Celebrations and Attacks

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Now that Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling are dead, Irving Howe is America’s reigning man of letters. Indeed, it is difficult to think of anyone who seriously challenges his position. Malcolm Cowley and Alfred Kazin should perhaps be considered for the honor, but it is now questionable whether they are of Howe’s stature in the field. The literary critics, besides Howe, who speak with the most authority outside the academic journals, are, curiously, British—men such as George Steiner, V. S. Pritchett, and Denis Donoghue. The professors are addressing only themselves on increasingly specialized topics, and the creative writers, with the exception of John Updike, are not doing any notable criticism.

When one compares the previous generation, roughly spanning the years 1935 to 1965, with the present in terms of critical achievement, one has the feeling we are in a kind of latency period. During that earlier time, we not only witnessed the birth and flourishing of such brilliant journals as the Partisan, Kenyon, and Hudson reviews, and Commentary, but we also enjoyed the writings of critics, besides Wilson and Trilling, such as Philip Rahv, William Philips, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Richard Chase, and Robert Penn Warren. This is not even to mention T. S. Eliot, who continued to write prose into the 1940’s and 1950’s. From our present vantage, it is apparent that that age was the great one of criticism in American literature.

It is perhaps idle to speculate, at least here, about the causes of the lacuna; but it does not have to do with anything so dramatic as the “death of criticism.” In fact, much very able work, both scholarly and general, is being done; but no major critics, with the exception of Irving Howe, have emerged to teach us how to look at literature and culture in new and provocative ways. Certainly it is possible that we are haunted by the weight and scope of the fathers, unwilling to compete with their achievement, choosing other territories. It is also true that real doubts have been raised in regard to the efficacy of literary criticism to say anything significant about culture. The social sciences, along with their offshoot, literary structuralism, have gained the ascendancy. Besides, rational mind in general is looked upon with a good deal of skepticism.

The credentials of an homme de lettres must, of course, include more than literary criticism in the narrow sense of the phrase. Wilson and Trilling, for example, not only addressed themselves to fiction and poetry, but also to biography, history, politics, and culture in general. Both of them wrote fiction as well. As Matthew Arnold taught us, the true critic takes all knowledge as his province, expanding the notion of literature to embrace “the best that is known and thought,” and not, as it is now more often understood, to include just works of the fictive imagination. Criticism itself is essentially a discovery of knowledge, and an effort to establish truths more adequate than the current ones, rather than a mere aesthetic judgment. It is, moreover, as Arnold also believed, a social act in the way it is preoccupied with the health of the body politic, and particularly with the welfare of the mind in its function of making society.

It is in this Arnoldian sense that Irving Howe is a critic, and it is because of the breadth and achievement of his work that he deserves to be regarded as a man of letters. Just where he will stand in relation to his predecessors is a judgment best postponed, for we require more of a perspective, made possible only in time, to pass it. At any rate, the current book under consideration, Celebrations and Attacks, does not provide an opportunity to make such an evaluation, since it is, for the most part, a collection of book reviews, writings of the moment rather than of study and reflection. Howe’s reputation now stands solidly on three collections of literary essays (The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture, Decline of the New, and Politics and the Novel); a book of cultural commentary (Steady Work); three critical studies (Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner: A Critical Study and Sherwood Anderson); and, primarily, on his magnificent history of New York Jews, World of Our Fathers. In addition, early in his career, he coauthored histories of the American Communist Party and of the UAW. His most recent book is a monograph on Trotsky. Finally, while he is a Professor of English at City University of New York, he is also the editor of the distinguished socialist journal, Dissent.

Celebrations and Attacks, even though it represents his work over a thirty-year period, does not begin, then, to indicate the cogency of Howe’s thought. With...

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