Maurice Isserman, March 2008
March 12, 1951 |
Maurice Isserman (born March 12, 1951) is James L. Ferguson Professor of History at Hamilton College and an important contributor to the "new history of American communism," which reinterpreted the role of the Communist Party USA during the Popular Front period of the 1930s and 1940s. His books have also traced the emergence of the New Left and the decade of the 1960s. He co-authored a biography of Dorothy Healey and wrote an award-winning biography of American socialist leader Michael Harrington. Recently he refocused his work on the history of mountaineering in the Himalayas and the United States. He has contributed editorials and book reviews to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and The American Alpine Review.
Isserman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1951, into a family that would have significant influence on his political and intellectual future. His mother, born Flora Huffman, was the daughter and sister of Quaker ministers and graduated from a Quaker college. She was a social worker for the state of Connecticut. His father, Jacob (Jack) Isserman, was born in Antwerp and came with his family to the US in 1906 at age four, and was later naturalized as a US citizen. He was a machinist who worked at the Pratt and Whitney aircraft factory in East Hartford, Connecticut.
The Issermans were Jewish; Maurice’s uncle Ferdinand Isserman was a prominent rabbi in St. Louis, Missouri. Another uncle, lawyer Abraham Isserman, was a founding member of the National Lawyers Guild, an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and one of the lawyers in the first Smith Act trial in 1949, during which he was cited for contempt, imprisoned afterwards, and disbarred. He also argued for the plaintiff in Dennis v. United States. After his father's death in 1963, Maurice became close to his uncle Abraham, who took him to one of his first demonstrations, the 1967 March on the Pentagon.
Isserman's parents had divorced in 1959, and his mother remarried Walter Snow, a local newspaper reporter, who had been a Communist in the 1930s, and a minor figure on the literary Left (John Reed Club member, and editor of The Anvil, a midwestern radical literary magazine). They lived in the small town of Coventry, Connecticut, and Isserman graduated from Coventry High School in 1968.
In fall 1968 Isserman enrolled in Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he joined the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, and took part in anti-war protests and other New Left activism. In spring 1970, following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State University strike, he dropped out of Reed and joined the Portland Revolutionary Youth Movement (PRYM) collective. PRYM members were involved in antiwar activities in a local underground newspaper, The Willamette Bridge, and in the local food co-op. After a couple years PRYM disbanded, and Isserman returned to Reed to finish his undergraduate degree, writing a senior thesis on the history of radical American writers in the 1930s. He also worked on another underground newspaper, The Portland Scribe. He graduated with a BA in history in 1973, and stayed on another year working evenings as a proofreader for The Oregonian and days (unpaid) for The Portland Scribe.
In August 1974 Isserman began graduate work in history at the University of Rochester, working closely with Eugene Genovese and Christopher Lasch. He received his MA in American history in 1976 and his Ph.D. in 1979. His dissertation was a history of American Communism during the Second World War, which became his first published book, Which Side Were You On? in 1982.
After completing his dissertation, Isserman began the itinerant career of the young scholar. His first job was a replacement position for a semester at Oberlin College in fall 1979, followed by replacement positions at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, then back to Oberlin. He settled into Smith College from 1982 to 1988, followed by temporary positions at Mount Holyoke College and Williams College.
During this period, a debate broke out over the character of American communism, and Isserman's book was one of several criticized by Theodore Draper's two-part attack on the "new history of American Communism" in The New York Review of Books. As the debate heated up, Isserman criticized books by Draper's protégé, Harvey Klehr. Isserman returned to the theme with a chapter on the history of the CPUSA's "destalinization crisis" in his second book on the emergence of the New Left, If I Had a Hammer in 1987, and in his co-authored work with Dorothy Healey, Dorothy Healey Remembers, in 1990 (reissued in paperback as California Red).
Isserman secured a tenure-track position at Hamilton College in 1990, and has remained there since, currently as the James L. Ferguson Professor of History. After the debate over American Communism, Isserman shifted his focus to the history of conflicts between Left and Right during the 1960s in his book with Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, now in its third edition. He wrote a prize-winning biography of America’s best known socialist of his time, Michael Harrington, leader of the Democratic Socialists of America. Acknowledging the archival revelations following the fall of the Soviet Union, Isserman has credited Klehr and his coauthors with adding an important chapter on espionage to the history of the Communist Party USA.
Isserman has also criticized the new Students for a Democratic Society for romanticizing the leadership of the Weatherman faction of the old SDS. In recent years, Isserman has turned to his love of mountaineering to find a fresh focus for his work, authoring Fallen Giants: The History of Himalayan Mountaineering  with Stewart Weaver, acclaimed as the "authoritative history" of the subject, and a forthcoming book on mountaineering in the United States. He is also writing a history of Hamilton College for its bicentennial in 2012.
Isserman has participated in an exchange at the University of Sussex in fall 1985, a Mellon fellowship at Harvard University, 1992–1993, a Fulbright Distinguished Professorship at the University of Moscow, spring 1997, and an exchange at Pembroke College, Oxford University, fall 2001. He is married and has two children.
Awards and honors
- 2008: National Outdoor Book Award, Fallen Giants (w/ Stewart Weaver)
- Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party during the Second World War (1982; University of Illinois Press, 1993). ISBN 978-0-252-06336-7
- If I Had a Hammer... The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic Books, 1987). ISBN 0-465-03197-8
- Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party, with Dorothy Healey (Oxford University Press, 1990). ISBN 0-19-503819-3 Reprinted in paperback as California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (University of Illinois Press, 1993). ISBN 978-0-252-06278-7
- America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, with Michael Kazin, third ed. (2000; Oxford University Press, 2007). ISBN 0-19-516047-9
- The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs, 2000). ISBN 1-58648-036-7
- Fallen Giants: The History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, with Stewart Weaver (Yale University Press, 2008). ISBN 978-0-300-11501-7
- Isserman, Which Side Were You On?, p. xiv.
- See Maurice Isserman, "The Flower and the Gun," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 19, 2007, pp. B14–B15.
- Maurice Isserman, "1968 and All That: Radicals, Hippies and SDS at Reed," Reed Magazine, Winter 2007, pp. 26–30.
- Maurice Isserman, "The 1956 Generation: An Alternative Approach to the History of American Communism," Radical America, Vol. 14, No. 2, March–April 1980, pp. 43–51.
- Theodore Draper, "American Communism Revisited," The New York Review of Books, May 9, 1985, pp. 32–37; and "The Popular Front Revisited," The New York Review of Books, May 30, 1985, pp. 44–50.
- Maurice Isserman, “Communist Caricature," In These Times, April 4–10, 1984, pp. 18–22 (review of Klehr’s The Heyday of American Communism).
- Maurice Isserman, "Notes from Underground," The Nation, June 12, 1995, pp. 846–856. (review of Klehr's The Secret World of American Communism).
- Maurice Isserman (May 9, 1999). "They Led Two Lives". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-13.
- Maurice Isserman, "How Old is the New SDS?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2007, pp. B10–B11.
- Maurice Isserman (July 3, 2007). "Himalayan Summitry: A Lesser Peak, Not a Lesser Lesson". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2008-09-13.
- Bruce Barcott (September 28, 2008). "On Top of the World: A comprehensive history of Himalayan mountaineering". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved 2008-11-03.
- Al Alvarez, "Getting High on the Himalayas," The New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009, pp. 27-29.