Meyer Schapiro, who died on March 3 at the age of 91, enjoyed an adulation that may in his later decades have been as taxing as it was rewarding. Intent younger art historians asked him time and again to recount the genesis of the extraordinary publications with which he began his career in the '30s; to rehearse his simultaneous commitments and interventions (in such journals as New Masses, Art Front, and Marxist Quarterly) in the politics of the Left during the Great Depression, Popular Front, and anti-Stalinist schisms; to recall his warm and abundant friendships with giants (and peers) in the realms of art, philosophy, social science, and literature. With his death, we are grateful now for these eager acolytes, who elicited from him precious additions to the public record of his career. For the wonder of Schapiro's reputation, given his achievements and experiences, is that he was not still more widely acclaimed - that the admiration he so unfailingly commanded was largely confined to the art world. I suspect that had he been a full-time literary critic, political pundit, or philosopher, there would already be a shelf of biographical and interpretative books devoted to him. As it is, he appears to merit only a walk-on part in the numerous studies of the New York intellectuals, while only a handful of scattered articles and reviews in scholarly publications begin to take the measure of what he contributed to the intellectual life of this century.
American intellectuals are famously obsessed and anxious about their links to the great figures of continental thought. With that in mind, it is all the more astonishing that Schapiro's activities at the close of the '30s have not become the stuff of legend across the humanities. Theodore W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, having transferred their Institute for Social Research from Frankfurt to New York, took a great interest in the young professor of art history, and he in them. (Adorno once asked him along to monitor radio broadcasts by Hitler, and Schapiro made some incisive drawings of the Institute's fellows as they gravely attended to the voice of the enemy.) As proponents of an independent Marxism, they had no doubt been impressed by the courageous objectivity he had shown in assessing the growing evidence of Stalin's murderous purges and show trials. In 1939, Schapiro was embarking on an extended research trip to Europe, and these expatriate intellectuals marked their respect for him with the most profound trust: could he succeed, where they had failed, in persuading Walter Benjamin to leave Pads for safety with them in New York?
When Schapiro and his wife, the physician Lillian Milgram, arrived in Europe, they saw ominous signs of preparation for war everywhere they looked; the news of the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin seemed to remove the last restraint on Germany's aggressive designs. Schapiro telephoned Benjamin, and they agreed to meet at the cafe Deux Magots. Benjamin dismissed any concern about their recognizing one another; as Schapiro recalled the encounter,
Lillian and I were sitting in the cafe waiting to hear from him, when I saw a man walking up and down the sidewalk, looking at all the people and holding up a little copy of the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, the social research volume. So I called out to him ... "Benjamin?," and he said, "Schapiro." He came down and sat with us, and we talked about everything under the sun. He decided that it would be too hard for him to live in New York, even though so many of his good friends that he had been very close to were there.(1)
One suspects that if the captivating, erudite, and multilingual art historian could not make life in New York seem inviting to Benjamin, then there was truly no hope of diverting him from the fatal course he chose to follow. Schapiro himself, keeping a promise made to his wife, cut off his sabbatical at the outbreak of war a few weeks later and joined her on a liner setting out from Belgium. …