Research at the RBML | The Socrates of Hamilton Heights: Jonathan Marty on Marshall Berman

Jonathan Marty, PhD student in City & Regional Planning at Berkeley, recently visited the RBML to delve into the papers of Marshall Berman, Marxist philosopher, historian, and theorist of NYC.  Below, Marty describes his long-awaited and Covid-delayed visit to the RBML and the beginnings of his project, The Socrates of Hamilton Heights: The Life and Times of Marshall Berman, Organic Intellectual.



What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library?

I came to the RBML because I wanted to begin digging through the papers of the great New York City philosopher Marshall Berman. Being a great admirer of his work, especially his classification-defying 1982 masterpiece All That is Solid Melts into Air, I am interested in writing something of an intellectual biography of him. Since I am principally concerned with the development of his interdisciplinary style and the breadth of his interests (including but not limited to political theory, urban studies, religion, and literary criticism), I knew that I would need to dive into his archived materials at Columbia in order to trace the formation of his suis generis scholarly perspective. 

A 1996 article about Marshall Berman in the Brazilian daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. The headline translates as “Berman wants protections for city centers”.

How long have you been using RBML materials? 

Funnily enough, my visits to the RBML come in the wake of years of failed attempts to access Marshall Berman’s papers. Having begun the master’s program in Urban Planning at Columbia around the time of peak COVID in the fall of 2020 (and later graduating from GSAPP in 2022), I was unfortunately not able to look through his materials given the library’s reduced capacity at the time.  Because of this, it felt especially momentous to finally be able to look through Berman’s papers in Butler during my Spring Break earlier this year. 


What have you found? Did you come here knowing the material was here?

Marshall’s papers are a treasure trove! Although I had seen the contents of each of the boxes on the RBML website prior to arriving, nothing could prepare me for the thrill of reading through the many fascinating materials contained within them. Having only perused 4 of the 38 boxes held by Columbia, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface so far. Yet, within those boxes, I was most intrigued by two things. First, by the various term papers which he had written as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Covering topics as varied as Romanticism, biblical history, pagan mythology, Beckett, Marx, Hegel, and Freud, and also complete with the gobsmacked comments and grades of Columbia giants like Lionel Trilling, these papers astounded me with the prodigal ambition of their arguments. Second, I was very moved to read through the course materials for several classes Marshall taught during his long tenure as a professor of Political Science at CCNY. As a budding pedagogue myself, it was quite an experience to read through his old syllabi (including courses such as ‘Jewish Political Theories’ and ‘The City and the Self’), and to see the deeply engaged (and often quite funny) comments he left on his students’ papers. 

Anything that surprised you?

Of the many great discoveries I made, one which sticks out was Marshall’s collection of old issues of Dynamo, the Bronx Science student literary journal. Although it was a great joy to read an article which Marshall had written in the 1957 edition (wherein he is also listed as a member of the Literary Staff), it was even more amazing to find a piece by the great science-fiction author and literary critic Samuel Delaney in the 1959 edition. Given that Berman and Delany would later have a public debate about the redevelopment of Times Square nearly four decades later, it was remarkable to encounter both of them as high school students and blossoming writers in the very same student journal (albeit just a few years apart). 

What advice would you offer other researchers?  

My main piece of advice would be to not underestimate how time-consuming it can be to make your way through even a single box of materials. Given that your appointments are limited to just a few hours each day, it’s imperative that you maximize the amount of time you spend simply taking photos of the material and adding it to your files. Though it is very tempting to spend time reading and contemplating certain documents while at the RBML, I would suggest that you keep this to a minimum and just read everything once you’ve left the collections for the day. Similarly, I recommend establishing some sort of filing system in advance of your arrival, just so that you can minimize the time spent fiddling with your computer during the precious few hours you have in the archives. Fortunately, with all of the excellent librarians and archivists on staff at the RBML, you will be in great hands as you conduct your research.