Harrington, (Edward) Michael

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HARRINGTON, (Edward) Michael

(b. 24 February 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 31 July 1989 in Larchmont, New York), author, educator, and political activist involved in a number of socialist movements, whose most famous work, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), was an inspiration for President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

Harrington was the son of Edward M. Harrington, Sr., a patent attorney, and Catherine Fitzgibbon, a former schoolteacher, and grew up in a well-to-do, middle-class suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. His family has been described as enlightened Roman Catholic with the typical loyalty to the Democratic Party common among the Irish in St. Louis at that time. He was strongly influenced by his mother, who was active in community causes. Harrington went through parochial schools and then attended Holy Cross College, a Jesuit institution. He graduated second in his class at the age of nineteen. Harrington briefly attended Yale University Law School, but left when he discovered he really did not want to be a lawyer. Harrington transferred to the University of Chicago and earned an M.A. in English literature in 1949.

Harrington had adopted socialist thinking when he had a summer job in 1948 working with a St. Louis project for Arkansas sharecroppers. Following graduation from the University of Chicago, he went to New York City, where he worked as an associate editor at Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker, a radical periodical that advocated social reorganization and pacifism. Harrington also worked at Saint Joseph's House of Hospitality, a settlement house in the Battery. For about ten years Harrington was a regular at the White Horse Tavern, famous in Greenwich Village, where he lived, for the poets and writers who frequented it. Early in that period he considered himself a bohemian poet and participated in nightly discussions on politics and literature. In 1963 Harrington married Stephanie Gervis, a writer for the Village Voice. The couple had two sons.

By the mid-1950s Harrington had left organized religion and was an active member of the Young Socialist League. He declared conscientious objector status during the Korean War. Throughout this period he wrote articles for a number of activist publications, and in 1959 he co-edited Labor in a Free Society. That year the editor of Commentary commissioned Harrington to write an article on poverty as a social and political issue. He based the article, "Our Fifty Million Poor," on information he gathered from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In the 1960s, Harrington was over thirty and belonged to the old Left Socialist party called the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), but he still had the respect of the New Left college student organization known as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), until an unfortunate mixup regarding the manifesto drafted by SDS at their annual 1962 meeting. Harrington attended part of that meeting, suggesting to the group that the first draft of their manifesto did not adequately condemn Soviet totalitarianism, nor did it support liberal trade unions. He recommended these changes, then had to leave the meeting. When he was later misinformed that his suggestions were not included, he criticized the group who had, in fact, incorporated his recommendations. This misunderstanding ultimately led to a split between the old and new groups, a result he long regretted. Harrington wrote frequently about this incident with regret for his "rude insensitivity to young people struggling to define a new identity."

After the article in Commentary, Harrington then wrote a more detailed work, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in 1962. He expanded the statistics with first-hand experiences he had from his travels among the poor in New York, Appalachia, and among migrant workers in California and other states. It was his first book and became his best-known work. He subsequently wrote fourteen books that included The Accidental Century (1965) and Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority (1968), in which he examined social and political problems in the United States. Included were the extensive inequities left unresolved by the War on Poverty, which had been seriously reduced in funding because of the demands of the Vietnam War. In the book he promoted a coalition of the groups on the left to solve the problems.

The Accidental Century was written to defend democratic socialism in the context of a philosophical review of the crises in values Harrington saw as being caused by the technological revolution. It was not, as expected by some, a sequel to The Other America. However, Harrington did continue the theme of The Other America in The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States (1981) and in The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization (1983).

The prevailing theme of most of Harrington's work was democratic socialism. Harrington won the George Polk Award and the Sidney Hillman Award for The OtherAmerica. However, nothing he wrote after his first book had the same political and social impact. Harrington sometimes said that he could envision his epitaph: "Wrote Other America, downhill after that."

The senior labor columnist of the New York Times described The Other America as "a scream of rage and a call to conscience." An even more influential review was published in the New Yorker. Ina forty-page feature on the book, Dwight Macdonald, a tough critic and staff writer for the magazine, described the book as "excellent and important" for its analysis of the reasons for the persistence and vast poverty that existed in the United States in the midst of general prosperity. Macdonald knew Harrington from the days when they were both members of a small socialist group. Discussing the impact of Macdonald's review, Harrington said that it had "made poverty a topic of conversation in the intellectual-political world of the Northeast." Soon it became even more influential.

In The Other America, Harrington pointed out that there were between 40 and 50 million poor. "The millions who are poor in the United States tend to become increasingly invisible. [I]t takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them." Harrington described how these people lived. "Here are unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life." Harrington says, "These people … are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger for that is what cheap foods do. They are without adequate housing and education and medical care." President John F. Kennedy was said to have read the reviews and then the book, and he was working on addressing the issues of the poor when he was assassinated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson picked up the theme with his War on Poverty, and during his term as president, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Appalachian Redevelopment Act of 1965, and the Medicare Act of 1965 were enacted. In 1964 Harrington briefly worked with Johnson's cabinet to draft antipoverty programs, but he preferred to keep to his role as critic. He continued his efforts lecturing in the United States and in Europe on his ideals for a democratic socialist society. In Europe he was better known for his socialist beliefs, whereas in the United States he was best known for The Other America.

Harrington was chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy in 1964 and a member of the executive board of the Socialist Party from 1960 to 1968. He became chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982 when it was formed out of two other Socialist groups. By the late 1980s the Democratic Socialists of America had become the largest socialist organization in the United States. Harrington said that the organization supports "incremental changes that create a welfare state that modulates and humanizes capitalist society."

The New York Times said of Harrington that he was probably the most visible spokesman for socialist ideals in the United States after Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader and frequent candidate for president. In his first autobiography, Fragments of the Century (1973), Harrington said, "To be socialist … is to make an act of faith, of love … toward this land.… To be radical is, in the best and only decent sense of the word, patriotic." Harrington was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 1987; in spite of the disease, he published another autobiography, The Long Distance Runner, in 1988. Harrington died of cancer in 1989.

Just one year before his death, Harrington founded the Next America Foundation to support research on poverty. At a fund-raiser in Manhattan for the foundation, 600 people came to support him and to celebrate his life. In speaking to the group, Harrington summed up his political philosophy: "The democratic socialists envision a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, and racial equality."

Harrington was appointed professor of political science at Queens College of the City University of New York in 1972, and was named a distinguished professor in 1988. The Michael Harrington Center was formed at Queens College of the City University of New York to honor his "life-long commitment to social justice and democracy." Harrington's ideals live on in the center, which exists to "promote public, democratic discussion of social issues, to advocate for social change and to work in partnerships with others to build a more just, equitable and democratic society."

Information on Harrington can be found in his autobiographies, Fragments of the Century (1973) and The Long Distance Runner: An Autobiography (1988). Further information about Harrington and his political beliefs is in Loren J. Okroi, Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent in an Age of Optimism (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Aug. 1989).

M. C. Nagel

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