In 1995, Robert Barsky met with Noam Chomsky to discuss his work-in-progress, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press, 1997). Chomsky told Barsky that he should focus 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 the story of a major figure in American intellectual life "sitting in a corner in the middle of the room"—part of crucial twentieth-century conversations about language, technology, labor, politics, and Zionism. The intersecting worlds of Harris's intellectual and political activities were populated by such figures as Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Franz Boas, Nathan Glazer, and Chomsky.
Barsky describes Harris's work in language studies, and his pioneering ideas about discourse analysis, structural linguistics, and information representation. He also discusses Harris's part in the pre-1948 Zionist movement—when many Jews on the Left envisioned a socialist Palestine that would be a haven not only for persecuted Jews but also for disenfranchised Arabs and anyone seeking a sanctuary against oppression—and recounts Harris's debates on the subject with Brandeis, Einstein, and a large group of students involved with a Zionist organization called Avukah. And Barsky describes Harris's views on capitalism, worker-owner relations, and worker self-management, the legacy of which can be found in some of his students' writings, notably those of Seymour Melman. Barsky shows how Harris, as mentor, teacher, and colleague, powerfully influenced figures who came to dominate the twentieth century's political discussion—thinkers as different as Noam Chomsky and Nathan Glazer.
“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
"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."
"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'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