The Man Who Knows Himself

The Man Who Knows Himself

When Irving Howe died suddenly, in May 1993, no one was sure whether Dissent would keep going. The magazine’s young-ish editors and writers wanted to see it continue, but we all felt that it would thrive only if Michael Walzer stepped in as Irving’s successor. And none of us knew whether Michael wanted to do that.

With his reserve, his inwardness, his courtly distance, Michael wasn’t someone whom the younger editors knew well. He was the Greta Garbo of Dissent. Although he formally served as Irving’s co-editor and reliably attended Dissent’s quarterly editorial board meetings, he played little role in the day-to-day life of the magazine. At one meeting, after Irving had called for more participation from the editorial board, Michael argued that editorship-by-committee rarely worked, and that most good magazines reflected the personality and preoccupations of one strong editor. This explained why Michael wasn’t more engaged with the magazine, but it gave no clue about whether he would want to be that one strong editor if the need arose.

During Irving’s editorship, over almost forty years, Dissent had never missed an issue, never even come out late. That’s a harder accomplishment than it sounds, particularly for a magazine with a tiny staff and a tiny budget. Even if he wanted to take over the magazine, none of us knew whether Michael would find its working rhythms supportable.

He was known to have a deliberative nature. For almost fifteen years, his workdays had been spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where, according to reliable sources, while his col-leagues could often be encountered in the hallways, available to spend a few minutes gossiping or chatting, Michael was always secluded in his office, reading, writing, and thinking. When occasionally I telephoned him to ask his advice on an editorial matter, I got the sense that he had been called to the phone from some remote preserve of solitary meditation, to which he would shortly return.

So it was a surprise when Michael quickly took responsibility for the survival of Dissent. Along with political theorist Mitchell Cohen, who had been appointed co-editor in 1991, Michael made sure that the enterprise didn’t falter. He came up from Princeton once a week, spending the day in the office, and during the rest of the week he did editorial work for Dissent at the Institute. I never knew Michael well enough to be able to guess whether he found his new life a pleasure, a burden, or a bit of both, but I’m sure it must have felt like a radical transformation.

In the years that followed, it was interesting to get to know him a little and to learn what he valued. I was struck by four things above all.

The first was his devotion to the art of reasoned argument. As an editor, he wanted Dissent’s articles to make clear, strong arguments; he wan...

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