U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael Wreszin (1926-2012)

I’m not going to be posting much today, but I did want to note the passing of the historian and biographer Michael Wreszin at the age of 85.  Although Wreszin died on August 12, his family announced his death this past weekend, which is when the New York Times published its obituary of him.

Wreszin, who was a professor of history at Queens College, is best known for three biographies of iconoclastic American leftists:  Oswald Garrison Villard: Pacifist at War (1965), The Superfluous Anarchist: Albert Jay Nock (1972), and A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: the Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald (1992).

Although I consume a lot of biographies (and parts of many more), biography is not a genre that I’m naturally drawn to, either in my own work or in my reading for pleasure.  So I am perhaps not the best person to hold forth on what makes for a good biography. Nonetheless, Wreszin’s biography of Macdonald remains one of my favorite biographies of an American intellectual.  I approached the book having read a fair bit of Macdonald’s writings from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but knowing only the broadest outlines of his life.  Wreszin brought Macdonald to life in a way that illuminated  both the man and his work, as well as the broader worlds that he inhabited as, at various times, a Troskyist, a democratic socialist, a pacifist, an editor at Fortune, The Partisan Review, and politics, a New York intellectual, a film critic, and an activist.  Having read Rebel in Defense of Tradition, I felt that I had really understood this peculiar and important thinker.   And I can’t ask for more from a biography.  I should add that it is also a very good read.

I never had the opportunity to meet Wreszin or even to hear him talk.  Consider this an open thread for discussion of Michael Wreszin and his work.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m curious–why don’t you care for biographies?

    I’ve run into both Villard (founder of the NAACP) and McDonald (when I taught Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), so I’m intrigued by this obituary. Thanks for posting it!

    • Saying that I don’t care for biographies is putting it a bit too strongly. What I meant was two things: I don’t write biographies and have no desire to do so….largely because I don’t feel I’m up to the task. And, as a matter of fact, I very rarely reach for a biography when I’m looking for something to read for pleasure (Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X has been a recent, and very pleasant, exception to this rule). To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure why I rarely read biographies for pleasure. But I don’t.

    • Interesting. I have a penchant for writing biography when I should be writing something else…..it is what comes to me first. And it seems like there are a lot of intellectual history texts that are biographies of intellectuals. But maybe that is changing.

  2. When reading about Michael Wreszin’s death, I was reminded of his comments for a memorial to another historian, Bob Cummings, who wrote a wonderful dissertation (unpublished) on Dwight Macdonald’s youth. (This was written in 2007.)


    Bob was a very special person to me, for nearly ten years I worked on a biography of Dwight Macdonald and Bob was extremely knowledgeable about Macdonald and always willing to share his information and to be of help. I often called upon him for leads and information and he invariably responded quickly and with much needed help.

    He visited me on several occasions here in Manhattan and I always looked forward to seeing him.

    In addition to his remarkable scholarly interests and incredible memory he was such a warm and open person. It was just a pleasure to be with him.

    I just passed my 80th birthday in October and I am a bit fatigued late in the afternoon. However, if the cleaning lady who came today gets out of the bathroom I might just get up the energy, shave and make it down to Grand Central..But if I don’t show up please know that my thoughts are with you all and I know that you have suffered a great loss.

    The best, Michael Wreszin


  3. I have not read Michael Wreszin’s books; however, I subscribe to the journal New Politics to which Wreszin in recent years contributed a lot of book reviews, e.g. in the latest issue (Summer 2012) a review of two books about Kurt Vonnegut. I specifically recall his review of Alan Brinkley’s biography of Henry Luce, available online here.

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