After Daniel Bell’s death late last month, Michael Aronson shared some of his memories of the man and their friendship. Below, HUP Executive Editor for the Humanities Lindsay Waters remembers Bell as a personal teacher who played a central role in shaping what Harvard University Press has become.
I have lost in less than a year two great teachers whom I acquired since coming to the Harvard University Press. The first was Frank Kermode, whom I honored here a few months ago; the second is Dan Bell. Children think of teachers as adults, but I had trouble thinking of Dan as an adult, because he was always so feisty, always so filled with spunk, right to the end. He was not calm and reserved; he was always ready for an intellectual joust. He brought the feel of the lunch hall Alcove Number One of City College in New York City to ivied Harvard, to our Board of Syndics meetings, and to the many conversations we had around and between those. The Board is a rotating group of senior Harvard faculty that is the last hurdle that every HUP project must clear, and having Dan as a member made HUP’s then-Director Arthur Rosenthal feel at home. It ensured that no meeting would be dull, and that we attending would not be choked by ivy the way the laurel strangles Daphne creeping up her every limb. Arthur trusted Dan to protect the Harvard Press from “qvatch,” which is, as Dan told me, “a good Berliner term for which the only honest equivalent is crap.”
Dan was my adversary and my advocate on the Board. Arthur hired me to publish books like Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. When I came on board, I was able to link up with Helen Vendler at once because we both loved poetry most of all. But Dan was different. Dan hated intellectuals like Heidegger who supported Adolf Hitler. He had a feel for the “cultural contradictions of capitalism,” to state the name of one of his most powerful books, one I studied at Minnesota with my friend Schulte-Sasse. I said “feel,” and “feel” is an important word here, because however much his genius as a sociologist came from his ability to perceive and imagine empirical structures, he took that genius to a new level that subsumed (yes, yes, in a way best designated by the fancy but irresistible Hegelian term “aufhebung”) one structure into another. This feeling at its most vital and delicate is what Dan described as a certain ability to perceive the smallest changes in society on your fingertips. He had a German world for it: “fingerspitzengefühl.” What I am saying is that he was a romantic, even though he said he was a cultural conservative. In other words, he was riven by the very same contradictions he made central to his analysis of modern society. This is why we worked so well together despite our constant sparring. In wrestling with him, I was wrestling with my angel and I felt the presence of god not just in Dan but in the struggle itself, which is why it is so sad that it’s over. But let me tell you what good we wrought working with our colleagues here at the Press and on the Board of Syndics.
The distinguished German publisher Siegfried Unseld (head of Suhrkamp Verlag) came one day from Frankfurt to Cambridge to see Arthur and me to bring me a plan for a comprehensive but nonetheless selective edition of the writings of Walter Benjamin. The list of what Unseld thought needed to be in what would have to be a multi-volume work was extensive. My postmodernist friends, the ones who liked Heidegger, had introduced me to Benjamin. To gather firepower to win the Syndics discussion of the Benjamin, I turned to the then Harvard art historian T.J. Clark, and he wrote a great review of the plans for the edition. But when we got to the Syndics meeting I was overwhelmed by worry. How could the august Syndics approve the publication of volumes of a man whose dissertation at the University of Frankfurt was turned down? Who was this schlemiel Walter Benjamin, the little rag-picker? How could publishing thousands of pages of this slacker-dude’s essays and notebooks be grand enough for Harvard University Press? Before the meeting I’d done no lobbying of the Syndics. At the meeting an inevitable question arose: “OK, he sounds like an impressive critic and thinker, but why do we have to publish thousands of pages of his work?” And Dan answered without a pause: “Because he is a critic, and he’s not a theorist. If he were a theorist, he’d have presented his ideas systematically, and we could publish a well-chosen selection of his work that would represent his thinking beautifully, but he’s a critic, not a theorist, which means his ideas are scattered across all the pages of his work, and the only way to publish his work adequately is to publish hundreds and hundreds of pages of it so readers can see how his ideas emerge as he gets caught up in analyzing hundreds of concrete situations.” Arthur was convinced and the Board was convinced, and we have now published about three thousand pages of Benjamin’s writings, including an edition this spring of his Early Writings, 1910-1917. I could not have done it without Dan. Arthur would not have been convinced, nor would the Syndics have been. The trust between Arthur and Dan went way back. And they both trusted me already—I’d only been at the Press for two years when we solidified this plan—in ways that seem miraculous and beautiful to me still. We did this, and we did it right, working all together. And after Arthur departed, Bill Sisler and Aida Donald supported the meticulous editing of Maria Ascher and Howard Eiland, because they saw, as Aida told me, that we’d be judged forever as a Press if we screwed this job up. And if we did it right, we’d earn eternal glory.
But Dan is a cultural conservative: how come he supported the Benjamin? And how did he come up with his ingenious defense for an extensive edition of the writings? Could it be that he saw a lot of himself in Benjamin? Dan was a genius analyzing social structures as they manifested themselves in details, but he was most definitely not a creator of big social systems like Talcott Parsons or Robert Bellah, whose grand account of religion in human evolution we’ll publish this fall. No, Dan was an essayist who focused on particulars, like Benjamin. In some way, though he’d have denied it, he was in tune with the postmodern—he certainly analyzed it as well as anyone with his idea of the post-industrial age.
There was another odd coupling in Dan’s relation to the Press, one that led once again to a publication that has been decisive for the reputation of the modern HUP, and that was Dan Bell, traditionalist, and Greil Marcus, champion of the Sex Pistols. It so happened that Marcus’s book delineating the “secret history of the twentieth century” sprang free from a publisher in New York who might have published it. I found out it was free and I sought it out. When I read it, I was thrilled. Everything I’d published at Minnesota by de Man and others exploring the culture of negation seemed to me to culminate in Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. But the book made me scared—I’d had to dash past what he wrote on the pages where he described his emotional reaction to the last Sex Pistols’s concert in SF because his frank admission of what he felt made me so uneasy. Still I wanted to do the book, and so did Arthur. This was our Deleuze and Guattari moment. I gathered powerful, discerning reports for the discussion of the book by the Syndics, and I aimed my memo about the project right at Dan. I wrote that many of those who praise mass culture and postmodernism lack a sense of the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Marcus means to understand pop culture in its positive and negative aspects. The discussion began with Dan saying he tracked down every scrap of Mr. Marcus’s writing because he held his analyses in such high regard. Another member of the Board said that that made his work sound of high quality, but still wasn’t he after all only a journalist? Dan took that one. He leaned back, and said, “I worked for ten years as a writer for Fortune magazine. What’s your point?” The book was approved and went on to become the center of hundreds of courses over the next twenty years. We have just reissued it in a 20th anniversary edition to coincide with the publication of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, editors, A New Literary History of America, which is also already being made the center of classes around the US and the world.
No Dan Bell, no Walter Benjamin, no Greil Marcus, no New Literary History of America—a different HUP.
Dan was really—to tell the truth, finally and always—my teacher. Many of our discussions I will never forget, and, as with the Benjamin and Marcus projects, some of them had major consequences for what the Press became. I am thanking him publicly for what he did for the Press and me to make up for the fact that I failed to say these things to him before he died. But going over the very thick file I have for Dan which includes the dozens of letters and postcards he wrote me and the offprints he sent me and his letters to the editors-in-chief I served, Maud Wilcox and Aida Donald, I see how consistently he worked with me to support what I was publishing, whether that meant advocating for particular projects or criticizing them and suggesting the Board not approve them or insist upon changes. I thought I was a hot shot when Arthur brought me in from the wilderness, but Dan knew I was wet behind the ears. But he never lorded it over me. He treated me like I was his equal, which was a great act of generosity. He always posed as the traditionalist, and for him I was always the postmodernist. “You’re a postmodernist;” he’d charge, “you can’t understand the appeal of tradition.” “You’re dead wrong,” I learned to say, “I’m more of a traditionalist than you.”
It’s traditional at eulogies to say we won’t see his like again. Sometimes it’s true. Dan told me years ago that when he was working for his PhD at Columbia, Jacques Barzun decided to bestow a doctorate on him because of the voluminous writing he’d already done. Barzun wanted Dan for Columbia, and he imagined that tenure requirements were only going to get more restrictive in the coming decades. (He did not know the half of it.) Thanks to Dan the academic world has in it from Harvard University Press the work of Walter Benjamin and Greil Marcus enriching that world and serving people far beyond Morningside Heights and Cambridge, Mass. I am proud to call him my teacher and friend.