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  • The Three Cities of George Steiner
  • Jerry White

Conceivably, it is no longer legitimate for any one individual to publish on ancient Greek literature and on chess, on philosophy and the Russian novel, on linguistics and aesthetics; perhaps it is no longer advisable to hold university chairs while writing fiction and contributing more than 150 review-essays to the New Yorker, where, in late 1966, I was asked to help fill the gap left by Edmund Wilson. Even where something of genius is in play, as in a Koestler, the risks are steep. To smaller gifts, they may be damning. As the close comes nearer, I know that my crowded solitude, that the absence of any school or movement originating in my work, and that the sums of its imperfections are, in considerable measure, of my own doing.

George Steiner, Errata: A Memoir (155)

Any reading engages the history and tenets of language. Comparative Literature, while alert to the contributions of formal and abstract linguistics, is immersed in, delights in, the prodigal diversity of natural languages. Comparative Literature listens and reads after Babel.

George Steiner, “What Is Comparative Literature?” (No Passion Spent 150)

It would be tempting to say that the death of George Steiner in February 2020 marked the end of an era. Without a doubt, that impulse should be resisted, although as I think we will see, it is difficult to resist it entirely. I would certainly agree with his own damning self-assessment, that he did not found a school as such, and I even agree [End Page 230] that the failure of such a school to emerge does have to do with his own excesses, in both aspiration and rhetoric. But, clearly, his spirit lives on in figures such as Elif Batuman, who is every bit as important for many young literary types as Steiner was for the generation that came of intellectual age in the 1970s. However, saying a little bit about “his spirit” can illuminate some key aspects of our present literary age, its heritage, and the important revisions to that heritage which figures such as Batuman are making. When I say “his spirit,” I do not mean anything particularly spiritual or religious—although I will have case to discuss Steiner’s relationship to religion—but rather in the sense of something like “the spirit of SanFran.” With that in mind, I would like to propose a much lankier formulation to describe Steiner; he embodied “the spirit of Chicago/Cambridge/Geneva.” These three places formed him, and their influence is strongly visible throughout his incredibly diverse body of work. It is worth taking each place in its turn.


Steiner’s early life unfolded in the Paris of his birth in 1929 and the New York of his adolescence—his family, having already left Vienna, moved there when he was 11. All of these polyglot metropoles clearly influenced the seriousness with which he took language, and just as importantly, the ease with which he mixed them. His mother tongue of German was learned in the family home in the City of Light; he completed his lycée diploma in the heart of Manhattan. That diploma is what led him away from the east coast establishment and towards an educational environment that was at once more open-minded and more rigorous. Steiner wrote in his 1997 memoir Errata that “[a] brief visit to Yale during ‘orientation week’ made it plain to me that Jews there were consigned to a ghetto of pinched politeness” (40). The Midwest beckoned. He went on in Errata to describe the University of Chicago of the late 1940s as follows:

Scornful of the childish waste and banalities clogging American collegiate syllabi, Robert Maynard Hutchins allowed applicants to sit examinations in almost every undergraduate discipline. If they scored high enough, they were dispensed from taking the regular courses. This could, exceptionally, melt down the requisites for a degree to one year. My performance in the sciences and sociology (even the word was new to me) was lamentable. Coming out of the mandarinate of a French education with emphasis on Greek and Latin, I would, at Chicago, have four demanding terms ahead...