|Born||Francis George Steiner
April 23, 1929
|Occupation||Author, essayist, literary critic, professor|
|Nationality||French, United States|
|Writing period||1960 – present|
|Genres||Essay, history, literature, literary fiction|
|Subjects||Language, Literature, The Holocaust|
|Notable work(s)||After Babel (1975)|
|Notable award(s)||The Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award (1998)|
Francis George Steiner (born April 23, 1929), is an influential European-born American literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, translator, and educator. He has written extensively about the relationship between language, literature and society, and the impact of The Holocaust. A polyglot and polymath, he is often credited with redefining the role of the critic. Steiner is ranked "among the great minds in today's literary world." English novelist A. S. Byatt described him as a "late, late, late Renaissance man … a European metaphysician with an instinct for the driving ideas of our time." Harriet Harvey-Wood, a former literature director of the British Council, called him a "magnificent lecturer–prophetic and doom-laden [who would] turn up with half a page of scribbled notes, and never refer to them."
Steiner is Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva (1974-1994), Professor of Comparative Literature and Fellow at the University of Oxford (1994-1995) and Professor of Poetry at Harvard University (2001-2002).
He lives in Cambridge, England, where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge since 1969. He is married to author and historian Zara Shakow, and they have a son, David Steiner (Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College) and a daughter, Deborah Steiner (Professor of Classics at Columbia University).
George Steiner was born in 1929 in Paris, France to Jewish Viennese parents Dr. Frederick George Steiner and Mrs. Else Steiner (née Franzos). He has an older sister, Ruth Lilian, who was born in Vienna in 1922. Frederick Steiner was a senior lawyer in the Austrian Central Bank and Else Steiner was a Viennese grande dame. Five years earlier Steiner's father had moved his family from Austria to France to escape the growing threat of Nazism there. He believed that Jews were "endangered guests wherever they went" and equipped his children with languages. Steiner grew up with three mother tongues, German, English and French; his mother was multilingual and would often "begin a sentence in one language and end it in another." At the age of six years, his father, who believed in a good classical education, taught him to read Homer's epic poem, the Iliad, in the original Greek. His mother, for whom "self-pity was nauseating", helped Steiner overcome a handicap he had been born with, a withered right arm. Instead of becoming left-handed she insisted he use his right hand as an able-bodied person would.
Steiner's first formal education took place at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in Paris. In 1940, during World War II, Steiner's father once again relocated his family, this time to New York City. Within a month of their move, the Nazis occupied Paris, and of the many Jewish children in Steiner's class at school, he was only one of two who survived the war. Again his father's insight had saved his family, and this made Steiner feel like a survivor, which profoundly influenced his later writings. "My whole life has been about death, remembering and the Holocaust." Steiner became a "grateful wanderer," saying that "Trees have roots and I have legs; I owe my life to that." He spent the rest of his school years at the Lycée Français de New York in Manhattan, becoming a United States citizen in 1944.
After school Steiner went to the University of Chicago where he studied literature as well as mathematics and physics, obtaining a BA degree in 1948, and later a MA degree from Harvard University in 1950. He then attended Balliol College at the University of Oxford in England on a Rhodes Scholarship. After his doctoral thesis at Oxford, a draft of The Death of Tragedy (later published by Faber and Faber) was initially rejected, Steiner took time off from his studies to work as leader writer for the London based weekly publication, The Economist between 1952 and 1956. It was during this time that he met Zara Shakow, a New Yorker of Lithuanian descent. She had also studied at Harvard and they met in London at the suggestion of their former professors. "The professors had had a bet… that we would get married if we ever met." They later married in 1955, the year he received his PhD from Oxford University.
In 1956 Steiner returned to the United States where for two years he was a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. He was appointed Gauss Lecturer at Princeton in 1959 where he lectured for another two years. He also held a Fulbright professorship in Innsbruck, Austria from 1958 to 1959. He then became a founding fellow of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge in 1961. Steiner was initially not well received at Cambridge by the English faculty. Many disapproved of this charismatic "firebrand with a foreign accent," questioned the relevance of his constant references to the Holocaust in his lectures. Bryan Cheyette, professor of twentieth-century literature at the University of Southampton said that at the time, "Britain […] didn't think it had a relationship to the Holocaust; its mythology of the war was rooted in the Blitz, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain." While Steiner received a professorial salary, he was never made a full professor at Cambridge with the right to examine. He had the option of leaving for professorships in the United States, but Steiner's father objected, saying that Hitler, who said no one bearing their name would be left in Europe, would then have won. Steiner remained in England because "I'd do anything rather than face such contempt from my father." He was elected an Extraordinary Fellow at Cambridge in 1969.
After several years as a freelance writer and occasional lecturer, Steiner accepted the post of Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva in 1974, which he held for 20 years, teaching in four languages. He lived by Goethe's maxim that "no monoglot truly knows his own language." He became Professor Emeritus at Geneva University on his retirement in 1994, and an Honorary Fellow at Balliol College at Oxford University in 1995. He has since held the positions of the first Lord Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature and Fellow of St Anne's College at Oxford University from 1994 to 1995, and Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University from 2001 to 2002.
Steiner is best known as an intelligent and intellectual critic and essayist. He was active on undergraduate publications while at Chicago University and later become a regular contributor of reviews and articles to many journals and newspapers including the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. He has written for The New Yorker for over 30 years, contributing over two hundred reviews.
George Steiner is regarded as a polymath and often credited with recasting the role of the critic by exploring art and thought unbounded by national frontiers or academic disciplines. He advocates generalization over specialization, insisting that a literate person must encompass knowledge of both arts and sciences. Steiner, who is Jewish, rejects Jewish nationalism and is a critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Central to Steiner's thinking, he has stated, "is my astonishment, naïve as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to love, to build, to forgive, and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate."
George Steiner's career spans half a century and he has published ground-breaking essays and books that address the anomalies of contemporary Western culture, issues of language and its "debasement" in the post-Holocaust age. His field is primarily comparative literature and his work as a critic has tended toward exploring cultural and philosophical issues, particularly dealing with translation and the nature of language and literature.
Steiner's first published book was Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in Contrast (1960), which was a study of the different ideas and ideologies of the Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Death of Tragedy (1961) originated as his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford and examined literature from the ancient Greeks to the mid-twentieth century. His best-known book, After Babel (1975), was an early and influential contribution to the field of translation studies. It was adapted for television in 1977 as The Tongues of Men and was the inspiration behind the creation in 1983 of the English avant-garde rock group News from Babel.
Several works of literary fiction by Steiner include three short story collections, Anno Domini: Three Stories (1964), Proofs and Three Parables (1992) and The Deeps of the Sea (1996), and his controversial novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981). Portage to San Cristobal, in which Jewish Nazi hunters find Adolf Hitler (A.H.) alive in the Amazon jungle 30 years after the end of World War II, explored ideas on the origins of European anti-Semitism first expounded by him in his 1971 critical work In Bluebeard's Castle. Steiner has suggested that Nazism was Europe's revenge on the Jews for inventing conscience. Cheyette sees Steiner's fiction as "an exploratory space where he can think against himself." It "contrasts its humility and openness with his increasingly closed and orthodox critical work." Central to it is the survivor's "terrible, masochistic envy about not being there–having missed the rendezvous with hell".
No Passion Spent (1996) is a collection of essays on topics as diverse as Kierkegaard, Homer in translation, Biblical texts and Freud's dream theory. Errata: An Examined Life (1997) is a semi-autobiography and Grammars of Creation (2001), based on Steiner's 1990 Gifford lectures, explores a range of subjects from cosmology to poetry.
George Steiner helped to create the modern academic profession of literary critic. He left an indelible influence on the entire field. His concern with the relationship between literature and the horrors of modern life, especially the Holocaust did not leave any particular school in its wake, but by strength of his talent, he served as a model for many professional critics.
George Steiner has received many honors, including:
He has also won numerous awards for his fiction and poetry, including:
All links retrieved June 16, 2017.
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