Helen Tartar, in memoriam
If she had not been killed in an absurd traffic accident earlier this month, the great editor Helen Tartar would almost certainly be at a conference now, listening to papers, talking to authors and showing the latest books from Fordham University Press. She was a regular at ACLA and MLA meetings, as she was at the gatherings of the philosophers, the phenomenologists, the media scholars, and the religious-studies people. She was on her way to the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy meeting in Denver when she died. At these meetings, her calendar was always full. Many of our readers will have had the enlivening experience of telling her about a project or an idea and receiving in return a flash of enthusiasm and insight: her eyes lit up and her voice rose in the anticipation of what that idea could become if it were realized in all its potential glory. Whether or not one went home and wrote that book, whether or not one published it with Helen, that moment of intellectual warmth was not easily forgotten. It wasn’t a professional trick: she loved framing arguments and she loved tugging them into shape—a job for at least four hands. Being an editor was the full, but not the only, expression of her own powers. We at Critical Inquiry mourn her loss, a loss for American letters and for the worldwide circulation of ideas.
I first met Helen thanks to Cathy Caruth. Helen was visiting Yale, the site of her own graduate work in English and East Asian Studies, and Cathy had given her some names of people who were finishing dissertations and might have something worth publishing down the line. I had written only two and a half chapters by then and was nervous as a cat: a real-live editor coming to call? What was I getting myself into? I invited her to lunch and was so jumpy I broke a plate in the kitchen. She listened to me telling her where I thought the dissertation was going and asked to see a chapter. I sent her one, by mail, and promptly got it back with one of the most thoughtful letters I have seen, before or since, about the tasks of establishing my foothold, wielding my evidence, engaging the reader, moving things along. This attention was deeply flattering. She did not, however, flatter me as an author. “When I read this argument,” she said at one point in that first letter, “I felt I needed to take hold of it like a twisted sock and pull it inside-out.” The simile involving woven material—the sock—was characteristic of her as someone who wove and knitted and sewed. It was part of her daily regimen to untangle fuzzy strands and bind them to each other in structures of knots and empty spaces, so as to turn mere lines into planes and then into volumes, volumes that would maintain the warmth of a body when the garment was complete. She saw things in their intersections, ordinal and cardinal. I don’t remember if I did turn that argument inside-out after all, but I can’t forget the humor, the modesty and the forthrightness of her request. It wasn’t: “I think you could modify a little detail here and there.” But: “Even if you have all your elements in a structure, you need to completely invert and redirect every element of that structure, or you’ll be out there with one bare foot.”
On Helen’s tall frame, clothes that looked hand-woven and probably were of her own making made one think of self-sufficiency, a do-it-yourself ethos, a readiness to plunge into work with wool, cotton, metal, glass, and make something of it. It was the femininity Homer describes when he says of Athena that she took on the appearance among mortals of “a woman, tall and beautiful and skilled at making fine things.” As in the case of me and my sorry sock, her engagement with physical making gave a vivid immediacy to her way of taking hold of refractory intellectual issues.
I published a first book with Helen. Then came other books: a critical edition, an anthology, a book series, an as yet uncompleted book that she read and commented on as the chapters crept forth. Not everything I did matched her interests; some things I published with other editors; but I trusted her judgment and I prized her encouragement. We disagreed about some things, but as friends do. I liked to see the circle of people who had benefited from her attention grow and grow.
Helen had what some would call expensive tastes. I don’t mean diamonds and champagne. I mean that she thought it was important to commission translations of books from abroad—with a subsidy when possible, but to do it at any rate; and that she insisted on publishing the first books of younger scholars. To do this is an act of faith in the profession on the part of a university press, because most first books take a long time to earn back their costs, if they ever do. But without first books, careers will founder and the later books will never be written. To lessen the burden on publishers, Helen played a primary role in devising the Modern Languages Initiative, an agreement between the Mellon Foundation and a number of US university presses to support publishing first books in literary and cultural studies. To speak up for these loss-leading first books was an act entirely characteristic of Helen.
To take the measure of her determination, let us consider the role of a university press editor. In one way, these editors are powerful people, gatekeepers to the reward system of academia. They do the first reading, the triage, the consultation with experts, the developmental work a manuscript may need. They solicit the peer evaluations that result in books being accepted or declined. They present cases, i.e., manuscript reports, to a board, which judges and disposes. This power of theirs is however highly conditional. Unlike most of the faculty members who write the reports and vote on manuscripts, the editors do not have tenure or any of the protections of academic freedom. They have to reckon with budgets and sales figures. They must do the bidding of their boards, to whom they are finally responsible. Their power, even when used wisely, can always be turned against them by opinionated and better-protected faculty colleagues.
Helen used to tell me a story from her very first year as an editor. Some author was not listening to advice and she had written a Strongly Worded Memo laying down the expectations that the author was to fulfill. She showed it to her senior editor at Stanford, who recoiled in horror. He said to her: “You can’t write it like that. You have to understand, we editors are little girls.” Little girls?, she said, and I can imagine the young Helen reddening. University press editors, her senior editor explained, have no power to make anyone do anything. They can suggest and cajole, but they’re going to get in trouble if they start to command. – I have never thought of Helen’s as a little-girl style (quite the contrary: hers was confident and free), but she knew the narrow margin of maneuver an editor has. Aside from its imparting of professional wisdom, the story stays in my mind because of Helen’s hilarious parody of a large older man parodying a little girl: irony to the third power, at least.
Editors, then, if they are going to take risks, put themselves on the line. I found myself on the board of Stanford University Press at a moment when Helen’s priorities—critical theory, Continental philosophy, translations, and above all first books—came into conflict with the wishes of an extremely powerful administrator who later went on to roles of national importance (and who will be remembered for attempting to mislead Congress about the national intelligence estimate’s assessment of the likelihood of a terrorist attack in September 2001). That administrator challenged proposals Helen brought to the board, saying, “I can’t understand this stuff and I don’t see how anyone else is going to.” These exchanges were acrimonious. Helen tensed up. Her patience was less than perfect. But she held her ground and defended the kinds of books that she felt it was her mission, and Stanford’s mission, to continue to produce: difficult philosophy, inventive interdisciplinarity, counter-intuitive interpretations. Her defense of these things came at a high cost to her personally and, eventually, professionally. But I think Stanford has every reason to be proud of the dozens of titles Helen acquired or developed for them, just as Fordham can be proud of the list Helen built up in the ten years since moving to be their editorial director.
Helen kept her balance and strength through a steady engagement with the martial arts. I described her as a knitter but it would be unfair to leave out her qualifications as a swordswoman. The next to last time I saw her, we attended a dinner in honor of the global health care advocate Paul Farmer, who was to be presented with the “Sword of Loyola” for his social-justice work. The sword was a real broadsword, of steel, engraved, and heavy. After the presentation, Helen took it in hand, weighed its heft, and quickly made a few gracious passes. An archbishop leapt backward, startled. I wish I had caught it all with a camera. For in traditional Western imagery when a woman wields a sword, it is almost a guarantee that she is not herself, but an allegory: Justice, or the Motherland, or Truth. Helen, slicing the air with lateral figure-eights, was completely and comfortably herself. Maybe a Chinese martial-arts romance would have been her true home after all.
I would give almost anything to be calling up these moments of Helen’s life a few years hence at her retirement party or seventy-fifth birthday celebration. Instead, here we are baffled by the chance events that leave her life—a good life of dedication, courage and generosity—as an incomplete project. Who, I wonder, will continue it?
(This is the fuller text of a speech delivered on my behalf by Eric Hayot at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in New York.)
 See Steven Strasser, ed., The 9/11 Investigations: Staff Reports of the 9/11 Commission (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), pp. 222-228. The common point of these two anecdotes: incuriosity raised to the level of principle.