Maurice Isserman: 50 Years Later: Poverty and "The Other America"

Roundup: Talking About History

Maurice Isserman is the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of History at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000). This article is adapted from the introduction to The Other America by Michael Harrington. Copyright © 2012 by Maurice Isserman.

When Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States first appeared in bookstores in March 1962, its author had modest hopes for its success, expecting to sell at most a few thousand copies. Instead, the book proved a publishing phenomenon, garnering substantial sales (seventy thousand in several editions within its first year and over a million in paperback since then), wide and respectful critical attention, and a significant influence over the direction of social welfare policy in the United States during the decade that followed. By February 1964, Business Week noted, “The Other America is already regarded as a classic work on poverty.” Time magazine later offered even more sweeping praise, listing The Other America in a 1998 article entitled “Required Reading” as one of the twentieth century’s ten most influential books, putting it in such distinguished company as Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

Harrington’s own knowledge of poverty was, for the most part, acquired secondhand, as he would recount in two memoirs, Fragments of the Century (1973) and The Long Distance Runner: An Autobiography (1988). Born in 1928 in St. Louis, the only child of loving and moderately prosperous parents of sturdy Irish-Catholic lineage, educated at Holy Cross, Yale Law School, and the University of Chicago, he moved to New York City in 1949 to become a writer. In 1951, he joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement as a volunteer at its soup kitchen; there he got to know a small subset of the nation’s poor, the homeless male alcoholics of New York City’s Bowery district. Within a few years he left the Catholic Worker (and the Catholic Church) and joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth affiliate of the battered remnants of the American Socialist Party, a party then led by Norman Thomas. A tireless organizer, prolific writer, skillful debater, and charismatic orator, Harrington succeeded Thomas as America’s best-known socialist in the 1960s, just as Thomas had succeeded Eugene Debs in that role in the 1920s. Socialism was never the road to power in the United States, but socialist leaders like Debs, Thomas, and Harrington were, from time to time, able to play the role of America’s social conscience. In the years since Harrington’s death from cancer in 1989, at the age of sixty-one, no obvious successor to the post of socialist tribune in the Debs-Thomas-Harrington tradition has emerged....

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