This article was written on 07 Mar 2014, and is filled under Actualities, Literature.

Helen Tartar, Editorial Director, Fordham University Press, 1951-2014

Helen Tartar

Editorial Director, Fordham University Press, 1951-2014

The critical community staggers at the news that Helen Tartar, Executive Editor at Fordham University Press, perished on March 3 this week in an automobile accident in Colorado. Although not alone in her apprehension that contemporary critical theory was the dominant methodological motor of any viable literary and cultural critique at the close of the twentieth century and beyond–fellow-editors in this cadre included Lindsay Waters, especially during his years at the University of Minnesota Press, and William Germano and Willis Regier, when they were, respectively at Routledge and the University of Nebraska Press—from the inception of her editing career at Stanford University Press, Helen Tartar established herself as the standard-bearer in publishing critical theory as an interactive literature and in the conduct of editing as a theoretical practice in itself. She was at the same time, as described by her longtime associate at Fordham, Thomas Lay, “utterly undogmatic”: “Every once and a while, I’d be surprised at some seemingly very un-Helen book she was championing, but then I’d listen to her about it, and the point would be that it was really, really good.”

Raised in Washington State and with a B.A. from Swarthmore College (1972) and two M.A. s from Yale University (1975, English; 1978, East Asian Studies), Helen Tartar understood literary production and critical theory first and foremost as an ecological process. Her father had been a noted geneticist at the University of Oregon, and she took pride in continuing this purview in her work. It was for this reason that she herself received uplift from promoting Stanford University Press’s well-established series in Far Eastern literature and thought at the same time that she became an indefatigable advocate for the likes of Jacques Derrida, J. Hillis Miller, Hélène Cixous, Jean-Luc Nancy, Friedrich Kittler, Bernard Stiegler, Catherine Malabou, Werner Hamacher, Hent de Vries and for those who have continued in their footsteps. Both through a host of individual studies in theory, and through such innovations as the Meridian Series, Tartar soon established Stanford University Press as the preeminent English-language publisher in the field of critical theory. A formidable critical theorist in her own right, Tartar was never more at home than in the supercharged atmosphere of top-notch academic conferences in the areas of philosophy and literature, where she was a “regular” in her unstinting quest for exciting new approaches.

For all of her devoted and self-sacrificing service to the eminences of contemporary philosophy, critical theory, and environmental studies, from the very outset of her career, Helen was never happier than in working with first-time authors, whose lifetime orientation to the challenges and rigors of academic publishing she took on with indefatigable zeal. When her editorial watch shifted to Fordham University Press in 2003, after a precipitous and controversial departure the previous year from Stanford, she played a leading role in securing funding from the Mellon Foundation to support first books by fledgling academic authors. This Modern Language Initiative that she helped found extends beyond Fordham to an entire consortium of like-minded university publishers.

In short shrift after arriving at Fordham University Press, Tartar established it as a notable venue in the publication of cutting-edge theoretical writing. She did this while discovering and promoting talent in a full range of other compelling areas of cultural scrutiny. As she had done at Stanford, she built upon existing local strength at her new publisher. With particular zeal, she published innovative new work on the cusps between literature and theology and between critical theory and the environment.

Yet at both of the presses where she left an indelible mark, editorial practice was the foundation and the fulcrum of her wider intervention within the world of publishing. She continued hands-on editing, sometimes in collaboration with Bud Bynack, her devoted lifetime partner, until the very end. Those of us who were blessed by this unrestricted service and dedication knew a great deal more about books in general, English prose, graphic design, and reference apparatuses when our books were in press than when we had first set out on this way. Editing, under the aura of Helen Tartar, was the completion of writerly and communicative potential and was anything but a post-facto domestication of unruly prose. Tartar’s involvement in the graphic and logistical underpinnings of her author’s books was unparalleled and is not likely, under contemporary constraints, to be repeated.

More than any other editor or publisher, Helen Tartar retrofitted the activity of producing books to the breathless apprehensions and discoveries of contemporary critical theory. A stunning mindfulness and follow-through prevailed between the way she approached a sentence or a whole chapter, her taste in contemporary critical writing and Cultural Studies, and the way in which she nurtured ALL her authors, but particularly the ones learning to fend for themselves. Her devotion to the history and the culture of the book matched her commitments to mindfulness, as manifested East and West, as to intelligence, judgment, and taste. The book-launches that she threw for her authors, often at Book Culture in New York City, and her standing fête at the Modern Language Association convention, were legendary.

More often than not, Tartar would be peacefully knitting as she took in the latest speculations on the theoretical and cultural horizons. The strands of her intellectual drive, her politico-cultural commitment, her critical and aesthetic discernment, and her hands-on approach to ideas as to book-production form an unusually coherent and rich tapestry. There was simply no end in sight to her ongoing plans and projects. Helen Tartar’s weaving has suffered a precipitous and traumatic disruption. As members of the critical community, it behooves us strongly to study the unique components and texture of this weave and to sustain its indispensable lines of thought and commitment in our ongoing cultural inscription.


  1. Christopher Peterson, Senior Lecturer, University of Wester Sydney
    March 8, 2014

    Henry, thanks so much for this fitting tribute to Helen. I think you knew her much better than I. But from my experiences and from reading other tributes scattered across the internet, I sense that she had a way of making a singular impact on every one of her authors. I first met her in November 2011, shortly after my book was accepted for publication. I was immediately surprised by her quiet demeanour. I knew she was a legendary editor, and I did not expect that such a towering figure in publishing would present so unassumingly. During the course of our lunch discussion, we somehow got on to the topic of Occupy Wall Street. At an impromptu moment, Helen suggested that we take a walk to Zuccotti Park to show our support for the protestors. I remember thinking: how many editors would take the time to stroll around NY with their authors, lending support to a worthy political cause while engaging in thoughtful and rigorous conversations on a range of scholarly topics? Helen understood that publishing is not simply about producing good books; it’s about forging intellectual and personal relationships. After spending only one afternoon with Helen, I felt like I had known her all my life. I last saw Helen in November 2013, when she organised a launch for my book at Book Culture, as she had done previously for other Fordham authors. She generously took me and a friend out for dinner after the launch and stayed with us as late as 10:30, even though she had to wake up at 4am the next morning to catch an early flight to a conference in Wisconsin. Others have noted how indefatigable she was, and I certainly saw this in evidence on this occasion. Fred Nachbaur has noted that “Helen told me on several occasions that her books were her children. Despite her countless accomplishments, Helen remained quite modest.” I think this explains why Helen always had a way of making you feel like you were her favourite author, even though you knew she loved all her authors equally. This is why even those of us who met with her only on a few occasions find ourselves utterly shocked by the news of her sudden death. This week I taught Auden’s Musée Des Beaux Arts, a poem about what it means to go on with one’s life blissfully unaware that tragedy is unfolding elsewhere. I now know in retrospect that my Tuesday morning (Sydney time) discussion of this poem with my students coincided with the time of Helen’s death. I am reminded of the words of Jacques Derrida, a philosopher for whom Helen held great admiration: “Death marks each time . . . the absolute end of the one and only world.” Although we comfort ourselves by acknowledging that the world will go on, the world is truly in some sense over when we lose others because the world is not a self-enclosed whole that can effectively patch over the cracks and fissures that appear every time someone dies. To paraphrase John Donne, the death of anyone diminishes us because we are involved with others. We are all forever diminished by this loss, but we are also forever enriched by Helen’s tireless support of rigorous scholarly work in literature, philosophy, and critical theory.

  2. Amresh Sinha
    March 9, 2014

    Beautiful piece, Henry.

  3. Catherine Brown
    March 10, 2014

    Thank you for this moving tribute.

  4. Hayden White
    March 13, 2014

    Helen Tartar was a woman of remarkable integrity, honesty, and insight. Her death is a great loss to all of us who valued her transcendence of the commonplace, self-interest, and commercialism in scholarship, learning, and publishing.

  5. Xavier Callahan
    March 16, 2014

    Helen was my senior colleague at Stanford University Press and an important mentor to me. Her brilliance, taste, energy, intellectual range, and empathetic connection with authors make her death a truly incalculable loss. Thank you for this tribute.

  6. Mark Wollaeger
    March 20, 2014

    Helen acquired my first book for Stanford back in 1990 — I remember having “breakfast” with her in New Haven: she had an ice cream sundae, which apparently was not unusual for her. In my nervousness I gave what must have been an incoherent account of my book, but given my focus and her interest in philosophy and literature, she still wanted to see it and it all worked out. I remember that when a new head of Stanford UP came in and was doing a terrible job advertising the book, she supported me when I got into a testy exchange with him (long since fired, I believe) even though supporting her author didn’t make life easier for her with the press. She was a very loyal editor, and I am grateful to her for what she did for me.

  7. Sergey Dolgopolski
    March 20, 2014

    I mourn Helen’s passing; cherish memories of our last non-digital interaction in May 2013, North Carolina, Duke University Botanic Gardens, and Kings’s Daughters mansion hall; and continue feeling her editorial invitation as I think and write. Her favorite edition of Fenollosa’s Chinese Written Character As A Medium for Poetry remains my writing companion for English prose; even if I might be far from the best in following its guidelines.

    My deeply heartfelt condolences to Bud Bynack of whom I think these days so very often.


  8. Jon Rudd
    April 5, 2014

    Helen was a classmate of mine at Swarthmore. I remember her as being supernaturally bright and possessed of a wonderfully dry sense of humor besides. Very sorry to hear of this untimely passing.