder. In one mood, he is a vigorous, witty, trenchant writer, formidably lucid and polemical. Many of his sentences make me feel: I wish I had said that. But some of them make me feel: I wonder would that be worth the labor of understanding it?â€
Geoffrey H. Hartmann, as the family name was then spelled, was born in Frankfurt on Aug. 11, 1929. (In a curious augury for one whose life would center on signification, his middle initial stood for nothing.) His father left the family when Geoffrey was very young.
In 1939, Geoffrey was among the Jewish children evacuated from Nazi Germany as part of a Kindertransport. He spent the war years in England, living with other evacuated children at Waddesdon Manor, the Buckinghamshire country estate of James de Rothschild, a scion of the banking family.
There, to stave off isolation, he read voraciously and lost himself in the verdant countryside â€” an experience that would seed his lifelong passion for Wordsworth.
His mother managed to flee Germany for New York but could not send for Geoffrey, her only child, until after the war. Joining her there, he parted company with the final â€œnâ€ of â€œHartmann,â€ stripping the name of its most conspicuous Teutonic trace.
He earned a bachelorâ€™s degree in comparative literature, summa cum laude, from Queens College in 1949 and later studied as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Dijon in France. He received a PhD in comparative literature in 1953 from Yale, where his teachers included the distinguished Czech Ã©migrÃ© critic Rene Wellek.
Dr. Hartman first joined the Yale faculty in 1955. He spent the early and mid-1960s at the University of Iowa and at Cornell before rejoining Yale in 1967.
Dr. Hartman leaves his wife, the former RenÃ©e Gross; a son, David; a daughter, Liz; and a grandson.