© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Half century later, legacy of 'The Other America' lives on

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 25, 2012 - When Michael Harrington’s "The Other America: Poverty in the United States" first appeared in bookstores in March 1962, its author had modest hopes for its success, expecting to sell at most a few thousand copies.  Instead, the book proved a publishing phenomenon, garnering substantial sales, wide and respectful critical attention, and a significant influence over the direction of social welfare policy in the United States during the decade that followed.

By February 1964, "Business Week" noted that "'The Other America'" is already regarded as a classic work on poverty.” "Time" magazine later offered even more sweeping praise, including "The Other America" in a 1998 list as one of the 20th century’s 10 most influential books, putting it in such distinguished company as Sigmund Freud’s "Civilization and Its Discontents" and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s "The Gulag Archipelago." 

Although a number of gatherings this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Other America," it seems fitting to me that one of the first should be held in Mike’s hometown of St. Louis.  Mike was born to Edward Michael Harrington and Catherine Fitzgibbon Harrington in St. Louis Maternity Hospital on Feb. 24, 1928.  The Great Depression, a different kind of plague, began a year and a half after the birth of Edward Michael Harrington, Jr. …

He grew up, the pampered only son of doting and prosperous parents, and by his own testimony  oblivious to the economic distress felt by so many Americans in the 1930s. His father was a successful patent law attorney, who moved the family in 1935 to their own house on quiet tree-lined Harvard Street in University City, and later to a house on McPherson Avenue ….

This was also a family that valued political engagement. These were years when St. Louis was a fervently Democratic city. (FDR was popular not only for his New Deal, but for ending prohibition in 1933, which led to the reopening of St. Louis’s shuttered breweries.) 

The Fitzgibbons and Harringtons were politically active; Catherine’s brother Dave Fitzgibbon was elected on the Democratic ticket in 1940 as judge of the St. Louis Court of Criminal Corrections, a post he held over three decades. (Judge Fitzgibbon was known for the human treatment of defendants who appeared in his court, occasionally paying the fines he levied on poor people he convicted.) 

In 1944 Patrick Fitzgibbon, too ill to leave the house to attend mass, refused to take communion from the local priest whom he suspected of Republican sympathies. He was carried out of the house that November so that he could go to the local polling place and cast a final vote for FDR.

Boyhood in St. Louis did not make Michael Harrington a radical.  But the imprint of his earliest experiences could be seen in the kind of radical he turned out to be.  From his grandfather, Mike acquired a fascination with politics, a love of rhetoric, and a sense that words had meanings and consequences….

This is an abbreviated version of a speech given at the Missouri History Museum April 18 by Maurice Isserman. Click here for a complete transcript of the speech.;