Intellectual biography, at its best, constructs a narrative of one person’s life and thought within the historical crosscurrents of that person’s time. The portrait that emerges is thus one of “the thinker” in relation to history, one person in conversation with many others, one life set in the broader context of an era. Maurice Isserman’s biography of Democratic Socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington succeeds in the difficult project of biography-based intellectual history.The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington offers readers a meticulously documented look at the American socialist left from the 1920’s to the late 1980’s, as well as an insight into important philosophical and political issues exemplified throughout Harrington’s life. Isserman also uses Harrington’s life story to issue his own call to reinvigorate the Democratic Socialist left as a more viable presence in American political life. In this sense, The Other American moves from biography to intellectual history to implicit political theory.
Isserman opens his chapter on Harrington’s birth and childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, by placing Harrington’s life on a comparative time line with other important figures in American political history. Setting Harrington’s family in the context of St. Louis’s Catholic and labor communities, Isserman foreshadows the important role that the Catholic Worker movement and activist Dorothy Day would play in Harrington’s early adult life. Isserman also points to Harrington’s later Democratic socialism by invoking reference to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. Isserman signals early, and clearly, that The Other Americanwill explore Harrington’s personal experience in relation to key issues of his time: poverty, labor activism, socialist theory, civil rights, and the relationship between religion and politics. He also introduces readers to Harrington’s lifelong mode as an introspective writer and scholar preoccupied with the rigors of intellectual life yet also known for his gregarious public persona.
Key to understanding Michael Harrington’s longstanding preoccupation with moral and political issues is his early experience, beginning in the 1950’s, with the Catholic Worker movement in New York City, and more particularly, his relationship to well-known Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. Harrington lived and worked at St. Joseph’s House, a Catholic residence and social service center for the poor on Manhattan’s lower East Side. In this section of the biography, Isserman explores a tension central in Harrington’s life generally: the challenge and difficulty of balancing intellectual work (reading, writing, public speaking) with the demands of “hands on” service to people in need. The Other American, to its credit, does not romanticize Harrington in this regard and illustrates the many moments in which “theory and practice” failed to fuse in his daily experience at St. Joseph’s. Isserman also introduces, through his interesting analysis of Dorothy Day’s politics of strategic accommodationism within the Catholic Church hierarchy and Harrington’s similar tactic as a journalist for the Catholic Worker newspaper, the later collaborative strategies used by Michael Harrington in his work on behalf of the American Left, especially in relation to the Democratic Party.
Isserman thoughtfully recounts Harrington’s eventual trouble reconciling his own emerging radical politics and thoroughly “modernist” theology with Catholic dogmatic teaching, a trouble that would eventually lead him to leave the Catholic Worker movement and the Church and shift to a secularized socialist political philosophy. Harrington remained interested throughout his life in the complex questions related to religion, politics, and history: He later explored them in his excellent book The Politics at God’s Funeral (1983).
In the central chapters of The Other American, Isserman shifts to full-fledged intellectual and political history, offering readers a detailed and fascinating interpretive account of Harrington’s longstanding involvement with American Socialism. Harrington’s intellectual work as a writer and theorist is shown as it evolves within left sectarian political frays from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. In addition to a thorough analysis of Harrington’s thought at each stage along...
(The entire section is 1826 words.)