Maria Tatar’s journey to a professorship at Harvard began with a fairy tale.
When the Denison German major was a young child, her older sister read her a book with many beautiful pictures. Tatar could not understand any of the words because they were written in another language. But the drawings cast a spell over her.
Tatar’s family left Hungary and settled in Highland Park, just outside Chicago, when she was five years old. “It was a rather dull suburb,” says Tatar ’67. “Oddly, for me, the library was where the action was.” There were the books, with their new exciting ideas, and even the transgressive option of tiptoeing out of the children’s section to hide in a corner and read books in the adult section.
The German-language book her sister had read to her was a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and, in addition to introducing her to the power of books and literature in general, it also foretold her career in German studies. “I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust,” she says. But to Tatar, its horrors collided with the beauty of all the creative works produced in the country, notably by the likes of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, George Grosz, and Otto Dix. “The mix of the political pathology of the culture and what it produced in aesthetic terms seemed such a paradox to me.” She studied German at Denison and later earned a Ph.D. at Princeton in 1971, joining the faculty at Harvard shortly thereafter where she is a professor of German literature.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that she rediscovered the Grimm fairy tales, pulling it out one night as one of her kids’ bedtime story selections. “I remember reading them ‘The Juniper Tree’—and heavily editing it as I went along.” (The story contains, among other things, an evil stepmother who beheads her stepson and cooks him in a stew served to his father.) “And I started wondering, ‘Why is it that I had a 15-page, single-spaced reading list in graduate school and the Grimms weren’t on it?’” She released her first book on the subject, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales—a scholarly reconsideration of the tales in their original, unedited state—in 1987.
When she started writing about fairy tales, her academic colleagues were perplexed. “No one talked about the Grimms as collectors. Fairy tales were told by Disney. They were cartoons. They were for children. It was fun to go watch them with your kids, but you’d never dream of trying to analyze them,” she says. “Folklore wasn’t even marginalized; it wasn’t on the periphery. It just wasn’t done.” But she pushed on, hooked by the universal appeal of the work. Now, instead of spending six months writing a paper on an arcane topic of interest to a half dozen other colleagues, Tatar’s new line of inquiry seemed to be an instant conversation-starter. “Part of the incentive was satisfying my curiosity about these stories, but a large part of the thrill came from the fact that everyone connected with this material. They knew ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and they had questions about it.”
But fairy tales, Tatar says, had to labor through the same quest for academic acceptance as pursuits like film studies. “It’s hard to imagine now that at one time, film studies was a field that was considered not quite academically legit,” she says. “Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a liberal arts curriculum without it.” Children’s literature, she says, is on the same trajectory.