The immediate cause was a fever, said his son, David Steiner.
Immensely erudite, but with a flair that drew hordes of students to his lectures, Dr. Steiner was the rare literary critic whose scholarship was celebrated and debated far beyond the austere silence of university libraries.
He spent the greater part of his career teaching at the University of Cambridge, but he also was chief critic from 1966 to 1997 at the New Yorker magazine, where he succeeded Edmund Wilson. Such was the esteem surrounding Dr. Steiner that he drew comparisons to Harold Bloom, the late Sterling professor of the humanities at Yale University whose best-selling works sparked impassioned public debate about the value of his beloved Western canon.
Over more than a half-century of scholarship, Dr. Steiner hopscotched from the Greek myth of Antigone to the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge, Proust and Borges. A critic who first made a name for himself analyzing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he later championed Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” before it became a classic of the counterculture era.
“No one now writing on literature can match him as polymath and polyglot,” Robert Alter, a professor of comparative literature, wrote in The Washington Post in 1984, “and few can equal the verve and eloquence of his writing.”
In the background, if not the foreground, of all Dr. Steiner’s work was the devastation of the Holocaust, which he survived by fleeing Paris with his Viennese-born Jewish parents shortly before the Nazi occupation in 1940. The proximity of art to murder — “Europe,” Dr. Steiner once observed, “is the place where Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald” — was a theme that ran throughout his entire oeuvre.
His works of criticism included “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” (1959), “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture” (1971), “After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation” (1975) and “Grammars of Creation” (2001). But he became particularly known for works such as “Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman” (1967).
“The house of classic humanism, the dream of reason which animated Western society, have largely broken down,” he wrote in that volume. “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”
If literature did not promise salvation, then it offered at least some measure of redemption. Dr. Steiner once told Newsweek that he saw himself as “the chirp bird” riding atop a rhinoceros, chirping “like mad to alert everyone that a rhino was coming.” He had once observed such a scene in Africa.
It was the duty of a professor or literary critic, he observed, to say, “This is the real thing. Here’s why. Please read it, read it.”
Dr. Steiner was fluent in four languages: French, German, English and Italian. He told Newsweek that, just as another person might do a daily round of calisthenics, he selected a paragraph from one literary work every day and translated it into each language in his arsenal.
His generalism, as well as his disdain for allegiance to any single school of literary criticism, attracted critics as well as admirers.
“Sometimes the impulse to connect everything with everything else pushes close to the brink of absurdity,” Alter observed in the same review in which he lauded Dr. Steiner’s wide-ranging intellect. As an example, Alter cited Dr. Steiner’s assertion that “Antigone draws about herself an ethical solitude, a lucid dryness which seems to prefigure the stringencies of Kant.”
In his devotion to high literature, high philosophy and any other pursuit that could be classified as high rather than low, Dr. Steiner was resolute.
“We live in a time when even professors claim not to see much of a difference between Pushkin and Letterman,” he ruefully remarked to the Chicago Tribune in 1998.
“There is a terrible fear of being found ‘literary.’ ”
Francis George Steiner was born in Paris on April 23, 1929. During his birth, his mother was said to have been attended by Carl Weiss, an American physician who in 1935 allegedly assassinated the Louisiana politician Huey Long.
Dr. Steiner’s father worked for a bank and counted among his friends the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The future scholar credited his mother with instilling in him the fortitude to overcome a birth defect that made his right arm 9 inches shorter than the left.
“From her came the conviction that if it’s difficult, it must be fun and worth doing,” he told the London Guardian. “Today the rule of benevolent therapy is to buy shoes with zippers. I could have had them. It took 10 months for me to learn to tie a lace; I must have howled with rage and frustration. But one day I could tie my laces. That no one can take from you. I profoundly distrust the pedagogy of ease.”
He taught himself to write with a fountain pen but later found it more convenient to type his books on an Olivetti typewriter and later an IBM Selectric, his son said.
Asked if he read anything “frivolous” in his boyhood, Dr. Steiner quipped, “Moby Dick.” He told the London Independent that he began studying Greek at age 6 to discover the end of Homer’s “Iliad.”
Having foreseen the intensifying persecution of Jews in Nazi Europe, his father moved the family to the United States when Dr. Steiner was 11. He stopped using the name Francis at that time and became a U.S. citizen in 1944.
“We got away by a miracle,” he told the Guardian. “Not one of the Jewish children in my Lycée class survived — not one. This haunts my work.”
Dr. Steiner received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1948, a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1950 and a doctoral degree from the University of Oxford in England, where he was a Rhodes scholar, in 1955. After his dissertation was at first rejected, he worked briefly for the Economist magazine before beginning his academic career.
He taught at several U.S. universities but made his life in Europe, he said, because his father had said that if he did not, then Hitler would have succeeded in his quest to rid Europe of Jews. Dr. Steiner had a long association with the University of Geneva in Switzerland, in addition to his post at Cambridge.
He ventured into fiction with works including the novella “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.” (1981), in which he imagined that Hitler had survived World War II and escaped to Latin America, where he was discovered by Nazi hunters.
In 1955, he married Zara Alice Shakow, a historian of international relations. Besides his wife, of Cambridge, survivors include his son, David Steiner, the executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University, of Baltimore; a daughter, Deborah Tarn Steiner, a professor in the classics department at Columbia University, of Princeton, N.J.; and two grandchildren.
Of the many philosophers who informed his work, Dr. Steiner said that he found particular inspiration in Martin Heidegger, who articulated a vision of humanity in which individuals are, as Dr. Steiner described the idea, “guests of life.”
“In my opinion, whoever is thrown into life has a duty to that life, an obligation to behave as a guest,” he said in an interview published on the website of the Jewish publication the Forward. “What must a guest do? He must live among people, wherever they may be. And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been staying a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries: