Marshall Berman: A Life Steered by Our Human Possibilities

MArshallBerman_crop By Vince Boudreau, director of the Colin L. Powell Center

Marshall Berman was a distinguished professor at CCNY, a designation that, like associate and full professor, requires a formal review and recommendation process, including the review of his scholarly work, and testimonies to their significance.  A committee is selected to solicit reviews from appropriate scholars, but as a candidate, Marshall also was able to nominate reviewers, and add letters to his application file.

His application was immensely strong, and included ringing and warm endorsements from the very best and most established political theorists (a sub-field of the political science discipline) in the world.

But it also contained something peculiar, inserted into the file at Marshall’s insistence—an unsolicited “review” of Marshall’s luminous, expansive work, All that is Solid Melts into Air. The review was hand written, and crumpled—the pen having apparently been set to paper years before—and the note itself abused by years of residence in Marshall’s tumultuous apartment, or atop the crazed jumble of books and papers that always concealed his office desk.

Marshall called the letter a review, but it was, in fact, a fan letter, from a New York City construction worker. He had read Marshall’s book, and had decided that he would just carry it around with him.  It changed his life, he wrote, changed how he saw the city that he loved, and that he labored daily to help build.

The fact of the letter was striking enough.  We academics, if we’re attentive and good, sometimes do receive grateful notes from our students—telling us how a class, or an advising session made a difference in their lives.  And, if we write well and with insight, we sometimes are reviewed well.  But an unsolicited fan letter from outside the academy is rare—and I’d bet that very few of us are ever so honored.

More striking, however, was Marshall’s insistence that this letter should sit alongside the others, that it was important to factor the opinions of this New Yorker into his promotion decision.  In many ways, he was prouder of that letter than all the others combined.

And here one sees one of the truly precious elements of the moral and political commitments by which Marshall steered his life. He thought that we were all, in a radical sense, equal. We were equal not just in terms or our political or human rights, but in our ideas and in our minds.  Marshall was breathtakingly, dizzyingly smart.  He possessed one of the most agile, comprehending minds I’ve ever known.  But he carefully regarded every last idea that passed before him, threw up no boundaries to incorporating hip hop, graffiti art, poetry slams, and even the watery coffee of the student cafeteria, into his conceptions about human accomplishment and creativity.

As a rare, world historic intellect, Marshall had ample opportunity to leave CCNY.  He was recruited by Ivy League Universities, and by some of the brightest jewels on the west coast.  But he remained at City College, in part, because it embodied the wonderful and restless creativity of the city he wrote about, that he identified in his conception of modernity and traced through his stirring biography of Times Square, and that he viewed out the window of the Metro Diner, where he ate most mornings, and where he passed away, among friends, this past September 11th.

But he also stayed at CCNY because he was drawn to a commitment to the radical equality of human potential and thinking.  He could not abide the prospect that some young person, beginning to feel the first warmth of a new idea sprung to life, would lack support, or fail to gain an attentive hearing.  He was the most public man I’ve ever known, with the most public approach imaginable to what education should be.  And so, over the 22 years that I worked alongside this great man, I heard him repeatedly say, “I want to teach at CCNY until the day I die.”  And so he did.