“A profound intellectual joy”: In memoriam, legendary editor Helen Tartar


Endless cups of bad coffee

The first impression I had meeting legendary editor Helen Tartar a dozen years ago was … silver.  She was wearing a calf-length silver-gray dress, with silver chandelier earrings and silver bracelets, and her straight hair was a striking complement in the same color. She appeared to be a shimmering silver Christmas tree.  Well, you can get a little of the idea from the thumbnail at left.

In 2002, her position as humanities acquisitions editor had just been eliminated at Stanford University Press … an agonizing wrench for her and for the authors she nurtured.  At the time, I was writing an article about the cutbacks and faculty reaction for Stanford Magazine – it’s here. The following year, Helen was snapped up by Fordham University Press to serve as its editorial director, and is credited with transforming Fordham University Press into one of the leading scholarly presses in the United States. She was on a roll.

Hence her death in a Denver car accident on March 3 came as a shock. She was 62.

No doubt she was in Denver for one of her restless cross-continental ramblings in quest for the perfect book. University of Chicago’s Haun Saussy over at PrintCulture  wrote this: “She was ferocious in the defense of things she thought precious and endangered– for example, first books by academic authors. She could be tough. She could be brittle. She worked herself ragged. Something was always new and exciting. She traipsed from conference to conference, drinking endless cups of bad coffee, knitting while she listened to an infinity of tedious papers, in pursuit of the beautiful book somebody had in them without knowing it.”

“What is less random than the taste, dexterity and care that Helen brought to the reading of proposals, drafts, manuscripts, reports and editorial memos? I trusted her more than almost anyone else (which doesn’t mean we never disagreed). We worked on many overlapping projects, almost continuously, for twenty-four years. She was my friend and I worried about her.”


Saussy and Tartar

In Publishers Weekly, press director Fred Nachbaur called Tartar, “one of the most passionate and dedicated editors in the academic publishing community. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her for the past five years.”  In a widely circulated email, he added a more personal note: “As I wrapped myself up in an orange hand-knitted scarf given to me as a belated holiday gift from Helen, I thought fondly of her constant desire to thread things together; thoughts, ideas, words, and people. Helen would rarely be seen without her yarn and needles, always managing to satisfy her need for movement and creativity.”

The accolades are endless. From the Stanford University Press website, in an article titled “Without Precedent”: “Her energetic acquisitions efforts during a period of intellectual upheaval within a number of humanities disciplines enabled the Press to play a leading role in advancing critical scholarship in those areas throughout the English-speaking academic world.”

The praise is nothing new. In my 2003 article, I reported how her elimination caused widespread consternation:

Within minutes of Burn’s September e-mail announcement to some 50 or 60 interested parties, scholars from as far away as Cambridge University, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong and Australia reacted in scores of letters and e-mails. For many, Tartar’s departure was the biggest bombshell. “Helen Tartar has transformed what was once no more than a moderately respectable academic press into a luminous beacon of intellectual creation,” wrote UCLA French professor Peter Haidu. “Her unique combination of talents has built an institution of importance, eminence, and authority without equal in America.” A message from Michael Puett, assistant professor of early Chinese history at Harvard, stated that Tartar had “built up the Press as a community.”

yarnAt the Stanford University Press blog last week, Norris Pope, who was the Press’s director for much of the time that Helen was at Stanford, commented that “Helen’s acquisitions efforts in the humanities were without precedent in the history of Stanford University Press, and they contributed enormously to the Press’s reputation and standing in a number of fields. The high esteem in which she was held by her authors and by scholars in many parts of the humanities was the result of her extraordinary abilities and dedication. Her work will have a lasting effect in a number of intellectual areas and on the careers of a great many authors at all stages in their careers.”

Let the last words be Helen’s, via the Fordham University newsroom:

In a 2004 interview with Fordham magazine, Tartar said that she took pleasure in creating a booklist that displayed what she termed “discursive coherence”—one that included microbiology to sociology to literature to philosophy, drawn together less by theme and more by a quality of mind or thinking.

She said she enjoyed being an editor in part because “you’re a perpetual student . . . you’re constantly learning, even if [the authors] are much younger than you are.”

“Part of [my] task in the job is to enhance the role of the press as an asset to the university,” said Tartar. “I also want to renew a profound intellectual joy I had, a sense of bringing truly exciting books into the world, things that will keep people thinking for decades.”


4 Responses to ““A profound intellectual joy”: In memoriam, legendary editor Helen Tartar”

  1. Travis J. Tanner Says:

    I am deeply saddened at the loss of Helen Tartar. While I didn’t know her personally, I have benefited enormously from the intellectual output she helped create in critical theory and literary criticism. Her work was incomparable and she will be greatly missed.

    Dr. Travis Tanner
    Dept. of English
    Loyola Marymount University

  2. Dirk Baecker Says:

    I am only now learning about the death of Helen Tartar. I never forget how embarrassed she was when she had to learn that the first and rough translation of Niklas Luhmann’s book “Social Systems” she proudly presented to Stanford University humanities faculty met a more than cold, if not outright startled reaction. She looked around, cancelled the second session of discussion about the manuscript, and secluded herself to check out what had happened. Somehow relieved she discovered that the fault was not Luhmann’s but the translator’s who never had taken a second look at his first rough translation. And what did she do? She went learning German for several weeks in the Black Forest, checked for every one sentence in the whole book to turn it into an at least readable English, asked me to check on the factual correctness of her new translation,–and never allowed me to have her instead of me mentioned as the second–I’d rather say, the first–translator of this book. I was then and I am now deeply impressed of her energy and modesty, combined with a wit to bear it all. I admire the work she did at Stanford UP and I admire the work she started at Fordham UP. And I will miss her.

    Dirk Baecker
    Zeppelin University
    Friedrichshafen, GERMANY

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you for checking in, Dirk. What a wonderful story. And yes, she was amazing.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you also, Travis. She is indeed greatly missed.