September 19, 2019

My Father, the Yiddish Radical

“I always regret that my father, Daniel Bell, who would have turned 100 on May 10, did not write memoirs. In the early 1990s, I spent a long time trying to persuade him to do so. He was then in his early seventies and had just retired, very much against his will, from his professorship at Harvard (they still had mandatory retirement for academics in those days!). For over a decade, books about the “New York Intellectuals” had been appearing at a steady clip, and they usually devoted considerable attention to him: his early years in the socialist movement and at the City College of New York; his career as a prolific intellectual journalist; his development into one of the great modern sociologists. Most of the authors treated him quite favorably. Some had done extensive interviews with him.

Nonetheless, every time a new book arrived at his house in Cambridge, he would call me, fulminating about the inevitable misrepresentations and mistakes. Sometimes he would go so far as to send long letters on the subject to the unfortunate author, typed on his old Smith Corona electric, with shaky, handwritten corrections. If the book had treated him unfairly, as some did, the letter would turn distinctly dyspeptic. “You should write memoirs,” I would tell him on the phone. Get your own story out. Make sure future historians have your side of it. He was particularly annoyed when the authors called him a “neoconservative,” as journalists had done since Peter Steinfels had published The Neoconservatives in 1979. My father insisted that he remained a man of the left, a “socialist in economics,” a “Menshevik.” Don’t tell this to me, I would say. I know it already. Write it.

But he would always demur. He couldn’t write honest memoirs, he insisted, without revealing certain secrets that would hurt people he had known, or their families. This seemed like a transparently false excuse. When I pressed him about the secrets in question, they either involved quite minor peccadillos or were entirely tangential to his own life story and could have been easily left out.”

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