Monday, January 18, 2016

In Tribute to Michael Marqusee (1953-2015): Outstanding historian, critic, scholar, journalist, and social activist

Mike Marqusee obituary

Journalist, political activist and author with eclectic tastes in sport, art and music

by Colin Robinson
4 February 2015
The Guardian  (UK) 

Mike Marqusee in 2009. He was born in New York but made his home in Britain, where he developed a love of cricket. Photograph: Felix Clay

Michael John Marqusee, writer, born 27 January 1953; died 13 January 2015

The writer and political activist Mike Marqusee, who has died of cancer aged 61, enjoyed an intellect as dazzling as it was unique. A true polymath, he made the most of a boundless curiosity and a powerful memory to educate himself, and others, about a kaleidoscope of topics: Renaissance art, cricket and empire, British labour politics, Indian history and culture, Zionism, the music of Andalucía and Tamil Nadu, the poetry and art of William Blake, the American civil rights movement, the films of John Ford, the songs of Bob Dylan. The list could go on and on.

He sometimes speculated that such eclecticism resulted in his work being undervalued by specialists. If that was true, those in error failed to see how his range of interests often enabled one sphere of knowledge to provide an exhilaratingly original insight into another. Further, beneath the panoply lay a set of core values: a commitment to socialism, a belief in the transformative nature of art, a rigorous internationalism and a prioritising of intellectual and personal honesty heedless of cost. A joyful, hedonistic appreciation that life’s pleasures were there for the sampling was also a vital part of Mike.

He was born in New York, the son of John and Janet Marqusee, who were involved in property development, publishing and radical politics. Seeking to escape the pressures exerted on a precocious anti-war leader at his high school in Scarsdale, an conservative and affluent suburb of New York, Mike left the US for Britain in 1971. He read English literature at Sussex University before moving to north London, where he was to settle for the rest of his life.

Mike started out as a youth leader, based at Highbury Roundhouse, driving minibuses full of inner-city children on field trips around Britain. He later said that he learned more about politics from his work on the youth schemes there than in any of his subsequent activism.

Though a lifelong Marxist, Mike eschewed membership of the competing revolutionary tendencies that attracted many young radicals of the period. Indeed, in later years, he endured a bitter falling out with Socialist Workers party sectarians in the Stop the War Coalition, of which he was a founding member. He joined the Labour party around 1980, supporting the leadership of Haringey council in its fight against cuts and resisting Neil Kinnock’s attacks on the left that would pave the way for the emergence of New Labour, a development that saw Mike eventually leave the party. He chronicled Labour’s rightwing drift in a book co-authored with Richard Heffernan, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory (1992). He also became involved in the radical publication Labour Briefing, going on to become its editor. It was through his engagement with the Labour party that he met his partner, the housing rights barrister Liz Davies, who survives him. Together they formed an alliance that was as formidable in the political arena as it was supportive at home.

Mike had already written one book, his only published novel, Slow Turn (1988), which featured the game of cricket, a sport he had come to love while watching county matches in Sussex as a student. He turned his focus to the overlap between the game and nationalism, drawing openly on the legacy of CLR James to produce a rivetingly original analysis. Anyone But England (1994) went on to be shortlisted for the William Hill Sports  Book of the Year award and laid the foundation for Mike’s regular cricket commentary in publications such as Wisden and The Hindu.

Two years later, he published another book on the game, War Minus the Shooting, that dealt with events surrounding the 1996 World Cricket Cup in South Asia. He co-founded Hit Racism for Six and could often be found practising his own swing in the nets at Finsbury Park, providing ample evidence that, in his case, the pen was mightier than the bat.

Mike now transferred his attention to another sport. Redemption Song (1999) was a paean to Muhammad Ali, setting the world heavyweight’s sporting achievements in the context of the political battles in the US. Moving seamlessly from descriptions of Ali’s bouts in the ring to the music of Sam Cooke, from the machinations of the Nation of Islam to the burgeoning of the anti-war movement, it was a fine example of Mike’s ability to weave together strands from different disciplines into a rich new cloth.

The distinction, so often snobbish, between high and popular culture held little appeal for Mike. He had a deep familiarity with Quattrocento art and I was lucky enough to be among a small group of friends that he introduced to the sublimity of Giovanni Bellini’s paintings on a trip to Venice. His mother was both a painter and a successful art dealer and Mike’s ability to scrutinise the formal qualities of a painting was probably acquired from her. But he was equally at home analysing the wider meanings of the plots of John Ford westerns or the character development in TV series such as Rome or The Wire. A large TV, a comfortable sofa and a strong joint was always a combination that made Mike happy.

His taste in music was equally catholic. Mike was a big fan of the driving rock of Springsteen and Steve Earle while, at the same time, his engagement with Indian culture resulted in several trips with Liz to the Carnatic music festival in Chennai. A subsequent enthusiasm for Cante jondo music saw expeditions to the flamenco bars of southern Spain and an immersion in the poetry of Lorca.

Mike wrote poems himself and published two collections, and it was the ear of a poet that he employed in his next book, Wicked Messenger (2003), an analysis of the lyrics of Bob Dylan. At the end of his life he was working on a book that examined the relationship between Thomas Paine and yet another poet, William Blake.

Mike’s penultimate book was perhaps his most daring and controversial. A firm atheist, he delighted in describing himself as a “deracinated Jew”. In If I Am Not For Myself (2008), he melded together, in characteristic fashion, his own family history, political theory and close reading of canonical religious texts, separating out Jewishness from its co-option by the state of Israel.

In 2007 Mike was diagnosed with the bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma. Though it took him a couple of years, he predictably reverted to type, responding to his illness by writing about it. His last book, The Price of Experience, a collection of pieces about his disease (several of them for this paper), ranges over withering contempt for the mercenary activity of the big drug companies, an appreciation of the fastidious care provided to him by the NHS and its selfless staff and quiet sensitivity concerning how we talk to each other about illness.

In his introduction to the book, which, like a number of his titles, I had the privilege of publishing, he wrote: “Writing itself was a precious continuity with ‘life before cancer’. While so many of my other capacities had been taken away from me, I could still write.” Now he no longer can. However, through his books and journalism, we will still be able to remember his voice, with its glorious combination of profusion and singularity.


I was frankly shocked and very saddened to discover today that the outstanding historian, critic, scholar, and social activist Michael Marqusee passed away a year ago on January 13, 2015 at the age of 61 from cancer. I find myself at a loss for words at this moment to describe just how important and truly groundbreaking Marqusee's work was. As I collect my thoughts and feelings about his untimely death I will take some time to reflect on his profound contributions to a wide range of interests and activities that encompassed social and cultural history, radical political thought and practice, music criticism, philosophy, and sports. I was always a huge fan and devoted follower of his work and I considered him one of the few major American public intellectuals of the past half century. I will deeply miss him and his extraordinary work.


by Amy Bass
22 January 2015

Author and activist Mike Marqusee passed away on January 13. A common theme in the obituaries was that he was a writer of remarkably diverse  interests. Marqusee himself wondered if this wide-ranging nature of his work would lead specialists to discount it. But one specialist in a subject he covered, the history of sport and race in the 1960s, answers to the contrary: Marqusee was a journalist whose work is respected by scholars, and a scholar whose work is loved by students.

The news arrived by Facebook post that Mike Marqusee had died, losing his battle with cancer at the age of 61. Historian David Roediger shared the obituary written by Colin Robinson for The Guardian. Sitting no more than six inches away from my computer was a copy of Marqusee’s book  Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999). The book had yet to make it back on the shelf after the fall semester. As in years past, it had been on the students’ reading list for my seminar, “Race, Sport, and Society.”

To anyone with eclectic tastes, Marqusee’s writing career was enviable – his work moved among subjects as varied as cricket, art, music, and Zionism. “He sometimes speculated that such eclecticism resulted in his work being undervalued by specialists,” Robinson writes in his tribute. “If that was true, those in error failed to see how his range of interests often enabled one sphere of knowledge to provide an exhilaratingly original insight into another.”

Robinson’s words describe exactly the riches of Redemption Song. While Marqusee wrote buckets of good stuff, it is his book on Ali that will remain at center stage for me. As I wrote last spring for the Journal of American History, in an essay on the state of the field of sport history, I can think of no other book that better demonstrates the power of scholarship about sport.

Without question, to write about the history of boxing is to enter a rich field of work. Relatively early on, Elliot Gorn’s work on boxing showed just  how beautifully sport history could transcend sport itself, particularly in revealing the cultures of racial politics. For the vigilant scholar, boxing offered a range of consequential racial dramas populated by a series of prominent athletes. Whether reading Randy Roberts’s carefully researched histories of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis, or Michael Ezra’s more recent take on Ali, work on boxing has enabled sport history to take seriously topics that range from masculinity to national identity to – of course – violence.

At the center of the scholarship on boxing, and on sport in general, stands Muhammad Ali. A complex and colorful character who came to personify an era of domestic and global revolution, Ali – arguably the most renowned athlete the world has ever seen – has been at the center of so many celebrated works, from Gorn’s edited collection Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ to David Remnick’s smart biography, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.

Marqusee the eclectic writer not only ventured into this rich field of boxing scholarship, he doubled down and wrote about Ali. His work stands alone. Marqusee posed Ali as a gateway to the radical politics and culture of black life in the 1960s, offering a spectacular panorama of the era, from a history of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam to the influence of Malcolm X and pan-African ideologies on militant black movements in the U.S. For Marqusee, the only Ali that mattered was the radical Ali, a figure who helped fuse the rising militancy of Black Power with the growing tide of anti-war sentiment. In contrast, the Ali who stood in Atlanta in 1996 to light the Olympic flame, the Ali who accepted a new gold medal to replace the one from the Rome Olympics, which he allegedly had thrown into the Ohio after being refused service at a restaurant, did not matter. For Marqusee, this newly imagined and patriotic Ali could not, and should not, overshadow the combative politics that were so entrenched in his coming of age as an athlete. In Redemption Song, Ali stands tallest as the young man who transformed himself from Cassius Clay into something America had never seen before. Marqusee’s book is near flawless in presenting the life of this athlete as the ideal window to view a decade of social turmoil.

To say that Redemption Song blows students away, each and every semester, would be a gross understatement. In addition to their love of the book’s central characters, their awe and admiration for Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and so on, they are in wonderment of the book, a reaction that can be hard to get from undergraduates. They are amazed by what they take away from reading it. They are amazed by how much more they know because they have read it.

Without question, Redemption Song will remain on my syllabus for many semesters to come. And while Marqusee’s career has been sadly cut short, there is no doubt that his legacy is clear for anyone interested in thinking about sport in historical, political, social, and cultural terms. Rest in peace, Mike.

Amy Bass teaches history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, and earned an Emmy Award in 2012 as supervisor of the Research Room for NBC’s Olympics coverage. Amy tweets at @bassab1.