One of the great delights of the decade Cyrus and I spent teaching our Writing New York class was the repeated opportunity to screen clips from Ric Burns’s monumental New York: A Documentary Film. Without a doubt, the highlight of that film is — for me, at least — the series of appearances by the philosopher and social critic Marshall Berman. The interview was clearly done in one long sitting, and over the course of it Berman begins to tire, to slouch a little, to nod his grizzled head to one side, almost coming to rest on his shoulder. And then, in a flash, he’ll animate, lean forward, offer a stinging indictment of Robert Moses or wax poetic about the fact that New York offers the possibility of living car-free. In the clip above he concludes his commentary on the lasting devastation of Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway with a lecturette on the birth of subway graffiti and hip hop among ruins in the South Bronx. “We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined,” Berman says, offering the story as a parable of the ways in which urban life can foster thrillingly creative moments even among the destructive forces of modernity.
New York lost one of its intellectual giants yesterday, when Berman passed away, and this morning I’m treasuring all the more the chances we had not simply to learn from him and to let him teach our students, but also to collaborate with him over the last few years, to count him a partner in our projects on the city’s literary and cultural history. From the first, when we taught Ginsberg’s Howl in our course, we structured the lectures using Burns’s treatment of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and the urban renewal movement at mid-century. Burns relies in those segments on the story Berman tells in the final chapters of his classic text All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). After a few years of listening to Berman sum up this historical episode in Burns’s film, we began assigning the chapters from Solid along with Ginsberg’s poem. Berman’s triangulation of Moses-Jacobs-Ginsberg isn’t the only way to read Howl, of course, but it became a very compelling reading for us and, I think, for our students.
Imagine my delight one day in 2007, then, when I found myself in line at Tekserve, in Chelsea, behind Berman, who was there with his son in an attempt to diagnose a damaged laptop. (I’m pretty sure the kid said he’d whacked it for running too slowly.) I wanted to introduce myself, but instead became a fly on the wall as I observed one of my heroes engaged in parenting. I blogged about it later, not imagining I’d ever get to know him personally. Berman was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Marx brothers above the text:
“I don’t get it,” the kid said. He seemed genuinely thoughtful, a bit abashed for his violence toward the pokey laptop, and not at all aware that his pop was one of the smartest people on earth. “There’s a lot of open space on the planet that doesn’t get used at all,” the kid said. “Why don’t people just spread out?” Berman gave a thumbnail overview of the forces behind early urbanization and explained that it was a good thing some land was yet unused. “Imagine a society where global warming has made living in some cities impossible,” he said. “People may have to return to farming.” Besides, he explained, not all of the empty space was amenable to habitation or agriculture. Deserts, for instance would have to be irrigated, “and irrigation is expensive,” he said. “Fantastically expensive. Spec-TAC-ularly expensive.” The conversation turned to the history of L.A. right about the time my number was called.
When I finally met him a couple years later, I had trouble toning down my fan-boy excitement. It turns out his son and my daughter ended up attending the same high school on the Upper West Side. I realized this at a parent meeting for a Paris study abroad trip during my daughter’s freshman year. Catching sight of Berman across the crowded high school library, I passed my daughter a note, asking if any of her classmates had the last name Berman. “Yeah, Danny,” she wrote back. I passed another note: “His dad is one of my great intellectual heroes!” She’s never let me live that down. A few weeks later at the airport, putting our kids on a plane to France, I finally had a chance to introduce myself. He invited us to ride back into the city with him and his wife (“Cab? No, we’re subway people”) and we talked with him about his own first trip to Paris, by steamer, when he was 20. It changed his life, he said.
Berman was delighted that we taught his material and never failed to offer suggestions for things we should include in our histories of New York lit. “You need a chapter on mothers and playgrounds,” he said once. “It’s one of the most overlooked scenes of cultural life in the city. Read Grace Paley.” When we hosted our Lost New York conference in 2009, he agreed to keynote it in conversation with David Freeland. We’d originally invited David Byrne as well, and though he couldn’t make it, his publicist wondered if Marshall would appear with Byrne at a Barnes and Noble reading instead. “Not if it means just showing up as a fan,” Marshall said. “Has he read my books?” During the planning of that conference I realized that Berman preferred phone to email, but I still loved the way he signed his emails with an exuberant “Shalom!” When I last saw him, at a conference on Modernist Manhattan in early 2012, he buzzed with excitement when he talked about the underground circulation in Iran of an unauthorized Farsi translation of All That Is Solid. (He also wrote about this in a new 2010 Afterword to the book.)
What I appreciate most about Berman’s thinking is his ability to remain optimistic about modernity even as he theorizes its devastating effects. Skyscrapers might remove community from the street, I heard him say once, but people love to live in skyscrapers for the views. Mass culture, for Berman, wasn’t something to bemoan, but to celebrate, not only for its “global reach,” but for its potential to convey “emotional depth and power.” (That quote from his stunning reading of the Kol Nidre sequence in The Jazz Singer.) In support of this optimism, Post-War New York again serves him as a parable. The transformations under Robert Moses in the 1950s and 1960s, he writes, created a new New York not necessarily hospitable to writers and artists. Some retreated to the universities. Some left the city. Some holed up in new countercultural enclaves downtown: SoHo and the East Village, which would begin to foster new art scenes during the years in which Berman wrote Solid. He refers to the split between the city and its artists as a “split between the modern spirit and a modernized environment.” For him, the opportunity to be modern always mitigated the darker forces modernity carried in its train. That’s not the only lesson I hope I’ve learned from him over the years, but it’s an important one. Again from All That Is Solid:
To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.
… To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”
Indeed. Our thoughts are with your family, Marshall. Thanks for sharing part of your journey with us.