Jurij Striedter, a prolific and influential scholar and a Harvard fixture for decades, passed away in June 2016. Below, in remarks prepared for a memorial held last month, Executive Editor for the Humanities Lindsay Waters recalls his long effort to bring a Jurij Striedter book to HUP.
I associate Jurij with the days when literary theory was a rumor of something new and fresh and extremely fashionable, a new style that might be coming our way from Europe, and not just from Western Europe, but Eastern Europe as well, not just “as well,” but primarily. In the 70s, there were journals from Turin and Bologna and Ann Arbor that featured essays on Czech and Russian literary criticism and semiotics. My Geiger counter as a scholarly editor was buzzing with excitement that drew me to Tzvetan Todorov and his introductions to Eastern European poets and led me to agree to publish Tzvetan’s Poetique, which became the first book in our Theory and History of Literature series at the University of Minnesota Press.
We had a custom of adding introductions to those books which were not puffs, but incisive questionings of the pages that followed. For Todorov, my colleague Wlad Godzich recommended one main candidate—Jurij Striedter at Harvard. Harvard was a bastion of anti-theory at that point, so who was this Striedter hiding there? Well, it turned out this Striedter had credentials as a literary theorist that were impeccable. We’d already signed up two books by Hans Robert Jauss at Minnesota, so I was familiar with the Konstanz School. What I had not known was that its builders had considered Eastern European poetics to be an essential building block for their project.
So, I called up Professor Striedter, who was extremely nice on the phone, but said—this was about 1979—that he could not write the intro to the Todorov, because he was busy finishing up a book for the Harvard University Press on Russian and Czech poetics that was way overdue. Time went on, and I never saw the book appear. When I moved to Harvard in 1984 I decided to find out where that book was, because it would be just the kind of thing I’d like to use to campaign for more books of advanced theory. I searched the files and called Professor Striedter and found out that he was still working on the intro for his own book and it was not close to coming out. There was not even a contract.
I am afraid I started hounding Jurij. I got to know him socializing at Adams House, enjoying the famous Christmas feast of those days. Finally, after many phone calls, Jurij and his wife Emanuela invited my wife and me to dinner at their house. And Manu confessed her surprise to find that I did not really look like the monster she imagined I must be when I was a bodiless voice calling on the phone to try to scare Jurij into finishing his book. Oh my, I was so sad to learn how she imagined me. Because that person was the total opposite of the sweet angel I had come to know Jurij himself to be while talking to him and trying to cajole him to finish his book or to write a report on some book manuscript.
Eventually, Jurij’s book did appear. I wish there were a way for me to make great books appear without my having to take on the form of the Big Bad Wolf assaulting Little Professor Red Riding Hood on the way to the Adams House Christmas–Hanukah feast, but fear there is not. But all is well that ends well. We miss him every day.