Introduction: The Other American

Just over a year before he died of cancer in 1989 at the age of sixty-one, Michael Harrington remarked to an interviewer, "It's almost as if my life has been a well-plotted story. Almost." It was certainly in keeping with the larger contours of this "plot" that a copy of E.M. Forster's great novel of Edwardian England, Howard's End, was found on Michael's bedside table when he died at home the following summer.
Howard's End revolves around the complications that arise when its well-intentioned and well-to-do heroines, the Schlegel sisters, involve themselves somewhat disastrously, in the lives of the English poor. Though Helen and Margaret Schlegel are naifs, Forster is clearly in their camp in the ensuing confrontation between the values of culture and commerce. In a passage which, under less dire circumstances, would likely have appealed to Michael's puckish sense of humor, a fatuous bourgeois villain warns the idealistic sisters to avoid getting "carried away by absurd schemes of social reform... You can take it from me that there is no Social Question--except for a few journalists who try to get a living out of the phrase."
It was the "social question" upon which Michael Harrington would make his own reputation--and a living of sorts--by drawing the attention of Americans to the existence of what he called "The Other America." Michael's book of the same title, published at the start of the 1960s, challenged the then all-but-universal opinion (at least among the opinion-forming classes) that the United States had helped all but a tiny minority of its citizens to a fair share of the astonishing economic abundance of its affluent society. The Other America went on to inspire the most ambitious "scheme of social reform" of the later 20th century in the United States, the war on poverty launched during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Some historians of the 1960s have compared the significance of The Other America to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin for the 1860s. And on the eve of the new millennium, Time magazine described The Other America as one of the 10 most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century to be published anywhere in the world, putting Michael's writings on poverty in such distinguished company as Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.
There is another passage in Forster's novel that may have caught Michael's eye in those last days, if he were in the mood and condition to reflect upon his own almost-well-plotted life story:

"Looking back on the past six months, Margaret [Schlegel] realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken."

In the pages to follow I will be following Michael Harrington's life through three overlapping and interrelated stories. There is, first of all, the story of Michael Harrington, the "man who discovered poverty," and the consequences of that discovery for Michael and for the nation. Secondly, there is the story of Michael Harrington, the heir to Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas as America's foremost socialist and the decidedly mixed success of his efforts of over a quarter-century to create a "left-wing of the possible." And, finally, there is the story of Michael Harrington's personal transformation from golden youth to a kind of secular Saint Francis of Assissi--a legend that Michael helped create, and yet at the same time at whose restrictions he chafed. These three sequences in Michael's almost-well-plotted life are as "orderly" as I could make them, but bearing in mind Miss Schlegel's injunction, I have tried to avoid the temptation of making them too orderly. I have been on the lookout for those false clues and signposts that lead nowhere--including those occasional instances when the clues were deposited and the signposts erected by Michael himself.
I knew Michael Harrington, but not well. Nor were we contemporaries. He was born in 1928. I was born in 1951, about the same time that he moved into the catholic Worker House of Hospitality on the lower East Side of New York. He was part of what he would call the "missing generation" on the American Left, those who came of political age in the 1950s; I was part of the succeeding generation who came of age in the 60s, the New Left that Michael hoped to influence. "Only Connect" is the famous epigraph to Howard's End. That didn't happen with Michael and my generation, at least not in the 1960s.
I knew about him, of course. In the mid-1960s when I was sixteen years old, and a volunteer on an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) summer work project in a poor and racially mixed neighborhood of Indianapolis, I was given a reading list that included The Other America. I read it and admired it, but not as much as I admired another book on the list, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Given the timing, Michael never had a chance. We arrived in Indianapolis in June of 1967, at the beginning of what turned into the "bloodiest of the long hot summers" of racial unrest. Detroit and Newark exploded. Although racial tensions weren't as bad where we found ourselves (in fact the only real hostility our motley crew of teenaged idealists encountered was from some local white toughs who objected to the fact that some of the black volunteers on the project had white girlfriends), the AFSC subsequently scrapped its urban volunteer programs, fearing the worst. I re-read Malcolm X's autobiography several times over the next few years. I did not pick up another book by Michael Harrington for the next 10.
However, Malcolm (or at least his would-be ideological successors) did not wear that well. An eventful decade or so later I encountered Michael again, this time in person when he was giving a speech at Harvard University. He was making a pitch that evening for Edward Kennedy's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980. In the question and answer period that followed I predicted, in a belligerent tone left over from an earlier period of militant certainty, that he would no doubt go on to endorse Jimmy Carter in the event that Kennedy failed to wrest the nomination from the Democratic incumbent. "Well, of course," Michael replied mildly, and then proceeded to lay out a very thoughtful justification for the politics of the lesser evil. Although I wasn't completely persuaded, within a year I wound up voting for the very same lesser evil. I also joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), the political organization of which Michael was founder and chairman.
Over the next few years, I encountered Michael on a number of occasions. I heard him speak a good half dozen times (including once when I brought him to the college where I was then teaching, thus gaining the chance to participate in one of the classic Harrington rituals, drinking beer with him afterwards while he told stories of past political wars and debacles). I also interviewed him on two occasions for my book If I had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, which was published in 1982.
I encountered Michael for the final time at a speech he delivered in western Massachusetts in the spring of 1987. Since the last time I had heard him speak, he had undergone treatment for a cancerous growth in his throat. He seemed much older to me until he started speaking; the familiar power and cadence of his speech was reassuring. But late that fall I learned that he was again battling cancer, and this time there was little hope that he could beat it. I remember sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with an old friend and comrade of Michael's, and the two of us agreeing that someone--maybe me--should get in touch with him and arrange to tape his reminiscences. Only Connect. But for various reasons I didn't; the chance was lost.
The Other American is not the first book about the life of Michael Harrington (among others, Michael wrote two of his own); I doubt if it will be the last. For those who will explore Michael's life and legacy in future years, I have arranged to deposit the interviews I did for this book, along with other research materials, at the Tamiment Library at New York University, which is already home to the Michael Harrington papers.

Question about the book? Email me at Return to book page:

Return to: History Department * Maurice Isserman *