We at Harvard University Press were saddened last week by the death of Daniel Bell, who for many years helped to steer the Press as a member of our Board of Syndics. In the space below, Michael Aronson, HUP Senior Editor for Social Sciences, shares some of his memories of Bell and their time together. In the coming days we’ll hear as well from Lindsay Waters. (UPDATE: Lindsay Waters’ piece is now posted here.)
Daniel Bell, who died on January 25th, was one of the great sociologists and public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He came to Harvard from Columbia University in 1969, joined our Board of Syndics in the early ’80s and stayed, as I recall, until he became professor emeritus in 1990. He was a wonderful member of the board, able to comment perceptively on many manuscripts outside his specialty, and with a keen sense of the market. He also knew how important a good title was, and was always coming up with suggestions for improving them. He encouraged us to publish unusual and daring books, including Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. He also strongly supported the Walter Benjamin Project. I often thought that if he hadn’t been an outstanding social thinker, he would have been a great publisher. Indeed, successful publishers, including Jeremiah Kaplan, Arthur Rosenthal, Erwin Glikes, and Martin Kessler sought out and followed his advice and suggestions about books and authors in building their lists. (I believe he suggested to Steven Weinberg that he should write what became the classic The First Three Minutes.)
Dan’s parents were immigrant garment workers in New York. His father died when he was only 8 months old, leaving his mother with two small children. Dan grew up with a fierce love of books and learning. He told me that in the 1930s he read many novels, especially French novels by Georges Bernanos, Romain Roland, Jules Roy, and others. A former student of Dan’s told me there was a connection between his love of books and his penchant for wearing sweaters. As a youth he could not afford to buy books, so he spent a lot of time in public libraries, which were often cold.
I didn’t get to know Dan well until he retired. Partly that was due to my earlier positivist view of social science and my being unduly impressed with quantitative approaches, which were not his “shtick.” Under his tutelage, my views broadened and I came to believe that history and a good stock of knowledge were crucial to understanding the social world. We would go out to dinner at Legal Seafoods or S&S Deli and talk about the Russian Revolution, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman (I was hoping to give him a copy of Prison Blossoms later this spring), the trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, which were big events in my youth. Being a staunch anti-communist, he kidded me about my leftist background and ties with people who got into trouble with Congressional investigating committees in the late ’40s and ’50s. (At the time, it was no laughing matter.)
Among Dan’s friends at City College of New York in the late 1930s was Irving Kristol, who later became a fierce anti-communist and of course a godfather of the neoconservative movement. I asked Dan once how he could remain lifelong friends with Kristol when their political values were so different. He immediately responded by saying that “friendship trumps politics.” I thought that was a wonderful response and kept it in mind in dealing with authors so very different in outlook as Richard Posner and Ronald Dworkin or Richard Epstein and Duncan Foley.
Before he became an academic, Dan was an outstanding journalist and was the chief labor reporter for Fortune magazine, when covering labor unions was an important beat. He told me fascinating stories about unions and mobsters, including one about Victor Riesel, who was a labor reporter for one of the New York tabloids and who became too friendly with Johnny Dio’s girlfriend. Dio instructed one of his henchmen to rough up Riesel. Unfortunately, the man went too far and threw acid in Riesel’s face, permanently blinding him. All hell broke loose, and several days later, the henchman was found in New York Bay.
After Dan left Fortune for academia, Henry Luce, the legendary Fortune proprietor, called him into his office, asked him to come back, and offered him a salary of $12,000 a year, which was three times what he was earning as a college teacher. Dan was appreciative but refused. Luce, thunderstruck, asked why. Dan said he had four reasons: June, July, August, and September.
Although Dan was not religiously observant, he believed in the sacred: that there was a strict separation between the sacred and the profane; that taking care of children, for example, was a sacred trust and abusing them a sin. He also believed in the importance of tradition and reverence for the civilization and ideas of the past. Without a sense of history, tradition, context, and time, man had only a firefly existence.