Farewell to John Felstiner, critic, translator, poet: “an exemplary life in literature”


Mary and John Felstiner at their campus home in 2009. (Photo: Linda Cicero)

Literary critic, translator, and poet John Felstiner died last week, on Friday, Feb. 24. He was 80, and had suffered from aphasia for six years. The Stanford professor of English is perhaps best remembered for his book Paul Célan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale, 1997). His translation of Célan’s legendary poem, “Todesfuge,” is widely considered a masterpiece in itself (read more about his translation of the poem here). He is remembered by colleagues for his passion, humor, and fierce intelligence.

Don Share, poet and editor of the nation’s preeminent Poetry magazine, praised “an exemplary life in literature.”


Exemplary. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“As [poet/translator] Michael Hofmann put it, his book Paul Célan: Poet, Survivor, Jew was ‘of inestimable value to anyone wanting to read Célan with understanding.’ That’s because John didn’t just translate the work, he translated the life – both difficult to narrate, but he succeeded. It should also be remembered that Felsteiner’s scholarly and literary service extended to the likes of work on Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Pablo Neruda, Franz Kafka, and editing collections of nature poems and Jewish-American literature, just to give a sampling.”

He was also known for his book Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems (Yale University Press), published in time for Earth Day, April 22, 2009. An NPR interview here; I wrote about the book here. An excerpt:

I’m not a scientist or a policymaker, I’m not a nature writer,” he said, deciding that he must be an environmentalist “for fear of being irrelevant.”

“In fact, environmental urgency trumps everything else,” he said. “I say that with due respect to the horrible tragedies happening all over the world.”

He began to wonder how he could use poetry about nature to reach people, using “the pleasure of poetry to reach their consciousness, and their consciousness to reach their conscience.”

“What’s the transition from consciousness to conscience—so that you will never drop an empty beer can in a bush?” he said.

The book that emerged from his labors—including six years teaching the Introduction to the Humanities course titled Literature into Life—took nine years to write.

At that time, I had interviewed John over the phone – he was at the couples’ home in the Santa Cruz mountains. But I interviewed both Mary and John face to face when I interviewed John and his wife, Mary Felstiner, a visiting professor in history, about a course they were teaching a course on what they called “creative resistance” during the Holocaust. They had given a talk at Stanford Hillel’s Koret Pavilion on their research.

What I wrote:

“People are so focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust – or if they think of resistance, it’s of armed resistance – that it’s so easy for humanities and arts and letters to get forgotten. Yet that’s what makes us human beings,” said John Felstiner their campus home.

The team is well positioned to map out this new branch of scholarship: He is the lauded translator and biographer of poet Paul Célan (1920-70). She is the acclaimed biographer of Charlotte Salomon (1917-43) in To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era.

celan-bookThe common feature of creative resistance, said Mary Felstiner, “is that pushing into the future, that sense that we need to mark this moment because there must be a future out there that will look back on us.”

The Felstiners’ investigations show that an explosion of drawings, paintings, music, writing, even graffiti was “pervasive all over Europe, all of the time, in unthinkable conditions.” …

For Stanford art and art history Associate Professor Jody Maxmin, the Felstiners’ April presentation offered “a clarity and simplicity that reminds me of what drove me to art in the first place.”

Perhaps that’s one reason why an unexpected sense of exaltation accompanied the standing-room-only event: “The last thing one wants to do is take joy in the Holocaust, but there is an elation to art,” said John.

Felstiner was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 5, 1936, and grew up in New York and New England. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1958, and Harvard University, Ph.D., 1965.

From 1958 to 1961, he served on the U.S.S. Forrestal, in the Mediterranean. He arrived at Stanford in 1965 as a professor of English, retiring in 2009.

He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities. Paul Célan: Poet, Survivor, Jew was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. His Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan was published in 2001. See more of his books here.

He was three times a fellow at Stanford Humanities Center; a Fulbright professor at University of Chile (1967–68); visiting professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1974–75); and visiting professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University (1990, 2002).

His collection of Célan’s manuscripts and letters, along with Felstiner’s own translation archive, are at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.

He continued to swim every day until his final weeks, despite his illness. He went on expeditions with those around him, continued to enjoy music and poetry, and looked forward to visits from his children  and grandchildren. From my own occasional meetings with him, I know losing language and cognition frustrated him enormously, and I was moved to hear that he struggled against it to the last.

He is survived by his wife Mary, his two children: Sarah and Alek, and also two grandchildren.

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8 Responses to “Farewell to John Felstiner, critic, translator, poet: “an exemplary life in literature””

  1. Kathryn Hellerstein Says:

    I learned only today, in Jerusalem, June 1, 2017, that John Felstiner died on February 24, 2017. John was a dear friend, who guided me through my courses and doctoral dissertation on the Yiddish poet Moysh-Leyb Halpern , in the Department of English and American literature at Stanford, from 1975 through 1981. I am heartbroken to learn that this brilliant teacher, writer, translator, and mentor is no longer in this world. May the memory of John, a magnificent person, be for a blessing. And may his family– dear Mary, Sarah , and Alek–be comforted.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    My condolences to you, Kathryn. Shalom.

  3. Kathryn Hellerstein Says:

    Dear Cynthia Haven,
    Thank you. I would like to write and call Mary. I don’t have her email address. And I am out of the country for the next two weeks. Would you be so kind as to email me privately Mary’s email address? And would you confirm whether she is still in their home in Stanford, and has the same phone number? And if not, where I could reach her by phone and snail mail?
    Thank you,

  4. Sarah Felstiner Says:

    I’m so sorry the news didn’t reach you directly, and that it took so long to get to you.
    Please do be in touch – I’d love to connect, and to give you Mary’s contact information.
    Sarah Felstiner (John’s daughter)

  5. judith bendor Says:

    Sarah dear
    I heard the most extraordinary interview with your mother on NPR today, August 11, 2017.
    Taught me so much. I wrote Mary saying how wonderful the interview was.
    This has been such a hard year for you and your brother and your Mom. May you all be comforted.
    Love, Judy Bendor

  6. Michael Halperin Says:

    This comes a year late. I found out that John passed away last February. He was instrumental in assisting me in receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write the story of 2 brothers rescued by Polish-Catholics during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Initially the grant was for developing a TV mini-series or feature film. That did not work out but it did result in my writing a best selling children’s book based on the screenplay published by Random House titled “Jacob’s Rescue: A Holocaust Story” that has sold to date almost half-a-million copies. He was brilliant, kind, enthusiastic and provided incredible insight.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Great story, Michael. Thanks for checking in – even if a year late.

  8. Nicole Jordan Says:

    Mary, I am devastated to learn of John’s death in the same year in which I lost my husband, two important presences in my intellectual and moral universe. My heartfelt condolences to you and your family. John was an irrepressibly verbal person in his prime. His unforgettable love of and zest for language, his luminous analysis of even the most hermetic poetry were as much a part of his life as breathing. His contribution to the study of comparative literature in this country is enormous. An irreplaceable presence and an inspiration. Nicole Jordan, Chicago and Cambridge