George Steiner, Prodigious Literary Critic, Dies at 90


Reared to speak French, English and German interchangeably and encouraged to read widely in the classics by his closely attentive father, George emigrated with his family to New York City in 1940 and attended the Lycée Francais, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1944 and receiving his French baccalaureate in 1947.

Turning down the offer of an abbreviated path to a bachelor’s degree at Yale because of what he perceived as condescension to Jews, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and earned his B.A. there after one year of study, in 1948. After receiving his master’s degree from Harvard in 1950, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where his doctoral thesis was initially rejected. A revised version, later published as “The Death of Tragedy,” was accepted, and he received his doctorate in English literature in 1955.

That same year he married Zara Alice Shakow, who became a historian of international relations. In addition to his son, his wife survives him along with a daughter, Deborah Tarn, who is a philologist, and two grandchildren.

In 1952, Mr. Steiner joined the editorial staff of The Economist, where he remained until 1956. After obtaining his doctorate, he became a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, then was appointed Christian Gauss Lecturer at Princeton from 1959 to 1960. From Princeton he went to Cambridge University, where he remained for the rest of his life, first as a fellow of Churchill College (1961-1969), then as an Extraordinary Fellow. He was an honorary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.

At various times he also taught or lectured at the University of Geneva, New York University and Harvard, where he was appointed the Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry for 2001-2002.

His many books include “Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman” (1967), “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture” (1971) and “After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation” (1975).

Again and again, either directly or indirectly, Mr. Steiner tried to define the meaning of culture in an age overwhelmed by atrocities. In the preface to “Language and Silence,” he wrote, “My own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe, by the mass murder of the Jews and by the destruction under Nazism and Stalinism of what I try to define in some of these essays as the particular genius of ‘Central European humanism.’”

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