Marshall Berman, the great teacher and urban poet, died on September 11, 2013, eating breakfast at his favorite Metropolitan diner on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. No one would argue that the Metropolitan served gourmet fare, but that was not the point. It was local, on Broadway, and the perfect hang out for what Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet of the 1920s, would call a “Paris Peasant.” For Aragon, this persona was the archetypal urban inhabitant, at once instantly recognizable and also almost invisible. This persona could merge with the crowd, sharing an urban consciousness, becoming present but also disappearing.
Marshall, as a consummate New Yorker, had three voices that could appear and disappear in your head. As a student of the great British intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin at Oxford, Marshall’s voice first emerged, unpacking the thought of the young Marx, placing the dialectic of Hegel into contemporary industrial productive processes, measuring the results against the ethical imperatives of Kant. Marshall found that the young Marx could see positive virtues and pleasures in the cornucopia of modern capitalism, as well as being totally aware of the impoverishment, alienation, and degradation involved. This first voice filled Marshall’s great book, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1981). Here, he extracted beauty and poetry from the literary and urban spaces of the process of modernization from the angst of Faust onward, leading through Russian literature to Robert Moses and the destruction of the South Bronx, Marshall’s treasured birthplace.
Unlike the disembodied and dialectic voice of this writing, Marshall’s voice in person was sweet and mellifluous, with traces of the Bronx still remaining. You could talk to Marshall about almost anything, the urban poet and peasant dimension embraced everything in the city from comics and rap to landlords and luck. This voice was deeply ethical and reflexive, looking inward toward some buried and lost sense of a soul that somehow would provide guidance and standards for the chaotic contemporary situation. Thus Times Square and 42nd Street, in all their recent transformations, like the revival of the South Bronx, provided grounds for hope. This voice can still be heard in a Youtube video, arguing the city may have been in ruins “but we are not broken.”
Marshall’s third voice was that of the “Public Intellectual.” His colleague Michael Sorkin honored this voice in his introduction to last year’s prestigious Mumford Lecture at City College. Sorkin emphasized how Marshall loved this place of public education so much, believing in its importance as an essential part of an open city providing opportunities for all. Then Marshall’s voice boomed through the huge early twentieth century Gothic hall, echoing off the vast mosaic fresco above, decorated with Beaux-Arts maidens bestowing wisdom on young (then male) graduates of 1910.
We will miss Marshall’s voices, but especially his third voice, more public and formal, ex cathedra, from the chair of the professor, witnessing truth before power without fear, deeply courageous and independent.