Irving Howe made his mark as an editor, literary critic, and political writer. He was born into a working-class family in New York City on June 11, 1920, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, David and Nettie (Goldman) Howe. The major influence on Irving’s youth was Max Schachtman, a Polish-born disciple of Leon Trotsky. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York in 1940, Irving, who profoundly admired Trotsky, turned to full-time writing and editing for Labor Action, the periodical of Schachtman’s newly founded Workers’ Party.
Howe was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and posted in Alaska. In 1946, after his discharge, Howe began to write literary criticism for periodicals outside Schachtman’s orbit, such as Commentary, The Nation, and the leftist literary magazine Partisan Review; in 1948 he became a book reviewer for Time magazine. In 1951 his study of the Midwestern short-story writer Sherwood Anderson was published; a book on the southern writer William Faulkner came out the following year; and in 1957 there appeared Politics and the Novel, a series of essays dealing with the treatment of ideology in fiction. In 1953 Howe was appointed professor of English at Brandeis University; later he taught at Stanford University from 1961 to 1963 and, after 1963, at City University of New York.
Although Howe broke with Schachtman politically in 1952, he refused to embrace the then-fashionable notion that Socialist ideology was no longer relevant to American life. To provide a Socialist analysis of current affairs, Howe cofounded, in 1954, the magazine Dissent.
From the mid-1960’s onward, Howe criticized the New Leftists, who gained support by opposing the Vietnam War, for what he considered to be moral absolutism and a dangerous naïveté about Communism. As a literary critic, Howe opposed the cultural radicalism of the 1960’s as well. In the last section of a 1968 essay, “The New York Intellectuals,” reprinted in Decline of the New, he attacked what he saw as the irrationalism of those artists and writers popularly known as the counterculture.
After the demise of the New Left, Howe, who had now begun to criticize the United States’ drift toward political conservatism, gradually became more a scholarly chronicler of the Socialist tradition than an effective advocate for it. Howe’s massive history of the Eastern European immigrant Jews of New York City, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, became a best-seller. Other historical works followed: a biography of Trotsky in 1978, Socialism and America in 1985, and a book on...
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