De Man, Paul

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Historical Background

Paul de Man was a prominent and influential literary critic, scholar, and teacher best known as one of the principle theorists behind an approach to literary texts that became known as deconstruction. This approach to literary texts, which had a profound effect upon the field of literary studies, was developed throughout his career in the numerous essays that appear in the collection. A biographical overview of de Man is provided, followed by a more detailed chronology of significant events and periods in de Man's career.

Paul Adolph Michel de Man was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on December 6, 1919. He matriculated in the Free University of Brussels in 1939 as a student of chemistry. While a student, he began a career in journalism by joining the editorial board of Cahiers du Libre Examen, a student publication that addressed social and political issues from a liberal and democratic position. When the German army invaded Belgium in May 1940, he fled to southern France, where his exodus was brought to a sudden halt when he was prevented from entering Spain.

De Man returned to Brussels in August and found employment writing a cultural column for Le Soir ; between December 1940 and December 1942, he wrote a total of 170 literary and cultural articles for this collaborationist newspaper. After ceasing his column for Le Soir, de Man went to work for the publisher Agence Dechenne. He was fired in 1943 for aiding in the publication of Exercice du silence, an issue of the journal Messages that published the work of various writers associated with the French resistance. De Man spent the rest of World War II in Antwerp, translating Moby Dick into Flemish.

At the end of the war, de Man and three partners began a publishing house, Editions Hermès, dedicated to the production of fine press books about art. Immediately following the war, de Man was called before the Auditeur Général and questioned about his activities during the occupation; no charges were ever filed against him. By 1948, the publishing house was experiencing financial difficulties, and de Man went to New York City with the intention of establishing business contacts. He took a job at the Doubleday bookstore. Hermès collapsed in 1949, and de Man remained in the United States for the rest of his life.

De Man began his career as an academic in 1949, teaching French at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. He entered the graduate program at Harvard University in 1952 and received his doctoral degree in Comparative Literature in 1960 with a dissertation entitled "Mallarmé, Yeats, and the Post-Romantic Predicament." While enrolled at Harvard, de Man held a position as a lecturer and was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

After receiving his degree, de Man accepted a position at Cornell University. The beginning of this period constitutes what may be considered de Man's critical phase, represented by essays such as "Mme de Staël et J.J. Rouseau." During the later years at Cornell, de Man's concerns shifted to more theoretical issues and resulted in the first edition of Blindness and Insight .

In 1968, de Man became a professor of Humanities at John Hopkins University. In 1970, he left Hopkins and joined the faculty at Yale University, where he spent the rest of his career. While at Yale, alongside Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida, de Man articulated an approach to linguistic texts that came to be known as deconstruction. Focusing primarily on works by Nietzsche and Rousseau, de Man developed in Allegories of Reading a practice of rhetorical reading that provided the methodological framework for all his subsequent work.

De Man spent the rest of his career simultaneously pursuing two different paths. First, he undertook an evaluation of the contemporary theoretical environment and explored why the practice of rhetorical reading was resisted so strongly. At the same time, he addressed the nineteenth-century German philosophical tradition and examined the irreducible role of linguistic materiality in the disruption of aesthetic ideologies. Neither of these projects was completed, but both were reconstructed and published posthumously as The Resistance to Theory and Aesthetic Ideology .

Paul de Man died of cancer on December 21, 1983.

  • 1919: Paul Adolph Michel de Man born in Antwerp on December 6th.
  • 1937: Enters L'Ecole Polytechnique at the University of Brussels to study engineering.
  • 1938: Transfers to the Faculty of Sciences at the Free University to study chemistry.
  • 1939: Joins editorial board of Cahiers du Libre Examen, an explicitly democratic and anti-fascist publication.
  • 1940: Blitzkrieg invasion of Belgium. Paul de Man flees to Southern France.
  • 1940: Cahiers du Libre Examen ceases publication due to Nazi censorship.
  • 1940: Returns to Brussels after being refused entry into Spain.
  • 1940: Begins writing a cultural column for Le Soir, a collaborationist newspaper.
  • 1942: Ceases to write for Le Soir; works for the publisher Agence Dechenne.
  • 1943: Fired from Agence Dechenne for aiding in the publication of Exercice du silence.
  • 1943: Moves to Antwerp, where he translates Moby Dick into Flemish.
  • 1945: Starts a publishing house called Editions Hermès, which specialized in fine press editions of art books.
  • 1945: Called before the tribunal established to investigate wrongdoing during the war. No charges filed against de Man.
  • 1948: Arrives in New York City and takes job at Doubleday Bookstore in Grand Central Station.
  • 1949: Begins teaching French at Bard College, where he remained until 1951.
  • 1951: Teaches French at Berlitz School in Boston.
  • 1952: Enters Harvard Graduate School.
  • 1954: Receives M.A. from Harvard.
  • 1954: Becomes Junior Fellow in Harvard's Society of Fellows.
  • 1954: Teaches courses as a lecturer.
  • 1960: Receives Ph. D. from Harvard with a dissertation entitled "Mallarmé, Yeats, and the Post-Romantic Predicament."
  • 1960: Moves to Cornell to accept a faculty position. Remains associated with Cornell until 1969.
  • 1963: Becomes Ordinarius for Comparative Literature at the University of Zurich and works with Emil Staiger and Georges Poulet. Holds this position until 1970.
  • 1965: Delivers "Heaven and Earth in Wordsworth and Holderlin" at Modern Language Association panel, entitled "Romanticism and Religion," chaired by Geoffrey Hartman.
  • 1967: Delivers "The Gauss Seminar" at Princeton University:
  • 1967 April 6: "Romanticism and Demystification"
  • 1967 April 13: "Rousseau and the Transcendence of Self"
  • 1967 April 20: "The Problem of Aesthetic Totality in Holderlin"
  • 1967 April 27: "Nature and History in Wordsworth"
  • 1967 May 4: "Natural Imagery and Figural Diction"
  • 1967 May 11: "The Romantic Heritage: Allegory and Irony in Baudelaire"
  • 1968: Becomes Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.
  • 1970: Leaves Hopkins and joins faculty at Yale University in the Department of French.
  • 1971: Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism is published (Oxford University Press).
  • 1973: On leave in Zurich for the academic year on Senior Faculty Fellowship.
  • 1974: Begins a three-year appointment as Chairman of Yale's Department of French.
  • 1975: Jacques Derrida joins the faculty at Yale.
  • 1977: Delivers "The Concept of Irony" at Ohio State University on April 4.
  • 1978: Delivers "Shelly Disfigured" in Geneva.
  • 1979: Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (Yale University Press).
  • 1979: Teaches a course at University of Chicago during the spring semester.
  • 1979: Appointed Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Yale.
  • 1980: Delivers "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics" as the Renato Poggioli Lecture in Comparative Literature at Harvard University.
  • 1981: Trilling Seminar at Columbia University. Frank Kermode delivered "To Keep the Road Open," followed by responses by M.H. Abrams and Paul de Man, "Blocking the Road: A Response to Frank Kermode."
  • 1981: Delivers "Murray Krieger: A Commentary" at Northwestern University.
  • 1981: Delivers "Kant and the Problem of the Aesthetic" at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City.
  • 1982: Delivers "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics" in Zurich on May 3.
  • 1983: Messenger Lectures at Cornell University: "Anthropomorphism and Trope in Baudelaire", "Kleist's über das Marionettentheater", "Hegel on the Sublime", "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant", "Kant and Schiller", "Conclusions: Walter Benjamin's Task of the Translator"
  • 1983: Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 6 (University of Minnesota Press).
  • 1983: Dies of cancer on December 21st.
  • 1984: The Rhetoric of Romanticism is published (Columbia University Press).
  • 1986: The Resistance to Theory is published in series Theory and History of Literature, volume 33 (University of Minnesota Press).
  • 1989: Critical Writings 1953-1978. Edited by Lindsay Waters. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 66 (University of Minnesota Press).
  • 1993: Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminars and Other Papers. Edited by E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski (The Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • 1996: Aesthetic Ideology. Edited by Andrzej Warminski. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 65 (University of Minnesota Press).

From the guide to the Paul de Man papers, 1948-1984, (University of California, Irvine. Library. Special Collections and Archives.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Autograph File, D, 1586-1975. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard
referencedIn Papers, 1920-1995. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard
referencedIn Joel Fineman Papers, ca. 1974-1989 Bancroft Library
referencedIn Neil Hertz papers on Paul de Man, 1987-1990 Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries
referencedIn Jacques Derrida papers, 1946-2002, (bulk 1960-2002) University of California, Irvine. Library. Dept. of Special Collections.
creatorOf Paul de Man papers, 1948-1984 University of California, Irvine. Library. Special Collections and Archives.
referencedIn John Hollander Papers, circa 1950-2007 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Role Title Holding Repository
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
Critical theory--Archives
Occupation
Literary critics
Function

Person

Birth 1919-12-06

Death 1983-12-21

Americans

English

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