Sorin, Gerald 1940-

views updated

SORIN, Gerald 1940-

PERSONAL: Born October 23, 1940, in Brooklyn, NY; son of John (a foreman) and Ruth (a secretary; maiden name, Gass) Sorin; married Myra Cohen (a language teacher), June 9, 1962; children: Anna Bess. Education: Columbia University, A.B., 1962; Wayne State University, M.A., 1964; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1969. Politics: Democratic Socialist. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Home—28 Woodland Dr., New Paltz, NY 12561. Office—Department of History, State University of New York College at New Paltz, 75 S. Manheim, New Paltz, NY 12561. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Historian. State University of New York College at New Paltz, assistant professor, 1965–70, associate professor, 1970–77, professor of history, 1977–, director of Jewish studies, 1983–; department head, 1986–96, Distinguished Teaching Professor, 1994–. Nijmegen University, Fulbright, Netherlands, John Adams Distinguished Chair of American Studies, 1998.

MEMBER: Association for Jewish Studies, American Jewish Historical Society, Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, American Jewish Congress, Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute (Yiddish Scientific Institute; YIVO).

AWARDS, HONORS: Danforth associate, 1970; State University of New York Foundation fellowships, 1970, 1971, 1979, 1983; Living History award, Gomez Foundation, 1996.


New York Abolitionists: A Case Study of Political Radicalism, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1971.

Abolitionism: A New Perspective, Praeger (New York, NY), 1972.

The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880–1920, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1985.

The Nurturing Neighborhood: The Brownsville Boys Club and Jewish Community in Urban America, 1940–1990, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1990.

A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880–1920, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1992.

Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1997.

Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, New York University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: Historian Gerald Sorin has written a number of volumes, including Abolitionism: A New Perspective. The book was reviewed in Reviews in American History by David Brion, who wrote that Sorin "gives us a clear and admirable account of the 'rise of immediatism.' He correctly points to the evangelical background of the majority of abolitionists, and arrays a good bit of evidence to oppose the wellknown theses of David Donald and Stanley Elkins. He gives detailed attention to the black abolitionists, who have so often been ignored by white historians. If Sorin's Abolitionism is something less than an imaginative synthesis, it is probably the most readable and informative survey now available."

Among Sorin's works is Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America, which addresses the costs to Jews in a country that has in general been hospitable. Sorin documents Jewish history in America from colonial times and contends that "acculturation," not "assimilation" is the word that best describes the experience of Jewish Americans. Ellen M. Umansky noted in the Journal of American Ethnic History that "in fourteen clearly written, well-organized chapters, Sorin weaves an impressively wide range of historical, sociological, and literary sources into a seamless narrative."

Sorin concentrates on the Jewish community of New York City, and he studies the friction between German and Eastern European Jews, the Jewish role in unionism, politics, the socialist movement, religious division, anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the milieu of the Lower East Side. Historian contributor Ronald H. Bayor felt that although Sorin includes some discussion of Jewish life outside of the New York metropolitan area, there are some topics that he could have expanded upon, including the attitudes of Southern Jews who opposed segregation and those who "rejected the Jewish liberal tradition." Bayor also noted that Sorin discusses the interaction of Jews and blacks, but says little about Jewish interaction with other ethnic and racial groups. "The problem with any synthesis of a long historical period involving a complex group is that it must of necessity miss details and nuances," wrote Bayor. "But this shortcoming is far from a major flaw in this work…. Sorin provides the best one-volume study of the Jewish American experience available; this is a book well worth reading."

Beth S. Wenger began her review in the Journal of Social History by saying that "writing a one-volume historical survey may be the most daunting challenge for any historian" and concluded by commenting on the final chapter. She noted that "The Ever-Disappearing People" "tackles thorny issues about intermarriage, continuity, and assimilation in the contemporary American Jewish community. Consistent with his approach throughout the book, Sorin emphasizes aspects of continuity and ethnic persistence. In a useful discussion, he places his analysis of American Jews within the context of other ethnic communities in the United States. Sorin concludes by noting that patterns of Jewish coherence and distinctive identity persist, even as many traditional forms of Jewish life have been altered in American society."

Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent is a biography of the founder of Dissent and contributor to such periodicals as Commentary and Partisan Review. Howe, who died in 1993, described his working-class childhood in a Yiddish-speaking community in his own World of Our Fathers. He attended City College in New York and was a life-long Socialist, "moving from youthful Trotskyist to middle-aged social democrat, but always anti-Stalinist," noted David Herman for the London Independent's Enjoyment Web site. John H. Summers wrote in the Wilson Quarterly that "according to Sorin … loneliness drew fourteen-year-old Howe to the Young People's Socialist League in 1934. Principle kept him there." Howe loved modern literature, wrote, and was a literature professor at three universities. He also was coeditor and translator of eight anthologies of Yiddish literature. In all, he wrote or edited nearly fifty books. Herman wrote that Howe "knew (and argued with) everybody who was anybody in postwar America. His story is an insider's view of the New York intellectual hothouse over forty years."

Joseph Dorman noted in the New York Times Book Review that "in a world where it seems as if popularity has become the true measure of significance, it's hard to remember how crucial it once was to have enemies…. Howe … accumulated quite a few. It was not that Howe was friendless—far from it. A true intellectual hero of the left, he had legions of friends and followers. It was simply that Howe knew the importance of a good brawl." Dorman wrote that Sorin "portrays Howe the tough political fighter alongside the brilliant writer and generous friend. An empathetic biographer, Sorin sets out to understand Howe rather than to judge him."

Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman commented that Sorin "skillfully captures the illuminating fire of Howe's convictions, conflicts, and achievements." "In the most impressive sections of the book, Sorin combines primary source articles with interviews, personal letters, and autobiographical accounts to create a richly textured analysis of Howe's literary development," wrote Marc Dollinger in American Jewish History. Dollinger noted that Sorin "also offers powerful critiques of Howe's shortcomings." Although Howe saw military service, he opposed the United States entry into World War II, claiming that liberals saw "no moral discrimination between their overflowing love of humanity and their support of British, American, and Stalinist imperialism in the war." Howe was in favor of the Civil Rights movement but did not support feminism. Dollinger called Irving Howe "a first-rate biography."

Gerald Sorin once told CA: "Writing history gives me a weapon with which to negotiate a tentative peace with a chaotic universe."



American Historical Review, June, 1991; June, 1998, review of Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America, p. 951; October, 2003, Thomas Bender, review of Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, p. 1179.

American Jewish History, June, 1986; December, 2002, Marc Dollinger, review of Irving Howe, p. 481.

Biography, summer, 2003, Ronald Radosh, Joseph Dorman, review of Irving Howe, p. 535.

Booklist, January 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Irving Howe, p. 841.

Historian, spring, 1999, Ronald H. Bayor, review of Tradition Transformed, p. 688.

Journal of American Ethnic History, summer, 1999, Ellen M. Umansky, review of Tradition Transformed, p. 200.

Journal of American History, June, 2004, Jeffrey W. Coker, review of Irving Howe, p. 327.

Journal of Social History, Beth S. Wenger, review of Tradition Transformed, p. 453.

Library Journal, January, 2003, Michele McGraw, review of Irving Howe, p. 126.

New York Times Book Review, March 2, 2003, Joseph Dorman, review of Irving Howe, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, March 3, 1997, review of Tradition Transformed, p. 56; December 2, 2002, review of Irving Howe, p. 46.

Reviews in American History, March, 1973, Brion Davis, review of Abolitionism: A New Perspective; June, 1998, review of Tradition Transformed, p. 385.

Wilson Quarterly, spring, 2003, John H. Summers, review of Irving Howe, p. 123.


Enjoyment, (April 7, 2003), David Herman, review of Irving Howe.

Flak, (March 26, 2003), Clay Risen, review of Irving Howe.