A Rare Bird of the Lyrical Left

I was greatly saddened to read in the obituary section of the Times the other day that the political scientist and urban thinker (and oh boy, was he urban) Marshall Berman had died at age 72 of a heart attack. That this should have happened to him on September 11th at breakfast in his favorite haunt, the Metro Diner on Upper Broadway, feels . . . overdetermined, like one of Larry David’s crueler conceits. With his passing we’ve lost a large soul, that rara avis, an optimistic intellectual, one of the last avatars of the lyrical left and an irreplaceable heir to Jane Jacobs’s fierce advocacy for the human-scaled city. It is hard to think of an intellectual who loved or understood New York City better—he was the homeboy as political theorist. Even his physiognomy proclaimed his New York aboriginality—hirsute, fuzzy features that melded aspects of Karl Marx and Peter Schickele, as rendered by, who else, Ed Koren. The Upper West Side—the old, brainy, Bellovian Upper West Side—is not quite the same without him.

I met Marshall Berman only twice: once to have lunch (where he shook salt on his buttered dinner roll, something I’d never seen before or since), and then to say hello after a panel at a Barnes & Noble to launch the wonderful anthology he co-edited with Brian Berger, New York Calling. But back in the ’80s I managed to do him and our intellectual culture a solid (as it were) by rescuing his most famous book, All that Is Solid Melts into Air, from oblivion.

It happened this way. I had been aware of Berman as the author of the well-regarded (by his old teacher at Columbia, Lionel Trilling, among others) cultural history The Politics of Authenticity. Its opening sentence broadcasts the mental soundtrack of 1970, at least as heard by advanced youth: “The idea that I have called ‘the politics of authenticity’ is a dream of an ideal community in which individuality will not be subsumed and sacrificed, but fully developed and expressed.” Yes, we thought and dreamed that way, and Berman put such yearnings in the context of the Romantic Age and even Marxist ideology. The student left was driven in large part by a desire for just this sort of authenticity, in which the innermost self and the political actor would become as one, perfectly aligned. Well, the developments of the late ’60s and early ’70s paid to that pipe dream all right, and the members of my generation who had invested their faith in such categories of being as authenticity and alienation (of the good and fruitful sort) were left gasping and adrift, searching for an explanation and some way forward.

Which Marshall Berman actually gave us in 1974 (or at least me and a few thousand other people) in the pages of the legendary paperback literary magazine American Review. His long, eloquent, and astonishing piece “Sympathy for the Devil: Faust, the Sixties and the Tragedy of Development,” remains the most exciting such cultural essay I have ever read, a true explanation for everything. In it Berman links such events as the 1967 March on the Pentagon (during which some protestors, Berman included, tried to exorcise the building) and the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont with the Faust legend, framing the events of the 1960s in their dark and light aspects as an instance of the tragic overreaching at the heart of Western culture. When I finished that piece I remember thinking, “So that’s what the ’60s were about!” It provided the perfect framework for the understanding I craved, and to this day I am convinced that Berman got things exactly right.

Eight years later (he was a slow deliverer) Berman published the book that grew out of that essay, All that Is Solid Melts into Air. There cannot have been a worse year than 1982, the dawn of Reagan’s quondam “morning in America,” to publish a lyrical, hopeful, profoundly ambitious book that found commonalities between the Marxist vision of society and the restless and insatiable spirit of capitalism. Its critique of city planners and such pharaonic technocrats as Robert Moses, whose malign Cross Bronx Expressway devastated the vibrant lower-middle-class community in the Bronx, where Berman had grown up, was deeply out of sync with its moment, when the businessman entrepreneur was being hailed by such writers as George Gilder and Irving Kristol as our economic savior. A tragic sense of history played very poorly in 1982, and within two years the book has gone out of print and was largely forgotten by non-Dissent-subscribing Americans.

But not by me. (And apparently, according to Marshall, not in Brazil, where the book’s savage critique of Brasilia and its principal architect Oscar Niemeyer made him the unlikeliest of rock star intellectuals.) In 1987 I was the executive editor of Penguin Books and I was working like a dog. I had some latitude to do some books that pleased me just because, as long as the advances were modest, so from time to time I would treat myself to the publication of a title that I knew had a small chance of selling many copies. Among the books that I brought into paperback in this just-for-me publishing program were Morris Dickstein’s ur-’60s studies text Gates of Eden, Paul Zweig’s moving cancer memoir Departures, and All that Is Solid Melts into Air. No one else at Penguin much cared about Berman’s book, but our fine academic marketing department knew to get examination copies in the right hands and display it at the proper academic conventions. So it had a shot.

Something must have worked. I left Penguin in 1988, and over the years I’d be pleased to see the book in bookstores and would check the copyright page to see what printing it was in. That number kept going up, from four to nine to twelve to sixteen to now, two decades plus later, twenty printings. All that Is Solid Melts into Air has become a central text in the study of the historical dynamics of modernity, with its swirling and inexorable currents of creation and destruction, of limitless promise and tragic failure. “The book is canonical,” Todd Gitlin declared in the New York Observer. That makes me so very happy that I gave in to my sentimental and distinctly un-businesslike impulse to save a book I loved all those years ago.

By the way, I have never once driven on the Cross Bronx Expressway. I admit that part of my avoidance is motivated by a desire to spare my car’s undercarriage and suspension the indignity and potential damage from that lousy and depressing road. But in my mind there is a big “Do Not Enter” sign placed at its entrance off the GWB by Marshall Berman, and I have to heed and respect that.

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