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Most Americans first heard of Michael Harrington with the publication of The Other America, his seminal book on American poverty. Isserman expertly tracks Harrington's beginnings in the Catholic Worker movement, his abandonment of his once deeply held...
Most Americans first heard of Michael Harrington with the publication of The Other America, his seminal book on American poverty. Isserman expertly tracks Harrington's beginnings in the Catholic Worker movement, his abandonment of his once deeply held Catholicism, his life in 1950s Greenwich Village, and is evolution as a thinker. Along the way he dispels numerous myths, including several Harrington himself encouraged. And he explains why Harrington, who more than any other single individual seemed perfectly positioned to play the role of adult mentor to the New Left in the 1960s, instead fell into disfavor with young campus activists, and lost the opportunity of a lifetime to make his Democratic Socialist perspective a relevant force in American politics.
The Other American received rave reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and more.
Author Biography: Maurice Isserman is America's preeminent historian of the left. His history of the American left, If I Had A Hammer is considered a classic. His book America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s was recently published by Oxford University Press. Currently a professor at Hamilton College, Isserman has also taught at Smith.
Community, Family, and Faith,
That you are going to America is bad, but I really don't know what other advice to give you.... Outside of New York, the only endurable place is St. Louis.
* * *
Frederick Engels to Joseph Weydemeyer
August 7, 1851
Catherine Harrington gave birth to her first and only child in St. Louis Maternity Hospital at 5:10 P.M. on the cold and cloudy afternoon of February 24, 1928. The baby, a boy, was named for his father, Edward Michael Harrington Sr., and was received into the Catholic fold three weeks later, when he was baptized by the Reverend William J. Glynn in St. Roch's Church, located just down the street from his parents' apartment. St. Roch's was named for a fourteenth-century French aristocrat who, at the age of twenty, gave away all his possessions to the poor and cared for the victims of the plague. The red brick church had been built in 1911 to serve the needs of the Irish-American parishioners who were moving westward into more prosperous suburbs from the decaying city center of St. Louis.
Edward Michael the younger would be known to his childhood friends as Ned, to college friends as Ed, and later, and to a wider world, as Michael or Mike. In the late winter of 1928, when Michael was born, John F. Kennedy was attending the fifth grade at the socially exclusive Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx. Lyndon Baines Johnson was completing his first year at Southwest Texas State Teacher's College in San Marcos. DorothyDay, a radical journalist two years older than Michael's mother, was living in Greenwich Village and rethinking her life's mission after her recent conversion to Catholicism. And eleven months after Michael's birth, in Atlanta, Georgia, the wife of a prominent black minister, bore a son they would name Martin Luther King Jr.
The issues of poverty, equality, and social justice that John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr.—and Michael Harrington—came to be identified with were not much on the minds of the residents of St. Louis in February 1928, at least not according to the pages of the local newspapers. On the day Michael was born, the editors of the St. Louis Post Dispatch filled their front page with stories of regional crime and scandals. On the sports page, St. Louis Cardinals' batting star and manager Rogers Hornsby predicted that the Boston Braves would emerge as the "dark horse" candidate to win the 1928 National League pennant—a generous judgment, since it was the Cardinals who went on to clinch the pennant that fall. The economic news was good, if unremarkable, in a generally prosperous decade; on the St. Louis Merchant's Exchange wheat closed a cent ahead of the previous day, and on the New York Stock Exchange, General Motors stock closed fractionally higher.
In the months that followed, election news came to dominate the headlines. In St. Louis, as in a number of the nation's largest cities, the Democratic presidential contender, Governor Al Smith of New York, ran a strong race. By calling for the repeal of Prohibition—a popular position in St. Louis, as in other cities with large immigrant populations—Smith (the first Catholic nominated as a major party presidential candidate) challenged his opponent on a highly charged cultural and social issue. But "Coolidge prosperity" was a compelling argument for maintaining Republican control of the White House. Accepting the Republican presidential nomination that summer of 1928, Herbert Hoover declared, "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph of poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us." It was a reassuring message and a belief that most Americans apparently shared.
There was another candidate that year who ran against both Hoover and Smith. Norman Thomas, a tall, patrician forty-three-year-old former Presbyterian minister with a booming voice, was launching the first of six bids for the presidency as the candidate of the Socialist Party. It had been eight years since the Socialists had run their last presidential campaign. In 1920, in the midst of the postwar "Red Scare," their imprisoned leader, Eugene Debs, had attracted a million votes. Since then the Socialist Party's strength had dwindled, a victim of wartime intolerance and internal factionalism. Hoping to revive his party's fortunes, Thomas boldly challenged the notion that the rising tide of national prosperity in the 1920s was lifting all boats equally: "By comparison with Europe," Thomas conceded in a speech quoted in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, "our workers are prosperous." But given the vast natural resources of the United States, and the fact that the nation had been spared the physical destruction that the world war had wreaked on Europe, why did so many working-class Americans have so little to show for their hard work? "The misery of the textile towns, the tragedy of the coal fields, the justified discontent of the farmers—these things are but the more dramatic proofs of our failure to end poverty." Thomas's eloquence and obvious sincerity won him devoted admirers but relatively few votes; on election day, Thomas received just over a quarter million ballots.
A year later, with the crash of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, Thomas's concerns would suddenly seem more relevant to the nation. But in 1928, aside from grumbling over Prohibition, the citizens of St. Louis were enjoying an unprecedented era of civic good feelings. The Cardinals' upset victory over the New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series and the reflected glory of Charles Lindbergh's daring transatlantic flight aboard the "Spirit of St. Louis" in May 1927 did much to assuage the sense of civic inferiority that had beset the city since it had been upstaged by Chicago, its midwestern rival, in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s St. Louis had nearly 800,000 residents, making it the nation's sixth largest city. It boasted communities of solid brick homes and lush greenery, as well as estimable universities, libraries, opera companies, and symphonies.
St. Louis residents were proud of their city's history, especially its frontier heritage. As the "gateway to the west," the city's early years had been shaped by the clash of colonial ambitions and were redolent of the romance of fur trapping and mountain men, the overland trail, and the Mississippi river boat. A decade after the upstart Chicago beat out St. Louis for the honor of staging the Columbia Exposition (marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World), the city fathers retaliated by hosting a world's fair in 1904 to celebrate the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase. Attracting millions of visitors, the fair proved a boon to the city's reputation and economy. The fair also left the city the physical legacy of a handsome park and a stately art museum, as well as the popular song "Meet Me in St. Louis."
St. Louis was a city that had long been welcoming to youthful talent, beginning with the French merchant-explorer Auguste Chouteau, who was just fourteen years old when he traveled up the Mississippi by bateau with a party of workmen to establish a fur post on the west bank of the river in 1764. Before he died, he became a wealthy man, while the city he helped found passed under the control of the Spanish, back to the French, and, in 1804, on to the United States.
As the city's economy shifted in the nineteenth century from frontier trading post to industrial manufacturing center, and as new immigrant groups arrived to supplant the original French settlers, other ambitious young men found avenues toward wealth. John Mullanphy, an Irish immigrant who arrived in St. Louis in 1804, built a vast fortune in the cotton market and in real estate and was St. Louis's first millionaire; his son Bryan was elected the city's mayor in 1847 on the Democratic ticket. Mullanphy left a lasting legacy through his funding of hospitals, orphanages, and schools in the city. He also gave his name to Mullanphy Street in "Kerry Patch," a neighborhood on the city's near north side that would become the center of a rapidly expanding Irish-American community in the 1840s.
In 1881 another young Irish immigrant, this one named Patrick R. FitzGibbon, found his way to St. Louis and settled in Kerry Patch. His life too would prove a tale of immigrant success, albeit on a more modest scale than Chouteau or Mullanphy.
Patrick had been born on May 4, 1861, in a thatched roof cottage on his parents' small rented farm in Ballylegan, Glanworth, in County Cork, Ireland, the second of Richard and Margaret Fitzgibbon's eight children. (The Irish Fitzgibbons spelled their name without the capitalized "G" adopted by the American wing of the family.) Family lore asserts that the Fitzgibbons left Ballingaddy in County Limerick to settle in Ballylegan in 1622, having obtained a large grant of land from the abbey in Glanworth, thanks to family ties with the local abbot. Glanworth is located on a bend in the River Blackwater, about twenty-six miles north of the city of Cork. In earlier centuries the village had been Glanore, or "the golden glen," and was known for the fertility of its fields. A narrow old stone bridge, reputed to be over 600 years old, spans the river that runs past the village. The ruins of an old castle and a thirteenth-century Dominican priory, the latter destroyed by Cromwell's soldiers in the seventeenth century, testify to its former glories.
But Glanworth was no golden glen in the mid-nineteenth century. Like most of their compatriots in Ireland's western counties, Patrick's parents were subsistence farmers in a region burdened by British rule, overpopulation, and, most disastrously, a blight on their staple crop, the potato. Travelers visiting County Cork in the "hungry 40s" left stark accounts of the destitution they witnessed. Dogs and rats feasted on the human corpses that lined the roads. Local authorities insisted that to be eligible for relief, the poor had to enter the county's workhouses rather than receive the supposedly character-sapping, non-custodial "outdoor relief." Many poor people were reluctant to do so because of the harsh discipline and overcrowding associated with the workhouses and because of the danger of cholera epidemics. In response to their plight, crowds of men, women, and children, armed with spades and shovels, terrified the local gentry by marching through the streets chanting "work or food." Some ransacked flour and bread shops. Others hijacked grain deliveries and stole livestock. Those caught by the authorities were sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies in Australia for terms as long as fifteen years. All told, over 100,000 people are estimated to have died of disease or starvation in County Cork during the famine years of 1846-1850. Nearly 100,000 more emigrated.
Despite a gradual improvement in conditions for the farmers of County Cork in subsequent decades, life remained hard and uncertain. The potato blight recurred for three years running in the mid-1860s. The outbreak of the American Civil War temporarily interrupted the flow of Irish immigrants to the United States; but when the war ended, emigration again picked up. In 1872, a year when heavy rainfalls again threatened the potato crop, eleven-year-old Patrick FitzGibbon left his ancestral home in Glanworth for the United States.
FitzGibbon family legends offer various explanations for young Patrick's departure, including political trouble with the British authorities and horse theft. In any case, it was by no means uncommon in nineteenth-century Ireland for children to choose, or be forced, to leave their families behind when they emigrated. One of Patrick's brothers and two of his sisters would also leave for America over the next several years. Traveling to the United States on board the Dresden from Queenstown (now the city of Cobh), Patrick reportedly obtained boat fare by selling two of his father's sheep.
After arriving in New York, Patrick took a job shoveling snow. He was also able to attend several years of grade school before setting out in 1878 to seek his fortune in the American west. In 1881, after some transient years in Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana, he made his way to St. Louis. There he was joined by his younger brother John, who became a city policeman, and his younger sister Margaret, a nurse.
For the first four decades of his life in St. Louis, Patrick lived on Mullanphy Street, or on nearby O'Fallon and Cass Streets. This neighborhood, a densely settled warren of tenements, groceries, saloons, and churches, was the center of the Irish immigrant community. Few native-born outsiders ever ventured into Kerry Patch, which was known to the police as the "Bloody Third District" for its street brawls. (A St. Louis guide book described the residents of Kerry Patch in 1878 as a population whose "chief amusements consist of punching each other's eyes.") Despite the hostility of outsiders toward their community, which in early years included occasional assaults on the district by armed bands of nativist "Know-Nothings," Patrick and other Irish immigrants could feel secure in their growing numbers. Like many other American communities of the era, St. Louis was an immigrant town. According to the 1880 census, nearly 30,000 St. Louisans were Irish immigrants; along with a much more sizable German population and other immigrant groups, two-thirds of the city's 350,000 residents in 1880 consisted of immigrants and their children.
St. Louis was also a city with a strong tradition of working-class radicalism. Thousands of German socialists had fled their homeland in the aftermath of the failed revolution of 1848; some, like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, settled in England; others, like Joseph Weydemeyer, a veteran of the Prussian army and a radical journalist, made their way to the United States.
Taking Engels's advice, Weydemeyer settled first in New York, where he published Marx's writings in a short-lived German-language newspaper and founded the first explicitly Marxist political group in the New World. Meanwhile, hundreds of his compatriots had arrived in St. Louis, where they organized fraternal organizations and trade unions. The St. Louis '48ers were also drawn into the struggle against slavery; in 1861, members of the German-American community's turnverein (paramilitary gymnastic clubs), who were hastily recruited into federal service, tipped the military balance in the city against the secessionists. Weydemeyer himself finally arrived in St. Louis as a colonel in the Union Army. When he wasn't occupied with military duties, he corresponded with Engels and handed out copies of Marx's inaugural address to the International Workingmen's Association in London. After the war, Weydemeyer edited a labor newspaper and was elected auditor of St. Louis County on the Republican ticket. His political career was cut short by his death in the cholera epidemic of 1866.
The socialist movement retained a modest following among St. Louis's German-Americans in the postwar era. Four years before Patrick FitzGibbon's arrival in the city, St. Louis socialists even enjoyed a brief, exhilarating moment of power. In response to wage cuts, a strike broke out among railroad workers in West Virginia in mid-July 1877; within days the strike had spread north and westward, drawing in hundreds of thousands of workers and paralyzing the nation's rail system. In St. Louis, under the leadership of the socialist Workingmen's Party, the railroad strike turned into a general strike of the city's workers—not just the radically inclined Germans but also the Irish and, to the particular horror of the authorities, blacks. Acting under the strike committee's directive to "Keep sober and orderly ... and don't plunder," thousands of strikers marched through the city's streets, while a brass band played the "Marseillaise." For several days, while red flags fluttered over the city, the local police hid inside their stations. However, it soon became apparent that the revolution was not at hand. As strike sentiment began to ebb, the St. Louis police emerged from their hiding places. The first city-wide general strike in the history of the United States was brought to an end by the mass arrest of its leaders.
Many viewed the St. Louis "Commune" as the harbinger of escalating class warfare, and authorities in St. Louis, as in many other cities, hastened to build fortress-like national guard armories to keep the immigrant population in check. About a third of the workers who had gone out on strike against the railroads in 1877 were Irish-Americans, and the conservatively inclined hierarchy of the Catholic Church was appalled. The Catholic prelate of Peoria, Bishop J. L. Spalding, warned in 1880 that it would be "almost impossible" for the church to keep its Irish working-class parishioners "out of trades-unions and other societies, the tendency of which in the United States will be more and more in the direction of communism."
Some Irish-Americans, like Patrick FitzGibbon's fellow immigrant from County Cork, mine organizer "Mother" Mary Jones, were drawn to radical doctrines and organizations. But most were not. Irish-Americans became devoted trade unionists, providing the leaders for nearly half of the 100-odd unions represented in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) at the turn of the century. In St. Louis, the Irish were the backbone of the local craft, utilities, and building trade unions. These unions were often militant, sometimes even violent, in defense of their members' bread-and-butter interests, but they usually opposed involvement in socialist or independent labor politics. For most Irish immigrant workers, the strong pulls of ethnic identity, religious affiliation, and loyalty to the Democratic Party undermined the potential for the kind of broad class-conscious radicalism that came to the fore briefly in the 1877 strike. Seven decades after the St. Louis general strike, in the midst of the Great Depression, a group of St. Louis socialists showed up on a picket line to support a strike by gashouse workers. They wound up being beaten up by the predominantly Irish-American strikers for their gesture of labor solidarity.
Patrick FitzGibbon made his first appearance in the city directory in 1885 as a bartender; by the next year he had advanced to saloonkeeper. He held onto the saloon for years, while trying his hand at a variety of other pursuits. From 1889 to 1893 he served as inspector of streets and superintendent of street sprinkling. For the next four years he was a copyist for the city recorder of deeds. In 1902 he was elected as the city register, a post he held for four years. He had been a partner in the FitzGibbon Brothers (nature unknown) in 1894 and was president of the Catalpa Gold and Copper Mining Company in 1909. (Before arriving in St. Louis, Patrick's brother John had worked as a gold prospector in California and at a smelter in the lead mines in Leadville, Colorado; the two brothers' business enterprises may have grown out of John's connections and experiences.) Patrick also ran an undertaking establishment at one point. By 1915, he was the St. Louis agent for the Reliance Life Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Patrick did not become a rich man, but he and his family enjoyed a level of material well-being that far exceeded what he had known as a child in County Cork.
Throughout his years in St. Louis, Patrick remained a loyal and passionate supporter of the city's Irish-dominated Democratic machine. Naturalized as an American citizen on June 27, 1884, he voted for Democrat Grover Cleveland in that fall's presidential election. By 1888, FitzGibbon was leader of the Jacksonian Democratic Club of St. Louis's fourteenth ward. He attended the Democratic national conventions of 1888, 1892, and 1896 as a delegate, was vice chairman of the Missouri delegation to the 1904 convention, and was a delegate to the 1912 and 1916 conventions.
Even when his active involvement in politics waned, his partisanship remained undiminished. His granddaughter Peggy remembers him sitting in a lawn chair in the summer of 1940 listening to every word broadcast over the radio from the Democratic convention. (When the Republican convention came on the radio, he snapped, "Turn that damn thing off.") Four years later, too ill to leave his house to attend mass, he refused to take Communion from the local priest because he suspected the man of harboring Republican sympathies. On election day 1944, Patrick insisted that he be carried out of the house and down to the polling place, so he could cast a final ballot for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (He died on April 17, 1945, just five days after the death of his beloved FDR.)
The arrival of large numbers of Jews and Poles in St. Louis at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century led the city's more established ethnic communities to resettle in newer and less crowded neighborhoods. The Germans moved in a widening triangle westward from south St. Louis, the Irish in a similar pattern westward from north St. Louis. Inevitably the two overlapped, and as they did so, the ethnic character of newer Catholic parishes grew more dilute. Intermarriage among Catholic ethnic groups became more frequent, as Irish- and German-Americans, and eventually Poles and others, shared churches, parochial schools, and membership in Knights of Columbus chapters. Patrick FitzGibbon held out in Kerry Patch longer than many of his compatriots; finally in 1920 he purchased a comfortable, three-story, single-family house with a wide lawn and backyard on Bartmer Avenue, in Saint Rose of Lima Parish on St. Louis's west side.
FitzGibbon had known little stability in his own childhood, but he was able to offer his own children both a secure home and a step-up in life. Patrick had married the twenty-one-year-old Nellie Dillon on November 13, 1889; like her husband, she was an Irish immigrant, born in Tipperary. Large families were the norm among the Irish, both in Ireland and in the United States, in the nineteenth century, and Nellie would eventually bear fourteen children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. A largely self-taught man who loved to read literature and history, FitzGibbon was sensitive about his own lack of formal education beyond grade school. In an era when most adults didn't graduate from high school, the expectation in the FitzGibbon family was that Patrick's children, including the daughters, would go to college. An impressive glass bookcase in Patrick's study served as a material symbol to his offspring of his devotion to the written word. In addition to the local newspapers, he read the Manchester Guardian and Irish newspapers. His granddaughter Peggy recalled him quoting "Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard" when she was a young child; he was disappointed to discover that she didn't know the poem. FitzGibbon's attempts to instill in his children a respect for learning were successful: Of his four male offspring who survived to adulthood, three became lawyers, and of the five surviving daughters, two, including Michael's mother Catherine, became school teachers.
Catherine, born on April 27, 1899, was the fifth of Patrick and Nellie's fourteen children. She seems to have been a prissy child, unhappy with the fate that had made her the daughter of a saloonkeeper in a disreputable neighborhood. A childhood acquaintance would recall Catherine, in pigtails and pinafore, sitting on the stone steps of her father's saloon, bristling in indignation when the neighborhood children greeted her by her hated nickname, "Katchoo." After graduating from Central High School in 1917, she enrolled in Harris Teachers College, from which she received a teaching degree in 1920.
Catherine grew into a tall and attractive young woman, with pale skin and dark hair combed back into a tight bun. She craved respectability but also felt the conflicting tug of the new freedoms that young women were claiming in the 1920s. Although no flapper, she favored bright lipsticks and matching nail polish, smoked cigarettes, and drank hard liquor, behavior that in proper circles at the time was considered at least a little risqué. She had a competitive streak, expressed most successfully in playing bridge; along with her close friend and bridge partner, Virginia Brungard, she would win the first Missouri state tournament competition for women. She and Brungard would in time become two of the most influential women in the city's politics.
A Jesuit educator, Father Frederick "Fritz" Zimmerman, got to know Catherine well in later years, when Michael was attending the high school where he was principal. She was, he recalled, "a very vivacious person, talkative. She expressed what she thought." John Padberg, a high school classmate of Michael's, also remembered her from those years: "She was a forceful, vigorous woman. I don't mean a harridan or a shrew or anything like that. You knew that she was intelligent, that she was determined."
Zimmerman's praise and Padberg's disclaimers notwithstanding, there were many people who did find Catherine hard to take; within Michael's circle, his mother was variously referred to as "Madame Harrington," "Catherine the Great," and "The Czarina." Catherine displayed a drivenness that, though it might have been appreciated in a man, for most of her adult life was deemed inappropriate for a woman. Catherine could get an education and a job; she taught at the Mark Twain School in St. Louis for two years after her graduation. But she did so with the knowledge that the moment she married, Missouri state law made her ineligible for continued employment as a public school teacher. Furthermore, Catholic teachings on marriage emphasized the wife's duty to subordinate her own interests and desires to the needs of her husband and her children; a woman entering matrimony was encouraged to display a saintly spirit of self-abnegation. Catherine was never consciously a rebel; a graduate student who interviewed her in the 1970s noted with apparent approval that she was "not the strident, women's rights [type]." But Catherine was not passive either, though her willfulness could take eccentric forms; she was famous for arriving at social occasions ten minutes early, sitting in the car at the curb watching her wristwatch, and then appearing at the door at exactly the moment the invitation specified.
Friends of the Harrington family remember Catherine's husband, if they remember him at all, as being about as meek and unassuming as his wife was outgoing and assertive. No photograph of Edward Harrington Sr. seems to have survived, either in the public domain or in family papers. Peggy FitzGibbon remembered "Uncle Eddie" as "an awfully nice guy, with a funny sense of humor." But he was also "quiet, very quiet. Catherine had more to say about everything than Uncle Eddie. Uncle Eddie would just sit there, kind of quietly." Another boyhood friend of Michael's, Bill Loftus, described the elder Mr. Harrington as "a very nice, quiet, henpecked man who never spoke unless you asked him to, and he knew his place, which was down at the office making money."
The documentation that survives for the St. Louis Harringtons is scarce compared to that for the FitzGibbons. Edward Michael Harrington Sr. was born in 1889, one of a family of at least five children raised in St. Louis. His father was born in Ohio; his mother in Ireland. By the age of sixteen, according to the St. Louis city directory, Edward was working as a draftsman, a job he held until his military service in the American Expeditionary Force in 1917-1918. He briefly harbored the ambition to become a cartoonist but after the war decided on the more prosaic but financially reliable field of law. Edward attended evening classes at St. Louis University law school and was admitted to the Missouri bar in 1923. After several years of general practice, he settled into a specialty of patent law. His biggest account was with the Maloney Electric Company, a St. Louis manufacturer of generators and transformers for large electrical equipment. At the start of the 1920s, apparently a confirmed bachelor, he was living with two unmarried younger sisters.
But Edward's bachelor days were numbered once he met Catherine. Harrington belonged to a club of young men known as the Chicks, who owned a cabin on the Meramec River. Despite Prohibition, the younger set of St. Louis gathered on warm days on the banks of the Meramec to drink bathtub gin and homemade beer. It was on an outing to the Chicks's cabin early in the 1920s that Edward and Catherine's romance began. Catherine was visiting the cabin that day as the guest of her friend Virginia and Virginia's soon-to-be husband, Edward Brungard. Virginia's upcoming nuptials may have given Catherine a sense that time and opportunity were slipping away from her; in any case, she decided Edward was going to be her husband that first day, and on June 17, 1922, she succeeded in bringing him to the altar.
Once married, Catherine had no intention of sitting home and changing diapers. She bore only one child, and he was conceived a full five years after her marriage to Edward. Given Catherine's strong religious views, it seems unlikely that she strayed so far from church teachings as to use artificial birth control; more likely, the results were achieved through a rigorous abstinence. In 1928, when Michael was born, his parents lived in an apartment on Waterman Avenue on St. Louis's west side, in the Kingsbury neighborhood. They moved soon after to another apartment in Kingsbury on Maple Avenue. This was a desirable and only recently developed neighborhood, inhabited by the professional middle classes. It was close to the zoo, opera, and art museum, with movie theaters, an ice skating rink, and the locally celebrated Doerr and Zeller ice cream parlor nearby.
By 1935, Michael's father was doing well enough to buy the family a comfortable three-bedroom house on quiet tree-lined Harvard Street in University City. University City was a planned, ready-made miniature city of about 60,000 residents bordering St. Louis's prosperous western edge. The community was completely residential, and every winding road was named for a college or university. In 1942, the Harringtons moved back to the west end of St. Louis, to a house on McPherson Avenue, where Michael lived for his last two years before leaving for college.
The Harrington homes were comfortable, unpretentious houses. The backyards were spacious. The Harvard Street house backed onto the River Desperes, and Michael and his friends played out watery adventures along its shore. The census may have classified the Harringtons as urban dwellers, but Michael's surroundings as a child combined the spaciousness and relaxed pace of the small town with an easy access to the city's amenities. As an only child, Michael always had his own room. The living room of the Harrington household, one frequent visitor recalled, was the kind of place "where you could entertain eight or ten friends without anybody stepping on anybody else's toes." A grand piano stood in the center of the living room, covered with a fringe shawl and family pictures. In that setting, it was easy to learn the amenities of social conversation. Throughout Michael's childhood, the Harringtons frequently entertained family and friends. The atmosphere was informal; cocktails ("highballs" of bourbon and soda) would be served before and after dinner. When the Brungards and Harringtons got together, the radio would be tuned to Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, or Fred Allen during dinner. Afterwards the adults would gather in the living room to talk politics and play bridge.
This was not the life that a lot of their fellow citizens were living in those years. During the depression, St. Louis enjoyed the dubious distinction of being home to the largest Hooverville in the United States; by 1933 nearly one in three workers in the city was unemployed. Although Michael would later "vaguely recall breadlines" from the 1930s, they made little impression on him at the time. The Harringtons were well enough off to send their son to private schools, keep a car, have a maid, and take family summer vacations. Still, Michael's father never felt as though he earned enough money. At one point, Edward had been taken advantage of in a business deal, losing a large sum of money in the process, and the memory of the loss rankled. And Catherine pushed her husband to do better, comparing their financial situation with that of better-off friends.
Barred by law from pursuing her teaching career, Catherine did not let marriage or motherhood prevent her from continuing her education. A year after giving birth she returned to school, this time to Washington University, where she took a course on "Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Man" and a three semester Western civilization sequence. In 1933, when Michael started kindergarten, she enrolled at Fontbonne College, a local Catholic women's college, and majored in economics, getting A's in most of her courses. She received her B.A. from Fontbonne in June 1937 and then went on to graduate study at St. Louis University, receiving an M.A. in economics in 1940. Catherine thrived in her studies, while keeping up a demanding schedule of volunteer work: During the years Michael was growing up, she served as president of Mother's Club at St. Louis University High School, as a member of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, and as one of the board of directors of the Catholic Women's League Nursery. She also entertained frequently at her home. One visitor to the Harrington home recalled occasions when Catherine would sit in the living room with her guests after dinner, an economics textbook on her lap, taking part in the general conversation but studying at the same time. In 1944, the year that Michael left for college, she returned to Fontbonne, this time as director of personnel and student guidance.
As a boy, Michael very much wanted to please his loving, formidable, and difficult mother. He was inspired by her example. And he learned to do and say the things that she valued. "Once, when Michael was 7 years old, we were both reading in bed," she told an interviewer after her son became famous. "He was reading Dickens and he turned to me and said, `My, this author expresses himself well.'" In his books, in later life, Michael praised his mother, if somewhat formally; it was from her, he wrote in the acknowledgments to The Other America, that he "first learned of justice." In his memoir Fragments of the Century, he described her with the single adjective "idealistic." One interviewer detected a more ambivalent note. A New York Herald Tribune reporter wrote in a 1964 profile of Michael that his mother "is an ex-school teacher who is still active in community causes." And then, noting Michael's facial expression, she quoted his description of Catherine as "`public spirited, you could say, ... I suppose she exerted a great influence in my life.' (Post-Freudian smile)."
If Michael did harbor ambivalent feelings for his mother, such feelings were not in evidence when he spoke of his other parent. In both Fragments of the Century and in his acknowledgments to The Other America, Michael used an adjective to describe Edward Harrington Sr. that is conventionally reserved by sons to describe their mothers—"gentle." In a letter written five years before his father's death in 1955, Michael elevated his father to the level of a tragic and selfless hero. "He is a wondrous gentle man," Michael wrote to a girlfriend, "but one who was once poor. Had he not been, he might have become anything—the gentle things, perhaps an artist. But as it is, he has spent much of his life tortured by the thought of insecurity and willing one thing, that the son he loved so much would not face what he did." The only evidence that Michael may have been troubled by his father's meek demeanor or by the general tenor of his parents' relationship lies in the acid portraits that he offered in short stories he wrote as a teenager, stories in which a series of middle-aged male Caspar Milquetoastish characters appear. "At the ripe age of forty years," Michael wrote of one of them, "he had just received permission from his wife to smoke ... and his high life consisted of quaffing a little 3.2% ale in the cellar.... He still lived in the racy past of a three day Banking Clerks' Convention at Atlantic City."
One way in which Edward's gentleness expressed itself was an unwillingness to lay a hand on his son. He also taught Michael to avoid conflict with his strong-willed mother. Although rarely a disobedient child, Michael once did something to enrage Catherine (the exact nature of the transgression is no longer remembered by those who heard Michael's retelling of the story). Catherine responded by sending her son off to his bedroom to await a spanking from his absent father. When Edward returned, Catherine informed him of Michael's misdeed and sent him upstairs, armed with a hairbrush, to settle accounts. Instead of delivering the spanking, Edward and Michael conspired to deceive Catherine; the father hit the side of the bed with the hairbrush, while the son cried out convincingly. Michael's mother was satisfied that justice had been done, while the male Harringtons enjoyed their victory over maternal law and order.
Michael absorbed other lessons at Catherine's parents' house on Bartmer street, where the Harringtons would go for Sunday dinners and holidays. As loyal Democrats, the FitzGibbons had much to celebrate in the 1930s. When the newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt ended Prohibition in 1933, sixteen St. Louis breweries reopened for business. As a result, FDR secured the loyalty of the city's German-American brewery owners and workers alike; together with Irish-Americans and blacks they made St. Louis a fervently Democratic city in the 1930s. The Democrats were able to elect their first mayor in St. Louis in a quarter-century. And in 1940 Michael's uncle David was elected as judge of the St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections, a post he would fill for the next thirty-four years. (Judge FitzGibbon was known for his humane treatment of those brought before him in criminal proceedings, on occasion personally paying the fines he levied on poorer defendants.)
Many children would have found the endless talk about politics boring. Michael did not. By the time he was eight, he was chiming in with his own opinions about Franklin Roosevelt and Father Coughlin. "I can see him in our living room on a Sunday afternoon," his cousin Peggy FitzGibbon would recall, "talking politics with the adults. The adults would be amused. They egged him on."
Boyhood in St. Louis did not make Michael a radical. But the imprint of his earliest experiences could be seen in the kind of radical he turned out to be. From his grandfather, Michael acquired a fascination with politics, a love of rhetoric, and a sense that words had meaning and consequence. From his uncle David, he learned that laws were not abstractions but were, or should be, about how people deserve to be treated. From his father, he learned ways of defusing or avoiding personal conflict and also acquired a resentment against the values of a world in which "nice guys" tended to be overlooked or pushed around or cheated. And finally, from his mother, he acquired a respect for intellectual accomplishment, a sense of self-respect and self-discipline, and an authority figure whose firm standards of right and wrong he alternately hoped to fulfill and rebelled against.
Apart from family, the presence that loomed largest in Michael's life in his years growing up in St. Louis was that of the Catholic Church. From the time Michael's parents sent him off to kindergarten to the day he graduated from high school, he received an intense schooling, both in the religious doctrines of Catholicism, and, more importantly, in habits of thought. Michael would later depart from the formal teachings of the church but, as he would be the first to acknowledge, never shed their influence.
In 1932, at the age of four, Michael was enrolled by his parents in the parochial kindergarten sponsored by St. Rose's parish. The school was located on Goodfellow Street, just around the corner from his grandfather's house on Bartmer Avenue. He started kindergarten a year earlier than usual, so that he could accompany his five-year-old cousin and close companion Peggy to school. The two children absorbed their lessons well. Peggy would grow up to become a nun. And Michael seemed destined for a religious vocation himself. He would willingly go hungry so that he could put his lunch money in the missionary donation box at St. Rose's, happy in the assurance that his contribution would help "save a baby in China for Christ." By the time he was nine, he was serving as an altar boy in the parish church and had memorized the Latin responses so well that he "could recite the Confiteor at absolutely breakneck speed," though he did so "without the least suspicion that I was thereby summoning the hosts of heaven to hear my sins." Michael was reminded one day that religion should be more than ritual incantation. After he proudly recited his Latin phrases for his grandfather, Patrick asked him to translate them and then reprimanded the boy sharply when he proved incapable of doing so.
Although Michael's close relationship with his grandfather provided a living link to the country of his forebears, he grew up "without serious memory of British oppression on the old sod." The wave of enthusiasm for Irish independence that had swept through St. Louis's Irish-American community during and immediately after the world war had subsided by the time Michael was born. Nor had he ever personally felt the sting of anti-Catholic discrimination. St. Louis's Irish-Catholics "were not born wounded" by vivid memories of discrimination. To be sure, the city had witnessed episodes of nativist violence in the nineteenth century. But unlike their brethren in Boston, the St. Louis Irish "shared a religion with the aristocracy of the city," the descendants of the original French settlers. It was the city's white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Michael later noted, who were "somewhat arriviste."
Although the feeling of being part of an embattled ethnic and religious minority lingered among many Irish-Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, it did not affect Michael. Of course, as the child of avidly Democratic Irish-Catholics, Michael could not have avoided hearing the story of how Al Smith had been victimized by anti-Catholicism in the 1928 presidential election. But that probably seemed ancient history to a boy growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. President Roosevelt was doing his best to salve the wounded feelings of his Catholic constituents through the strategic use of high-level appointments, such as sending Joseph Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain.
At the same time, in popular culture, Irish-Catholics found themselves embraced as America's favorite ethnic subculture. With an eye on winning the favor of the Legion of Decency, the Catholic pressure group that monitored the movies, the Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s served up a regular fare of tales in which hearty and engaging Irish-American Catholic priests were the heroes. These ranged from Pat O'Brien's depiction of the "battling two-fisted clergyman of the lower East Side"—Father Connolly in Angels with Dirty Faces—in 1938 to Barry Fitzgerald's cantankerous but good-hearted Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way in 1944. The latter movie was reportedly a favorite of both Al Smith and Pope Pius XII; Michael saw it soon after it opened in St. Louis.
Of course, Michael did not have to go to the movies to see priests. He grew up surrounded by them. He saw them not only at mass on Sundays and in school on a daily basis but also as frequent guests to his house. Catherine counted a number of Jesuit priests as friends and bridge partners. These were not the simple parish priests of Hollywood legend. She preferred the company of politically savvy and intellectually acute men of the cloth. Influential figures such as Father Paul Reinert (president of St. Louis University) and Father Robert Henle (dean of the Graduate School at St. Louis University, who would later serve as president of Georgetown University) were among those welcomed as guests in the Harrington home.
Michael remained at St. Rose's parish school through the third grade. In the fall of 1936, his parents enrolled him in Chaminade College Prep School, an exclusive boy's school run by the Marianist religious order. At Chaminade, students were expected to tend their souls as well as their studies. Daily attendance at mass was required. The students put in a long school day, from 8:45 in the morning until 3:45 in the afternoon, with classes in religion, English, reading, arithmetic, history, and geography. Mandatory sports kept Michael after classes every day until 5:00 P.M. Michael, whose IQ test in the fifth grade stood at an estimable 146, had no trouble at all meeting the academic challenge. Only once in his four years at the school did he rank below the top half of his class, and he graduated first among the twenty-one students in his seventh grade class.
Catherine's decision to enroll Michael at Chaminade may have been motivated by a desire to have him attend the same school as Virginia Brungard's son Ed. Michael and Ed grew up to be as inseparable as their mothers were. The two boys were constantly in and out of each other's houses and backyards. They spent several summers together when their families rented summer places in Kimmswick, Missouri, about twenty miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. One day in the summer of 1933—in an adventure worthy of those fictional Missourians Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—Ed, Mike, and Peggy constructed a raft. They were poling it down Rock Creek toward the open waters of the Mississippi when they were apprehended in mid-stream by the Brungard family maid.
Ed Brungard, a year older than Michael, saw to it that his younger companion was included in school and neighborhood activities with the other boys. Although Michael found a place for himself in the rough and tumble of boyhood society, he always kept himself a little apart. Brungard remembered how Michael would "be in the middle of playing outside and excuse himself and go upstairs and read a book. He was more interested in reading than in playing ball."
If Ed played the role of big brother to Michael, his cousin Peggy, also a year older, proved a substitute older sister. She was the one he went to when he wanted to discuss feelings and ideas that would not have found sympathy from his male companions or his parents. Peggy was the first to learn that Michael wanted to be a poet when he grew up. He recited snatches of T. S. Eliot and other poetry to her. He knew she wouldn't laugh when he told her that he had chosen "Sir Michael John" as the nom de plume under which he intended to publish his work. Well aware of the derision that his secret identity and aspirations would have provoked had they been known on the playing fields of Chaminade, Michael shared his confidences frugally.
In the spring of 1940, when Michael was completing seventh grade and Ed Brungard was completing eighth grade, they were both personally recruited to attend St. Louis University High School. "We understand you have a boy here," a priest said when he knocked on the door of the Brungard house. "We would like to have him go to our school." Catherine Harrington and Virginia Brungard consulted, and Catherine decided that Michael would skip eighth grade and go on with Ed to high school.
Catherine took her religion seriously, but there was also an element of social calculation at work when she entrusted her son to the Jesuits. The Jesuits were a particularly influential order in St. Louis, having founded a university, a medical school, and a host of other educational and charitable institutions. Alumni of Jesuit schools were well represented among the city's professional, business, and political classes. Catherine knew she was providing him with the personal network he would need to make his mark in St. Louis society, as well as with the opportunity to gain a first rate education.
St. Louis University High was widely regarded as the best Catholic school in St. Louis, and by some as the best school, private or public, in the city. It drew its students from the most distinguished families of the city's Catholic aristocracy, as well as from ambitious middle-class families. (Its yearly tuition of $120 set it out of the price range of most working-class Catholics in those depression years.)
Just as there were distinctions between Catholic high schools in St. Louis, so, too, were there distinctions among St. Louis University High School students. Michael was part of an elite group of about thirty students out of his entering class of two hundred who were enrolled in the "Classical Course." These students were tracked together in most of their classes for the next four years, taking Latin for all four years and Greek for at least two years. St. Louis University High School students were encouraged to think of themselves as part of a spiritually militant and classically trained elite. "Forth from Jesuit Schools," Michael's freshman yearbook proclaimed in a headline, "Joining the Chivalry of Christ, the Ranks of Youth Emerge." In an extended analogy that must have had particular resonance for young men coming of age in those war years, Michael's classmates were told they were "a trained, formidable army of youth ... joined in serried, marching ranks in the Mystical Body of Christ."
As advisers to Catholic princes in the wars of religion of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits had earned a reputation for ruthlessness. They were the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation. They were also known for their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice. By the late sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries had set out for Africa, Asia, and the New World. This was dangerous work; the Jesuits counted eight martyrs in French Canada alone. Spiritual ardor was not enough; Jesuit leaders emphasized the importance of unquestioning obedience to the orders received from superiors. Leon Trotsky, who knew a thing or two about the functioning of centralized, disciplined organizations, liked to compare the Jesuits to the Bolsheviks.
Some of Michael's teachers were Jesuit priests; others were "scholastics" (a term used to designate members of the order who were selected for the course of studies that would lead to the priesthood. Jesuit scholastics ordinarily took three years out from their studies to teach in a Jesuit high school). All together, it took fifteen years to be trained as a Jesuit priest. The order attracted men of great zeal, and often of equal gifts as teachers. Some, like Father Bill Wade, were legendary.
A scholastic at St. Louis University High School in the early 1930s, and from 1939 through 1966 a leading member of the philosophy department of St. Louis University, Father Wade provoked his students by challenging their facile acceptance of Catholic teachings. As Robert Henle recalled, "He could take either side of an argument and maintain it. He would come in on Tuesday and he would say, now here's Kant's argument against the existence of God. I want you to refute it in the next class. Then he would take them on in the next class. The students got so angry that very often you would hear shouting in his classroom. They would forget that he was playing a part. He would cut them to pieces and then they would run back to the library and read more books and come back with better arguments." Although Father Wade had left the high school for his position at the university before Michael enrolled, Michael fell under his influence (he was one of the priests Catherine regularly invited to dinner). Michael admired Father Wade's style of tough-minded and unsentimental defense of the faith, as well as his liberal political sympathies. It was to Wade that Michael would go when he first developed doubts about Catholicism.
Of course, not every Jesuit priest or scholastic was a Bill Wade, but the Jesuit teachers were bearers of an educational tradition and philosophy that was supposed to eliminate the need for individual inspiration. The Ratio Studiorum, a collection of rules adopted in 1599 for teachers and students in Jesuit schools, laid out a curriculum in which courses in Latin and Greek and in philosophy, theology, literature, and the arts were designed to promote learning in graduated steps. The emphasis was on hard work and on a discipline instilled through memorization, drill, and exercises. The purpose of the Ratio Studiorum was to develop supple minds capable of a spirited defense of a fixed system of ideas. The graduate of a Jesuit school would ideally write Latin like Cicero, think like Aristotle—and remain content with theology as prescribed by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Yearbook prose as a rule runs to the high-minded and inspirational; at Michael's high school the platitudes carried more of a punch. The most important benefit of a Jesuit education, the 1942 St. Louis University High School yearbook proclaimed, was that it instilled "the necessary fortitude and enthusiasm to step forth into battlefield, college or workaday world, and strive towards the urgent conversion of a perverted, pagan universe."
Even allowing for yearbook hyperbole, there is no question that St. Louis University High managed to instill in its students a genuine sense of élan and community. John Padberg, one of Michael's classmates, remembered that during their years at the high school "the kids were wildly in love with the place. It was hard to get us to come home in the evening. My mother said at times she didn't know why I didn't keep a bed down at the school."
Of course, no one, faculty or students, seriously expected that St. Louis University High School graduates were actually going to convert the entire world, let alone the United States, to Roman Catholicism. Michael's classmates were destined to become lawyers, doctors, and dentists, not soldiers in a religious war. And the boys did, in fact, go home at the end of the day, returning for better or worse to the influences of the secular world and the company of family and friends. Few students entered the school with the intention of pursuing a religious vocation (Padberg was one of only three members of the class of 1944 who went on to join the Jesuits). While incipient religious heretics in their number were even fewer, nonetheless, as one of Michael's classmates recalled, "piety doesn't come naturally to adolescents."
Michael was only twelve years old at the start of his freshman year in high school. A yearbook photograph taken the following spring shows him with a round face and a slightly anxious expression, towered over by his fellow staffers on the school newspaper. Classmate Richard Dempsey remembered him being "a little chubbier, a little more of a boy" than the other freshmen. Even in his senior year, Michael was still being ribbed in the school newspaper's gossip column (which was written by Dempsey) as "our little pal, Neddie Harrington": "What prominent senior (last name—Harrington) slinks and cowers 'neath the dread menace of the curfew," the newspaper joked in April 1944; "seems that our Ned is underage."
Because of the disparity in age and size, Michael couldn't compete on the playing fields; he never went out for any of the school's sports teams. He also displayed a studied indifference to the standards of dress maintained by his peers. Jerome Wilkerson, two years ahead of Michael at the high school, recalled that the student body included "some of the wealthiest kids in St. Louis." They were the kids who set the tone that most of the other students aspired to match. But not Michael. "Some of them looked like the cover of Esquire, with matching argyle sweaters and socks. Ned was never like that. He was always a little slovenly. He didn't care about a lot of things that other kids cared about."
Catherine Harrington did her best to spruce up her son's appearance; after all, for her the point of sending Michael to this particular school was to ease his assimilation into the best circles in St. Louis Catholic society. It could not have been easy for her to tolerate Michael's affectation of ill-fitting clothes, unshined shoes, and a black navy watch cap, as if he were some character off the streets from her childhood in Kerry Patch. But Michael fended off his mother's efforts to dress up his image. He would not compete with his classmates on any terrain on which he felt at a disadvantage. Instead, he formed a high-minded rationale for ignoring conventional grooming expectations. Asked by classmate Bill Loftus why he didn't bother to wash his face, Michael replied placidly, "Poets don't."
Michael was sensitive about the difference in his age and tried unsuccessfully to shed the nickname "Ned," preferring the less boyish-sounding "Ed." But in general he seems to have taken the ribbing that came his way in good humor. His classmates remember him as quick and funny: a "wise-cracker," a "gentle scoffer." His freshman yearbook labeled him "class comedian." Despite his social disadvantages, Michael was not, it seems, unpopular or picked on. He created an identity for himself that allowed him to stand a little apart from the crowd, but also to make his mark within the community. He was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a school where brains as well as brawn were admired. If it wasn't acceptable to plan a lifetime career as a poet, it was still within the realm of acceptable behavior to read, write, and appreciate poetry. Michael would later recall, marveling, how as a freshman member of the school newspaper staff "I heard the sports editor discussing—freely, voluntarily, naturally—his sonnets with his friends."
Frequent and lengthy writing assignments were among the hallmarks of Jesuit education. Father John Divine, who as English department chairman directed the school newspaper and the literary group, was a particularly strong influence on Michael. Divine oversaw the Dauphin Room, where the school's newspaper and yearbook writers congregated after school. There was a whiff of what passed for adult sophistication that accompanied hanging out in the Dauphin Room. (Apart from the quality of literary conversation, one of the room's attractions to Michael was that it was the only place in the school building where non-seniors were allowed to smoke. Since his freshman year Michael had been a heavy smoker; classmates remember the nicotine stains on his fingers as part of the bedraggled appearance he cultivated.)
|1||Community, Family, and Faith, 1928-1944||1|
|2||Leaving Home, 1944-1947||26|
|3||"An Awful Lot of Soul-Searching," 1947-1950||43|
|4||The Life of a Saint, 1951-1952||68|
|5||Resolute Waiting, 1952-1956||105|
|6||A Premature Sixties Radical, 1956-1960||140|
|7||The Man Who Discovered Poverty, 1960-1964||175|
|8||Sibling and Other Rivalries, 1960-1965||221|
|9||Socialists at War, 1965-1972||256|
|10||Starting Over, 1973-1980||303|
|11||Coming to an End, 1981-1989||338|
Posted March 4, 2001
A panaramic, detailed portait of an era. The background of the time enables a person to acquire a broad perspective of the issues, the times and the people. For example, the chapter, Starting Over, provides a clear exposition of the current dilemma of liberals, and shows the reasons--not necessarily justified by this group, for the emergence of the neo-conservatives. Isserman is a master of his subject and writes very thoughtfully of Harrington and all the players.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.