In 1995, Robert Barsky met with Noam Chomsky to discuss hiswork-in-progress, Noam Chomsky: A Life ofDissent (MIT Press, 1997). Chomsky told Barsky that he shouldfocus his attention instead on midcentury linguist and activist Zellig Harris,who was, Chomsky modestly insisted, more interesting than Chomsky himself.Intrigued, Barsky began to research Harris (1909–1992) and discovered thestory of a major figure in American intellectual life "sitting in acorner in the middle of the room"—partof crucial twentieth-century conversations about language, technology, labor,politics, and Zionism. The intersecting worlds of Harris’s intellectualand political activities were populated by such figures as Louis Brandeis,Albert Einstein, Franz Boas, Nathan Glazer, and Chomsky. Barskydescribes Harris’s work in language studies, andhis pioneering ideas about discourse analysis, structural linguistics, andinformation representation. He also discusses Harris’s part in the pre-1948Zionist movement—;when many Jews on the Leftenvisioned a socialist Palestine that would be a haven not only for persecutedJews but also for disenfranchised Arabs and anyone seeking a sanctuary againstoppression—;and recounts Harris's debates on the subject withBrandeis, Einstein, and a large group of students involved with a Zionistorganization called Avukah. And Barsky describes Harris’s views oncapitalism, worker-owner relations, and worker self-management, the legacy ofwhich can be found in some of his students’ writings, notably those ofSeymour Melman. Barsky shows how Harris, as mentor, teacher, and colleague,powerfully influenced figures who came to dominate the twentieth century'spolitical discussion—;thinkers as different as Noam Chomsky and NathanGlazer.
“Harris comes to life in this slim biography by Barsky, whose research is as intriguing as it is substantive… Barsky not only does justice to the seminal scholarship of Harris but also contributes to a fuller understanding of the history of science in the present. A must read for students of linguistics and those interested in the history and philosophy of science.”—CHOICE
“Barsky has managed to pull together the strands of a complex life with warmth, humor, and archival research of unusual depth. Harris emerges in this book not only as one of the giants of a golden age for linguistics in the United States, but also as a political activist and thinker of great subtlety. Barsky lucidly explicates Harris’s fearfully complex ideas on language as well as recreates the lively debates and utopian brio of the Zionist organization, Avukah. With this book a new member joins the pantheon of American originals.”
—Michael Holquist, Professor of Comparative and Slavic Literature Emeritus, Yale University
“Zellig Harris is deservedly well known for his outstanding contributions to linguistics, but far less so for his broad impact on contemporary American intellectual life, in part through the influence of his deep insights into social forces and scientific integrity on students and many others who were fortunate enough to have had direct contact with him, of whom I was privileged to be one. Barsky’s inquiry provides a welcome introduction to the life and work of a fascinating person with remarkable talents, and the many circles in which he was a central and animating figure.”
“Zellig Harris’s dream of a secular, leftist Zionism, built on cooperation with the indigenous Arab population, has been dashed by history. But his legacy stubbornly survives, not only in the pioneering work he did in the field of linguistics, but also in the inspiration he provided Noam Chomsky, the most outspoken political gadfly of our day. In this rigorously researched, sympathetically cast biography, Robert Barsky rescues from oblivion a figure from the past who may still have much to teach the future.”
—Martin Jay, Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley