​“The Heroism of Modern Life”: Marshall Berman and His City

By Benjamin Serby


Like the city that he called home, the author, professor, and critic Marshall Berman (1940-2013) contained multitudes. An ardent cosmopolitan, he was provincially attached to the culture -- both intellectual and popular -- of New York City. Even as he thrilled at the breakneck dynamism of the modern metropolis, he looked back to writers long dead for wisdom and inspiration. And, despite receiving his education at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions (Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard), he always emphasized his South Bronx origins.

This complex tangle of influences and commitments is apparent in Berman’s collected papers, located at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The vast array of items, which I recently catalogued, sheds light on Berman’s impact, both as a globally recognized public intellectual and as an instructor in the political science department at New York’s City College. As a writer, Berman dwelled in a certain amount of abstraction, but his clear, vivid prose made even very challenging material accessible to disparate audiences. (A remarkable letter from a construction worker in Pittsburgh, testifying to this quality of his writing, accompanies this article.) What the archive shows is that Berman’s eloquent embrace of modern city life resonated far and wide, to an extent that even he himself did not expect.

The best introduction to Marshall Berman’s work is All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Part memoir and part literary criticism, it is a powerful interpretation of modernism as not only a literary genre, but as a struggle to find meaning and to affirm solidarities in a world that is continually being destabilized, destroyed, and remade by forces beyond our control. Berman looked to a set of European writers -- above all, Goethe, Baudelaire, Marx, and Dostoevsky -- who lived through unsettling economic and social transformations in the nineteenth century, as guideposts for those condemned to endure the “tragedy of development” in the twentieth. Their writings, he believed, teach us not to reject the contradictions of modernity (as if we could), but instead to seize on them as a means of liberation and renewal. According to Berman, modernists instruct us to

...start where we are: psychically naked, stripped of all religious, aesthetic, moral haloes and sentimental veils, thrown back on our individual will and energy, forced to exploit each other and ourselves in order to survive; and yet, in spite of all, thrown together by the same forces that pull us apart, dimly aware of all we might be together, ready to stretch ourselves to grasp new human possibilities, to develop identities and mutual bonds that can help us hold together as the fierce modern air blows hot and cold through us all.[1]

It is significant that the “we” in this statement refers primarily, if not exclusively, to the inhabitants of cities. For Berman, the city furnishes the setting in which the drama of modern life plays out; it is in the chaos and clutter of the urban scene that modernism reaches its fullest expression. And this vital connection between modernism and the city unites all of his work: in his first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1970), he traced the emergence of modern social theory, in the writings of Montesquieu and Rousseau, back to the social conditions of eighteenth-century Paris; and in his last book, On The Town (2006), yet another fusion of memoir and literary criticism, he celebrated Times Square as a quintessential specimen of the urban sublime.

But Berman wrote All That Is Solid in the late 1970s, at a moment when people and capital had fled American cities as never before. An emerging landscape of depopulated downtowns, gargantuan superhighways, and post-industrial ruin seemed an unlikely setting for the productive friction and spontaneous encounters chronicled in his book. He therefore wrote to recover and to preserve the progressive spirit of an earlier time. In an age when modernists could no longer conjure “a brave new future,” he insisted, they must instead seek “imaginative encounters with the past.”[2] As Berman’s editor, Gerald Howard, recalls, “[this] tragic sense of history played very poorly” in the United States.[3] When the book was published, in 1982, Berman’s partisanship for two lost causes -- Marxism and modernism -- jarred with both the political mood of Reagan’s America and the new vogue for post-modernism. Within two years, All That Is Solid had gone out of print. But in the meantime, something unforeseen happened: large numbers of young intellectuals in distant countries -- Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and Iran especially -- were picking it up and discussing it.

Reading All That Is Solid is like taking a tour of Balzac’s Paris, Biely’s Petersburg, and Jane Jacobs’s New York. Its scenes and characters are uniformly European and North American. And yet, this learned paean to modernism touched a nerve for many readers in the world’s so-called “emerging markets,” especially in Latin America and in the Middle East. Despite having defined “the tragedy of development” in largely retrospective terms, Berman captured the economic and social turmoil unfolding in their present.

Mounds of material in Berman’s collected papers attest to the enthusiastic global reception of his work - an enthusiasm that did not diminish over the years, if the countless letters of appreciation and warm greetings sent by his readers are any indication. Requests for interviews and conference invitations followed, and Berman obliged: sheafs of Portuguese- and Spanish-language press clippings announce the frequent visits that he made to Latin America during the last two decades of his life. While All That Is Solid became widely read in the United States after its second printing (in 1988), the archive suggests that Berman’s reputation may have remained greatest abroad.

Berman’s writings have only grown more relevant since the dawn of the twenty-first century, as urban space has become a subject of mounting controversy around the world. A number of struggles have taken place in precisely those countries where, more than twenty years ago, Berman became a “rock star intellectual.”[4] The Gezi Park protests of 2013, for instance, erupted in Istanbul just months before he passed away. More recently, multiple waves of demonstrations broke out in Brazilian cities. As new threats to urban life emerge, a slogan from Berman’s youth has been revived and has taken on new meaning: across the world, people are again proclaiming their “right to the city.”

This is no less true in New York City, where, for a few months in 2011, an encampment in a tiny public plaza became a global symbol of democratic resistance to corporate oligarchy. Occupy Wall Street, as it came to be known, seemed to confirm his prophetic faith in the city as a place where “modern men and women [can continue to] become subjects as well as objects of modernization.”[5] But the new efflorescence of spatial politics in Berman’s hometown arose in response to a “tragedy of development” that he did not anticipate.

In the last sequence of All That Is Solid, Berman famously used the Cross-Bronx Expressway to symbolize modernity’s destructive edge, linking its image to a set of catastrophes that afflicted the neighborhood where he had grown up: displacement, fiscal crisis, planned shrinkage, unemployment, violent crime, abandoned properties, and routine arson. This haunting panorama of desolation no longer fits New York, now a global city propelled by a booming financial sector and a frenetic real estate market. Today, as a glut of speculative capital floods even the outer boroughs, it is not the absence of prosperity, but the astoundingly uneven distribution of it (captured in the Occupy Wall Street formula, “the 99%” versus “the 1%”) that is the city’s most salient social fact. As New York’s homeless population reaches record numbers amidst a deepening affordable housing crisis, it goes without saying that the liberating urban experience championed by Berman may be well on its way to becoming a luxury commodity available only to an elite few.

Letter from Scott Smith, a Pittsburgh construction worker, late 2000s.

Letter from Scott Smith, a Pittsburgh construction worker, late 2000s.

In his final years, as New York charged towards an uncertain future, Berman welcomed its recovery from the nadir of the 1970s. In a lecture delivered shortly before his death, he noted that a steep decline in the crime rate had opened up new cultural possibilities.[6] Reading this text today, one can’t help but notice the glaring absence of the words “gentrification” and “inequality.” Such optimism, which is typical of Berman’s writings, often vexed his detractors. However, as I have previously argued, we should not dismiss his attitude as unwarranted or naïve. As a teacher and as a New Yorker, Berman observed the creativity of the ordinary people who struggle every day, as he wrote, to “get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it.”[7] Political economy and social theory help to explain the world in which this struggle unfolds, but we can’t really learn anything, he admonished his critics, “if we don’t also know how to read the signs in the street.”[8]

The signs in the street only became more legible to Berman as he aged. The graffiti and hip-hop that he encountered on visits to his old Bronx neighborhood in the 1990s struck him as an exuberant expression of wild yearning, a hopeful sign that a generation of young people, “in the midst of falling apart, found ways to rise.”[9] In his final writings, Berman expanded his already capacious vision of modernism to include these belated discoveries, ranking Grandmaster Flash with Hegel as a leading poet of the modern. Whatever their differences, he argued, each had “[stretched] language to grasp and envelop reality,” using it to endow a topsy-turvy world with meaning.[10]

Berman recalled late in life that his goal after finishing graduate school had been to “teach kids from neighborhoods… to work for the public and work to give people an education that was their right.”[11] As a faculty member at City College (a school with the mission of educating New York’s working class), he was well situated to learn a great deal about his changing city and its people. The short autobiographical sketches that each of his students composed over the decades, all of which are collected in the archive, illustrate the wide range of perspectives that converged in his classroom. One semester’s roster includes a Starbucks barista, a bank teller, a bartender, a taxi driver, and a phone card salesman. They aspire to a broad range of careers, from social work to law enforcement, and commute to campus from neighborhoods all over the five boroughs: Marine Park, in Brooklyn; Pelham Parkway, in the Bronx; and just about everywhere in between. And, in a city where an astonishing 37 percent of residents are foreign-born, an even larger percentage had come to the United States from somewhere else (including countries across every continent but Antarctica).

The dozens of course syllabi that remain in Berman’s collected papers mostly feature the protagonists of All That Is Solid: Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Dickens, Gogol, Marx, and Kierkegaard, among others. This suggests that, as a teacher, he sought to stage “imaginative encounters” with prior generations of moderns, forging a vital link between them and a diverse panoply of New Yorkers. Just as, for instance, he had once found Robert Moses’s indelible stamp on his own life dramatized in the pages of Geothe’s Faust, so might his students recognize their experiences in the writings of those who came before. Placing themselves along a larger historical continuum, he believed, could help them to make themselves “at home in the world.” As in his writings, Berman taught in order to cultivate an attachment to New York City, and to promote love and care for urban life more generally. He particularly wanted people to understand and to share in the city’s history without succumbing to the pessimistic idea that its best days lay in the past. As he stated in the preface to his last published book, On The Town, “I want to show people living for the city in a life that is open, ongoing, still there to be lived.”[12]

These earnest words evoke the celebrated work of Berman’s friend and fellow South Bronx native, the late photographer Mel Rosenthal (whose portrait of Berman, which I found in the archive, accompanies this article). Like Berman, Rosenthal returned to his childhood neighborhood in the 1970s and found the area largely reduced to ruins. When he started to document blighted buildings and abandoned lots, local residents requested that he photograph them instead. Rosenthal obliged, and in so doing, he produced a record of their ongoing presence in a part of the city that many people had either forgotten or ignored. The resulting portfolio of his photographs captures the resilience of those who refused to give up on their neighborhood even as it burned to the ground around them. The children, teenagers, mothers, shopkeepers, and seniors who pose before the camera, often smiling as they stand atop piles of rubble, seem less weary than hopeful, less defeated than somehow triumphant. Their improbable and patient persistence at the margins of the metropolis, far away from its fabled core, brings to mind what Berman, after Baudelaire, called “the heroism of modern life.” As the French poet reminds us even today, “The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects. We are enveloped and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.”[13]

Benjamin Serby is a PhD candidate in US History at Columbia University. This year, he is also an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.

[1] Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (New York: Penguin, 1988), 129.

[2] Ibid., 332.

[3] Gerald Howard, “A Rare Bird of the Lyrical Left,” n+1, September 25, 2013, https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/a-rare-bird-of-the-lyrical-left/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Berman, All That Is Solid, 5.

[6] Marshall Berman, “Emerging from the Ruins,” Dissent, Winter 2014, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/emerging-from-the-ruins

[7] Berman, All That Is Solid, 5.

[8] Marshall Berman, “The Signs in the Street: A Response to Perry Anderson, New Left Review, March/April 1984, https://newleftreview.org/I/144/marshall-berman-the-signs-in-the-street-a-response-to-perry-anderson

[9] Berman, “Emerging from the Ruins.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Id.

[12] Marshall Berman, On The Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square (Brooklyn: Verso, 2009), xxxvi.

[13] Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” quoted in David Harvey, Paris: Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2003), 23.