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Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

2014 September 11

(My longtime friend Marshall Berman died suddenly on September 11, 2013, just a year ago today. To mark his yahrzeit I’m posting some remarks I made at a memorial service  in November at City College, where he taught for over 45 years.)

I first met Marshall in 1958 or ‘59 when we were sophomores at Columbia – can it be that long ago? We arrived at this melting pot on Morningside Heights from different places. He was a secular Jew from the Bronx who’d already gotten a terrific education at one of New York’s elite public schools, the Bronx High School of Science. I was a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side and Queens, who had finally rebelled against a parochial school curriculum focused as much on Talmud as on English and math. He had been left raw and vulnerable a few years earlier by the early death of his father. Living at home, growing up too soon, he was the man in the family, the source of emotional support for his widowed mother and younger sister, while I had managed (with difficulty) to break away by moving out. Though he was in history and I was in English, we shared a vast intellectual hunger fed by many of the same books: classics of the Western tradition beginning with Homer and Plato, subversive modern works from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, radical contemporary books by the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Norman O. Brown, and the Beats.

When Sam Cherniak, a mutual friend, and I started a literary supplement to the Columbia Daily Spectator, Marshall was the first person we pressed to write, though writing did not come easy to him then. After insistent cajoling we extracted from him a remarkable essay on the outlaw psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the prophet of the orgasm, who was almost forgotten and had recently died in prison. It was a foretaste of many essays and reviews he would wrote over the next five decades, not least in its feeling for Reich’s provocative synthesis of socialism and sexuality. The conservative, puritanical mood of the 1950s was breaking up and we were eager to help bury it for good.

He was only one in our group who had a steady girlfriend, Rita, dark-haired, disturbed, voluptuous. They cleaved to each other like orphans in a storm but she would eventually break down and be hospitalized, while he would survive and thrive. Intellectually, Marshall was always getting ahead of himself, boldly taking graduate courses with Columbia’s stellar intellectuals like Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun, writing a sweeping essay on Romanticism- a subject on which we’d teach a course together twenty years later – and plunging into a senior seminar on the Enlightenment that drew him to Rousseau and would eventually lead to his first book, The Politics of Authenticity.

Marshall’s writing, even then, was singular for its luminous intelligence and direct conversational immediacy. With anecdotal ease, he could crack open difficult subjects and make them invitingly accessible. His work was always grounded in close reading yet he had a knack for taking his readers by the hand, leading them through a complicated discussion as if he were telling a story, unfolding a drama of ideas that never lost sight of actual people. After winning a coveted fellowship to Oxford, he performed such a feat of exposition with Karl Marx in a thesis overseen by Isaiah Berlin. In the process he became some kind of Marxist, not the dogmatic or theoretical kind, not the blood-curdling prophet of class struggle or revolutionary violence, but someone who believed that the happiness of individuals, their full self-expression, was the key to the well-being of the community, the basis for any just and satisfying social order. For Marshall the heart of Marxism was the vision of a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” in the words of the Communist Manifesto. With special evangelical fervor, he saw good sex as a cornerstone of a good society, though I doubt this is what Marx and Engels had in mind, not even the dancing Marx on the cover of one of his books, significantly called Adventures in Marxism.

We can certainly wonder whether there’s ever been such a society, but in the 1960s it seemed more possible than ever before. That period – with its unlikely synergy between the anarchist ideas of the counterculture and the moral anguish of the New Left – came to Marshall as a precious gift he rarely questioned and never discarded. He loved its iconic figures like Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul Goodman, and felt their work survived in the rebel spirit of rap and graffiti. His striking appearance – the billboard T-shirts, the shaggy, unkempt beard – were an in-your-face expression of his loyalty to that era. Yet he lived his life as a professor, not a sandaled hippie, and lived it not in a rural commune but amid the democratic cacophony of New York and its public university. Here he promoted the “free development” of hundreds of students whose parents never dreamed of attending a university; here he encouraged them to extend and transcend themselves.

With these kids, and in his own later writing, he explored the ideas of writers who had electrified him in his youth, initiating his students into the life of the mind. With them he analyzed the urban environment he considered synonymous with freedom, diversity, and authentic self-realization. Marshall himself was a visionary but hardly starry-eyed. There was no one I ran into more often on the street, no friend more given to conversation, intimacy, roving curiosity. In the face of his bubbling enthusiasms, I would joshingly accuse him of exaggerating, of romanticizing, and he would sometimes tax me with holding back, being too much the critic, not letting go – that categorical imperative of the 1960s. I thought our conversation, forged when we were so young, would go on forever. He asked me if I would join a seminar where we could go on talking after we all retired, though I doubt he planned ever to retire. It shocks me that I can’t pick up the phone and reach him at the other end. But his lyrical writing speaks to us, as it will for a long time to come, and somewhere, I hope, he might still be listening in.

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