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Michael Harrington, Socialist Activist and Author, Dies at 61

August 02, 1989|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Staff Writer

Michael Harrington, the salty, irreverent Socialist activist and author who inspired the federal government's "War on Poverty" in the mid-1960s, has died at his suburban Westchester County (N.Y.) home, it was reported Tuesday.

Harrington, who lost a four-year battle with cancer of the esophagus, was 61 when he died Monday in Larchmont.

The author of the classic "The Other America" had gamely continued his work to improve the plight of the poor even after surgery and chemotherapy for the throat cancer in 1985.

With typical humor, he said that his primary complaint was that doctors insisted that he dilute his wine with water and limit himself to three or four beers a day.

"As my wife always says," he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1987 interview, "beer is one of the few really fine products society has ever produced that's within the price range of the working man."

In the last half of his life, Harrington was a prolific writer and lecturer, turning out several books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, and commanding $2,000 speaking fees throughout the country. He taught political science at Queens College in New York, and served as chairman of the party of the Old Left, the Democratic Socialists of America.

But whatever his accomplishments in later life, he conceded that his greatest fame occurred when he was only 34 and published a book called "The Other America" describing the nation's "invisible poor." Its pages at first awakened a nation's leaders and then a nation.

A. H. Raskin evaluated the momentous 1962 volume in the New York Times Book Review as "a scream of rage, a call to conscience."

Hobart Rowan later observed in the Washington Post: "By writing a book, he pricked the conscience of the men in power sufficiently to change the course of events."

President John F. Kennedy, greatly moved by the book, proposed that the federal government come to the aid of the nation's poor. After Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson shepherded the proposal, launching the War on Poverty in 1964.

Harrington was enlisted as a paid consultant in the $1-billion anti-poverty program, which fell by the wayside in the midst of military expenditures during Vietnam.

On Tuesday, President Kennedy's brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said: "Michael Harrington never believed that we could not do better and never stopped urging us to try harder. My memories of Michael are kaleidoscopic--a charming Irish politician working the floor at a Democratic convention, a thundering Old Testament prophet demanding that our country honor its promise to the poor and the weak, a worldly intellectual. . . .

"Our nation is immensely richer because of his work," Kennedy added.

Edward Michael Harrington was born in St. Louis, Mo., the only child of well-to-do Irish Catholic parents, Edward M. Harrington Sr., a patent lawyer, and Catherine Fitzgibbon Harrington, a former schoolteacher.

'Taft Conservative'

When he attended Holy Cross College, a Jesuit institution in Worcester, Mass., Harrington described himself as a "Taft conservative." His political move to the left began with a summer job assisting sharecroppers and continued at Yale, where he attended a year of law school.

Switching to the University of Chicago, Harrington reveled in philosophical discussions at Reader's Drugstore and the University Tavern, later recalling that his colleagues there "had been talking and reading for years. I read like a madman to catch up."

He earned his master's degree in English literature in 1949, horrifying his family by announcing that he wanted to become a poet rather than a lawyer like his father.

Harrington's initiation to the underclass of poor that he was to write about included jobs in the 1950s as a social worker in St. Louis, and in New York as associate editor of the Catholic Worker, and staff member of St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, a settlement house aiding Bowery derelicts.

Harrington also began his political work in the early 1950s, as an organizer and speaker for the Young Socialist League on college campuses and as a regular at bohemian gathering places in Greenwich Village where he lived.

Became an Atheist

The more he saw of poverty, the further he moved away from his Catholicism, later declaring himself an atheist.

"Why else would most people on this Earth be born to a life less than human?" he explained in 1987. "What kind of God is that?"

After publishing "The Other America," Harrington produced more than a dozen other works, including "The Accidental Century" (1965), "Toward a Democratic Left" (1968), "Socialism" (1972), "Fragments of the Century" (1974), "Twilight of Capitalism" (1976), "The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World's Poor" (1977), "Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System" (1980), "The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States" (1981), "The New American Poverty" (1984), and "Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind" (1985).

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