How does a man disappear?
On April 27, 2014, Martin J. Sklar died at the age of 78. You’ve probably never heard of him. But you should have, because he was more immediately influential in the 1960s and ’70s than any of the iconic figures associated with the intellectual origins of the New Left—more than, say, C. Wright Mills, William Appleman Williams, Norman O. Brown, Tom Hayden or Herbert Marcuse, all of whom published their seminal works in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Sklar was to the New Left what Chauncey Wright was to the Metaphysical Club at Harvard in the nineteenth century: a mercurial and electrifying thinker, and an inspiration to a coterie of friends and colleagues whose ideas were more acclaimed than his own.
How to explain Sklar’s utter obscurity? Was it his lack of academic standing? Check. The excruciating rigor of his thinking, the ponderous Germanic sound of his prose? Check. His commitment to a life on the left outside of the ivory tower, which left him isolated and burned out? Check.
Still, I knew Sklar, as a student, colleague and friend, for more than forty years—though by mutual agreement, I admit, we refused to speak to each other for twenty of them—and I’m not satisfied with these explanations. I feel obliged to offer another.
Sklar was a brilliant man made invisible by his own implacable, irascible, ruthless will to perfected individuality, his inability to play by anyone else’s rules, his gradual but relentless and virtually complete renunciation of audience, affiliation or friendship—to the point where, near death, he told his wife of four decades that there should be no memorial service and no obituaries.
Sklar never wanted to be just a professor, although he ended up as one, at Bucknell University, in the middle of nowhere. He twice walked away from a promising academic career, once as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, then again as an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University in 1976, where his colleagues enthusiastically voted him tenure, even though he wouldn’t finish his degree (through the University of Rochester) until 1982, when he was 47 years old.
On both occasions, Sklar walked away to start magazines that, he believed, would educate the educators and thus change the political discourse. In 1960, it was Studies on the Left, one of the founding gestures of a social movement that was originally centered on—but never confined to—the college campuses. In 1976, it was In These Times, which he thought could be the new Iskra, the update of Lenin’s tribune. He always wanted to be what we now call a public intellectual—a radical journalist, a writer at large—rather than a mere academic. And he was, before disappearing into the outer darkness of small, liberal-arts academia.