Lerner, Max(well) (Alan) (20 December 1902 - 5 June 1992)
Lerner was a noted journalist, syndicated columnist, and editor of The Nation (1936–1938). He wrote six thousand columns for the New York Post and was widely syndicated in PM, The New Republic, and The Nation.
Lerner was a classic immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island from Russia when he was five. His twin siblings did not survive, and the Lerners barely did so on money his father earned in the garment district and milk-delivery business. He entered Yale in 1919, winning prizes in English, German, and patriotism, but was told when he neared graduation that “You ought to know that, as a Jew, you’ll never get a teaching post in literature in any Ivy League college.”
Lerner’s MA thesis adviser in economics, Isaac Lippincott, at Washington University, called him “the most capable graduate student I have had.” He was granted a Ph. D. in 1927 solely “on the strength of the papers he had written.”
Sanford Lakoff’s Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land (1999) relates how the 5’ 7” Lerner became managing editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences as well as the first Jew appointed to the faculty at Williams College. He also relates his sexual escapades, including an affair with Elizabeth Taylor.
Believing as a “neo-Marxian liberal” that collectivism was destined to replace individualism in the United States, he turned instead to Franklin Roosevelt’s “level-headed American pragmatism,” finding that it would be the best thing both for democracy and for whatever part of capitalism was worth retaining.
A friend of Harold Laski and Felix Frankfurther, Lerner was known as a spokesman for Popular Frontism before World War II and for favoring early American involvement against fascism. Lakoff thought Lerner was least attractive when, in the 1980s, he became more centrist. In his last chapter of Actions and Passions (1949), Lerner wrote,
- I am speaking of an understanding frank enough to recognize that man is part of a naturalistic order, an animal with bestial impulses that can be multiplied by the multiple cunning of his brain. . . . I call this tragic humanism. I call it tragic because it must strip itself of the barren belief that men are wholly rational, and of the smug assumption that progress and happiness can come out of systems of power as such, whether capitalism, socialism, or communism. This is not a religion, or even a mystique. It is an idea to which the American creative thinker can dedicate himself with passion and wholeness. An idea with passion and wholeness behind it can move the world.
Of humanism, Lerner in 1951 wrote to Warren Allen Smith:
Yes, I do consider myself—if anything—a kind of “naturalistic humanist.” The phrase I use is “tragic humanist.” You will find the closest approach to a deliberate formulation of in an editorial I did a few years back for the American Scholar', called “Toward A Tragic Humanism,” and which I have included in my book of essays, Actions and Passions (1949), as an epilogue (pp. 258–259). I am now writing a brief book elaborating on this view and applying it to the war crisis.
In addition to a philosophic Preface to Morals, Lerner was the author of It Is Later Than You Think (1938), The Portable Veblen (1948), The Essential Works of John Stuart Mill (1961), and Education and a Radical Humanism (1962). A major work was a collection of the PM editorials, America as a Civilization, Life and Thought in the United States Today (1957).
Summing up his life for a Who’s Who in America entry, Lerner wrote:
- I have believed in love and work, and their linkage. I have believed that we are neither angels nor devils, but humans, with clusters of potentials in both directions. I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a possibilist.
(Corliss Lamont thought that Lerner, in calling his philosophy tragic humanism, “stresses too much the traumatic aspects of life.”)