Irving Howe 1920–1993
American critic, essayist, editor, historian, nonfiction writer, biographer, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Howe's career.
Best known for World of Our Fathers (1976), his cultural study of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Howe was one of the "New York Intellectuals," a group of writers and critics—which included Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, and Alfred Kazin—that became nationally prominent in the 1940s. As a critic and editor, Howe introduced English-speaking readers to the work of Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and founded the journal Dissent, a quarterly devoted to democratic socialism. Although some commentators have criticized Howe—a lifelong socialist—for allowing his political views to cloud his critical judgment, he is generally admired for his engaging writing style, staunch intellectual honesty, and lucid assessments of both literature and historical events. A critic for The New Yorker wrote that "for Irving Howe literature and politics were both part of a project greater than either, which was to treat all things of the mind and of the artistic senses with perfect seriousness, and to be true to his own responses and thoughts, and to be no one but himself."
Howe was born in the East Bronx, New York, an impoverished community whose population was predominantly Eastern European and Jewish. His parents operated a grocery store there until it went bankrupt in 1930, at which time they both became workers in the garment industry. A socialist since the age of fourteen, Howe espoused concern for the common man throughout his career as an academic and social critic. He attended City College of New York, where he took an active role in the informal political debates between the socialists and communists on campus, and graduated in 1940. He subsequently spent one and a half years in graduate study at Brooklyn College before entering the U.S. Army and serving in Alaska during World War II. Howe returned to New York after the war and wrote articles and reviews for such journals as Partisan Review, Commentary, and Time. In 1953 he founded Dissent and remained its editor until his death. Howe also began his academic career in 1953 when he became a professor of English at Brandeis University. He subsequently taught at Stanford University and in 1970 became distinguished professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York. In 1976 Howe received a National Book Award for World of Our Fathers. He died in 1993.
The focus of Howe's works covers three basic areas of concern—contemporary politics and society, Yiddish literature and culture, and literary criticism. In such works as The American Communist Party (1957) and Socialism and America (1985), Howe investigated the development and subsequent deterioration of leftist politics in the United States, attributing the decline of the American Socialist Party to its failure to recognize the distinctive characteristics of American society. Among his best-known political essays are "This Age of Conformity" and "New Styles in Leftism," both published in Steady Work (1966). The former remarks on the absorption of intellectuals into the higher strata of society and their resulting inability to analyze and criticize the elite class, while the latter focuses on the New Left movement of the 1960s, castigating it as "mindless activism" that celebrates violence and lacks any firm grounding in political theory. In Leon Trotsky (1978) Howe assessed Trotsky's historical importance and examined his conception of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. Howe's work in Yiddish literature and culture includes several collections of Yiddish stories, poetry, essays, and memoirs that he edited along with Eliezer Greenberg. His best-known work, World of Our Fathers, presents an account of East European Jewish immigrant culture in New York City during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Based on extensive research, the book, coauthored with Kenneth Libo, offers a broad picture of Jewish life as well as striking portraits of such renowned Jewish figures as Isaac Bashevis Singer. Though not a work of conventional history—World of Our Fathers reviews themes and subjects already addressed in other works and offers no new interpretations—it is one of the most comprehensive treatments of its subject available in a single source. Howe's literary criticism includes monographs on Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Thomas Hardy as well as several collections of essays and reviews. Among his best-known essays is "The New York Intellectuals," published in Decline of the New (1970), in which he examined the evolution of the New York Intellectuals' literary theory, which was heavily influenced by socialist concepts.
Commentators generally describe Howe's works as highly readable and praise his ability to synthesize previous interpretations and place his subjects in a historical perspective. Critics did not consider such books as Leon Trotsky, for example, to be the most scholarly treatment available but nonetheless viewed it as an insightful and valuable introduction to Trotsky's political ideology. In assessing his literary criticism, scholars have noted Howe's preeminent concern with the cultural and ideological ramifications of literary works, and several have charged him with allowing his political preoccupations to overly influence his critical judgment. Despite reservations that Howe was not the critic best suited to write on the works of Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, scholars have nonetheless found his literary criticism insightful and valuable. Commenting on the diversity of Howe's works as well as his efforts to preserve Yiddish culture and the efficacy of socialism, Sanford Pinsker wrote that the phrase "'Trying to keep alive a tradition' … as much as anything, might do rough justice to the seemingly disparate activities that make up the zigzagging graph of Howe's career."
The U.A.W. and Walter Reuther (nonfiction) 1949
Sherwood Anderson (criticism) 1951
William Faulkner: A Critical Study (criticism) 1952; enlarged and revised editions, 1962 and 1975
A Treasury of Yiddish Stories [editor, with Eliezer Greenberg] (short stories) 1954
The American Communist Party: A Critical History, 1919–1957 [with Lewis Coser and Julius Jacobson] (history) 1957
Politics and the Novel (criticism) 1957
A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (essays) 1963
Steady Work: Essays in the Politics of Democratic Radicalism, 1953–1966 (essays) 1966
The Radical Imagination: An Anthology from "Dissent" Magazine [editor] (essays) 1967
Thomas Hardy (criticism) 1967
A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry [editor, with Eliezer Greenberg] (poetry) 1969
Decline of the New (essays) 1970
Voices from the Yiddish [editor, with Eliezer Greenberg] (essays, memoirs, and diaries) 1972
The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture (essays) 1973
World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made [with Kenneth Libo] (history) 1976; also published as The Immigrant Jews of New York, 1881 to the Present, 1976
Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet-Yiddish Writers [editor, with Eliezer Greenberg] (short stories)...
(The entire section is 237 words.)
SOURCE: "Rise of a Union," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 169, No. 13, September 24, 1949, pp. 303-04.
[Schlesinger is a prominent American historian and leading intellectual figure in liberal politics. He has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize: first for The Age of Jackson (1945) and then for A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965). In the review below, he remarks favorably on The U.A.W. and Walter Reuther.]
The United Automobile Workers is one of the great and astonishing achievements of contemporary American life. Growing up in Detroit, that great, steaming swamp of a city, drawing its membership in great part from tense and embittered minorities, confronted by peculiarly rich and ruthless corporations, the U. A. W. has yet shown a reassuring degree of trade-union efficiency and of political sanity. Its top leadership, moreover, was for many years bumbling and mediocre. Yet the U. A. W. has not only survived Homer Martin and R. J. Thomas; it has not only beaten off a series of conspiratorial factions, from the KKK and the Black Legion to the Trotskyites and the Communist Party; but it has ended by becoming the great model for militant labor in America and by raising to leadership the most formidable new personality in the American labor movement.
The story of the U. A. W. is only partly the story of Walter Reuther; but the two stories are...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
SOURCE: "No Rules for What Sherwood Anderson Tried to Do," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 8, 1951, p. 3.
[An American critic, editor, poet, translator, and historian, Cowley has made valuable contributions to contemporary letters with his editions of the works of such American authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Ernest Hemingway. In the review below, he argues that Howe was not the critic best suited to discuss Anderson's works but nonetheless finds Howe's treatment satisfactory.]
Among their other duties the four editors of the American Men of Letters Series—Joseph Wood Krutch, Margaret Marshall, Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren—have to serve as marriage brokers and officiating clergymen. They find an American author whose life and work should be revaluated, they find what they hope will be an appropriate critic and they bring them together in holy wedlock. The marriage lines are a publisher's contract and the dowry is an advance against royalties. The offspring is a book and, if eugenic principles have been observed, it is usually a good one.
Recently the four editors have godfathered and mothered some excellent books. Newton Arvin's Melville, which won the National Book Award as the best recent work of criticism by any American writer. John Berryman's Stephen Crane is a reinterpretation based on new material and new insights; and I...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
SOURCE: "The Depth of Faulkner's Art," in The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1952, p. 3.
[A highly respected American literary critic, Kazin is best known for his essay collections The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), and particularly for On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American prose writing since the era of William Dean Howells. In the review below, he offers a mixed assessment of William Faulkner: A Critical Study, faulting Howe for failing to fully assess Faulkner's Southern background.]
Although Faulkner seems at last to have come into his own, Irving Howe's book [William Faulkner: A Critical Study], the latest of several recent critical studies, makes one wonder how much of Faulkner's new prestige is due to the lack of competition rather than to our own clear and positive realization of his originality. As Mr. Howe says, he is now "the most impressive living American novelist"—and no wonder, considering how starved we are for novelists with half his boldness and depth, and what a succession of anticlimaxes we have been getting, from Caldwell and Steinbeck, up to Hemingway and Dos Passos, the once dominant novelists of our period. Surely there is something about Faulkner himself that explains why perhaps no other American writer since Melville has in our time so deeply affected the thinking of so many people everywhere in the world....
(The entire section is 1151 words.)
SOURCE: "It's Fiction All Right, But Is It Political?" in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1957, p. 4.
[O'Connor was an Irish short story writer and critic. In the following review, he offers a mixed assessment of Politics and the Novel.]
The title of Irving Howe's book of essays [Politics and the Novel] seems to me a great pity. It is a pity from the point of view of the Common Reader like myself who does not want to read another word on the subject of Malraux, Koestler and George Orwell, and is liable to overlook the fact that the book also deals with Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Turgenev and Henry James, and deals with them in a way that the lover of the novel is bound to appreciate.
It is also a pity from Mr. Howe's point of view, for it is clear that, having invented the category of the political novel, he then went home and worried about whether there was any such thing; and in the middle of an admirable piece of literary exposition will suddenly begin to worry again, and let the baby fall, and have to send for the doctor. If there is such a thing as a political novel I should have thought it might be found among the half dozen wonderful stories that Trollope wrote about the English democratic system of government. Mr. Howe apparently disagrees.
"The greatest of all political novels," he tells us, is The Possessed, and this "was written...
(The entire section is 682 words.)
SOURCE: "The Inevitable Tensions of the Political Novel," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXVI, No. 6, May 10, 1957, pp. 159-60.
[In the following review of Politics and the Novel, Duffy praises Howe's commentary on nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels but finds that his political commitment sometimes supercedes his literary judgement.]
The number of intelligent and perceptive books on the novel is so few that it is especially pleasant to welcome an addition to that small group. In Politics and the Novel Irving Howe makes a limited approach to fiction, but it is a worthwhile one because of the material he has chosen and because of his special talents and interests as a critic.
Howe is one of those critics whose concern is not solely with the literary work as formal object but also, and often more notably, with its cultural and ideological ramifications. In the field of literary history the late F. O. Matthiessen of Harvard gave brilliant evidence of the possibilities of such criticism in his American Renaissance. And Lionel Trilling of Columbia, the most distinguished of American critics, almost everywhere in his writing takes notice of what he himself calls the "hum and buzz" of cultural activity out of which art is conceived and to which, as well, it contributes.
Although Howe's literary intelligence is not so finely persuasive as Trilling's, and...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)
SOURCE: "The Way of Communism in America," in The Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 1958, p. 9.
[Beichman is an American educator, political scientist, and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a mixed assessment of The American Communist Party, praising the style of the book's language but questioning the depth of Howe's scholarship.]
The [Communist Party] in America from its creation four decades ago has been many things—a congeries of heterogeneous radicals talking to nobody but themselves; then militant shock brigadiers awaiting an American revolution a la Russe; then would-be creators of a mass party via the "united front"; then cadremen in American labor and intellectual circles; then isolationists during the Hitler-Stalin pact; then "rightist" interventionists following the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R.; then "leftist" creators of the Progressive Party, and on and on until today, when they are apparently without domestic strategy or program.
The Howe-Coser book [The American Communist Party: A Critical History] (both men are professors at Brandeis University) depicts with limitless detail the story of the CP, U.S.A., from its weird birth to its present dotage. While it cannot compare to the scholarly objectivity of the recently published Roots of American Communism, by Theodore Draper, it is a fascinating work because the material is so...
(The entire section is 868 words.)
SOURCE: "Introduction to Recent History," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXVIII, No. 18, August 1, 1958, pp. 452-53.
[Harrington was an American educator and social commentator who was best known for The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962) and The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization (1983). In the review below, he praises The American Communist Party for its balanced approach, accessibility, and historical perspective.]
This new book on the American Communist Party fulfills a very real need: it provides an excellent introduction to a topic which has been central to many of the domestic political debates of the past decade. It is not as comprehensive and as scholarly as Theodore Draper's brilliant Roots of American Communism (that study, the first of two, ended in the twenties; The American Communist Party covers the entire period of 1919 to 1957), but rather complementary to it. The authors are more journalistic in their treatment, more political in their approach, than Draper, but this allows their analysis to be accessible to a wider audience.
But perhaps the major merit of this new book is that it puts the question of the Communist Party into some kind of a historical and political perspective. For one thing, the authors understand the essential political link between the American Communists and the...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Decline of the New, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LII, No. 27, July 4, 1970, pp. 30-1, 50.
[Littlejohn is an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following review, he examines the central themes of Decline of the New and faults Howe's tone as bitter and defensive.]
The scrapbooks of literary critics—those periodic collections of essays, reviews, lectures, and prefaces—have always seemed to me a bit difficult to justify. Who ever buys them, except libraries? In the present case justification might appear even harder than usual, since seven of the seventeen pieces in Decline of the New are reprinted from Irving Howe's last collection, A World More Attractive, published only seven years ago. And two of these—one on black writers, one on the "angries" and the "beats"—the author admits are seriously out of date.
My guess is that this book came into being primarily in order to give Mr. Howe's essay "The New York Intellectuals"—and possibly just its last 6,000 or 7,000 words—a wider circulation and a more durable setting than was provided by the October 1968 issue of Commentary, where it first appeared, and that the author did not have enough additional new material on hand to fill up a 300-page book.
Which is not to say that Decline of the New is indefensible, or unreadable. Writers...
(The entire section is 2018 words.)
SOURCE: A review of World of Our Fathers, in The New York Times Book Review, February 1, 1976, pp. 1-2, 28-30.
[Solotaroff is an American editor, educator, essayist, and critic. In the review below, he discusses some of the major themes of East European Jewish immigrant culture presented in World of Our Fathers, particularly socialism and Yiddishkeit.]
The first generation tries to retain as much as possible, the second to forget, the third to remember. Little wonder that the outcropping of American-Jewish writing in the past 30 years is so often a literature of memory, an attempt to recover the world of childhood and adolescence as the last place the trail of Jewish identity was seen before it faded into the lawns of suburbia and the bright corridors of the professions. Why this interest, though? "Why not stick to the present," as my father would say. "The farther back you go, the more miserable it gets."
The main reason, I think, is that the third-generation Jew like myself intermittently experiences himself as walking around in America with a case of cultural amnesia, full of ancestral promptings and demurrers pulsing away. That's why Portnoy's Complaint rang bells like mad. But Roth's novel was a two-generational psychological farce—Freud played by the Marx Brothers—which can only explore its point by simplifying and tickling it. The secret communications...
(The entire section is 3505 words.)
SOURCE: "Yiddishkeit," in Commentary, Vol. 61, No. 4, April, 1976, pp. 83-6.
[Alter is an American educator and critic who specializes in Hebrew literature. In the following review, he praises World of Our Fathers for its comprehensiveness and its illumination of the paradoxes governing Yiddish immigrant culture.]
There is a haunting phrase at the end of the introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, written twenty-two years ago by Irving Howe in collaboration with Eliezer Greenberg, which lingers in the imagination because it defines an impelling paradox of Jewish existence. Howe and Greenberg, after seventy-one luminous pages which trace the backgrounds and the guiding assumptions of Yiddish literature, ruefully note how this once folk-oriented literature now survives in isolated pockets of writers and readers still stubbornly clinging "to a language which for them is not only history but the answer to history." It is an answer for them, of course, as it cannot be for us. Now, in an ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between them and us through a sustained act of imagination, Howe has written World of Our Fathers, a massive account of East European Jewish immigrant life in New York City and of the culture of Yiddishkeit that expressed most of the distinctive values the immigrants sought to transplant and cultivate on American soil.
The tension between...
(The entire section is 1745 words.)
SOURCE: "A Figure of Flawed Greatness," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 227, No. 9, September 23, 1978, pp. 277-78.
[Rabinowitch is an English-born American educator and historian who specializes in the history of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the review below, he praises Leon Trotsky as a "highly stimulating contribution to the literature about Trotsky and early Soviet history."]
Among the two dozen or so writers and political figures who are the subjects of Viking's "Modern Masters" biographical studies ("men who have changed and are changing the life and thought of our age") surely history has been cruelest to Leon Trotsky. Trotsky's central role in the Russian Revolution has been completely obliterated in Soviet historical works and sorely mangled even in many recent Western studies. Moreover, until the last few years, apart from the now classic work of the late Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky's life and thought have been virtually ignored as a subject for serious scholarship. Framed against this background of misrepresentation and neglect, Irving Howe's illuminating short study about, in Howe's words, "one of the titans of our century," is especially welcome.
Howe makes it clear [in Leon Trotsky] that he does not intend to be comprehensive. He has barely touched on those developments which are essential to an informed understanding of the fate of Bolshevism and of Trotsky...
(The entire section is 1547 words.)
SOURCE: In an interview in Book Forum, Vol. V, No. 4, 1981, pp. 534-40.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1980 while Howe was the Visiting Hurst Professor in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Howe comments on literature, education, and socialism.]
[Greenberg]: Mr. Howe, you recently described current novels as thin, lacking in substance and morality. Do you believe the novel as a form is exhausted?
[Howe]: I think it is presumptuous for critics or anyone else to speak of the exhaustion of a form that has been so rich and fruitful as the novel has been. All literary forms go through high and low points, plateaus and planes, and right now we seem to be experiencing what I take to be a plane. This is a judgment that other critics would probably call into question or deny, and it is possible that what we are confronting here is a generational difference, namely, that people of my age find it difficult to adapt to some of the new voices and tones and sensibilities that have since appeared. That is always a possibility, and it is foolish to deny it. I, of course, stand by my own judgments; other people have a right to call those into question.
What, more precisely, are your reasons for believing that we are on a 'plane' right now?
Much of the fiction that is published these days, though I...
(The entire section is 2925 words.)
SOURCE: "Ciao! Manhattan," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXX, No. 1, February 3, 1983, pp. 5-6.
[Brustein is an American educator and critic. In the following review of A Margin of Hope, Brustein focuses on Howe's ideas on politics and literature.]
In what is left of the old community of New York intellectuals, we find writers trying to reconstruct and validate their pasts, while retaliating for old injuries and making conflicting claims about the intellectual disputes of the last few decades. Norman Podhoretz's Breaking Ranks and William Barrett's The Truants both deal very differently with some of the events and literary figures that Irving Howe describes in A Margin of Hope. At a time when this community has never been more bitterly split, Howe's "intellectual autobiography" provides valuable insights into how it fell apart, if not much hope for bringing about future amity.
That Howe is now able to regard his own contentious past with a certain bemused detachment inspires trust in his treatment of the intellectual dogfights and sectarian struggles of those argumentative years. If not precisely self-effacing, his tone is pervaded by ingratiating self-criticism. He makes it clear, for example, that he and his Trotskyist friends at City College in the 1930s were so concentrated on the evils of Stalinism and capitalism that they did not see clearly the...
(The entire section is 2520 words.)
SOURCE: "A Radical and His Roots," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4170, March 4, 1983, pp. 203-04.
[Symons was an English novelist, poet, biographer, and critic best known for his detective fiction. In the review below, he presents a balanced assessment of Howe's autobiography.]
"Don't you feel", John Berryman once asked Irving Howe, "that Rimbaud's chaos is central to your life?" He replied in the negative, as he had failed to share Delmore Schwartz's feeling that on some mornings he couldn't even bear to tie up his own shoelaces. Such expressions of preference for order over chaos, and of belief that he could manage the simple, practical affairs of life, made Howe an object of amused pity in those Princeton circles, "a nice fellow, but not one of the haloed victims". But he was not cast down. "Berryman might have Rimbaud and chaos, but I had Marx and history."
Marx and history, or one might say more exactly Trotsky and radical politics, have been the guidelines of Irving Howe's life. Novelists, poets and critics who have taken a dip into politics and found the water too hot or too cold are familiar, but Howe is something much rarer in the United States and almost unknown in Britain, a man primarily involved throughout much of his adult life with politics who has retained a deep interest in literary creation. It is true that his interest is chiefly in the social aspect of such...
(The entire section is 2871 words.)
SOURCE: "The Lost Cause," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, January 30, 1986, pp. 26-8.
[Woodward is an American educator and historian who is best known for Origins of the New South: 1877–1913 (1951). In the following review, he discusses Howe's explanation of the failure of socialism in the United States.]
Lost causes, especially those that foster lingering loyalties and nostalgic memories, are among the most prolific breeders of historiography. If survivors deem the cause not wholly lost and perhaps in some measure retrievable, the search of the past becomes more frantic and the books about it more numerous. Blame must be fixed, villains found, heroes celebrated, old quarrels settled, old dreams restored, and motives vindicated. Amid the ruins controversy thrives and books proliferate.
Few would deny that at present the socialist cause in America has rarely looked more lost, its prospects more dismal, or its adherents more divided and confused. Yet the search of the past for answers to the old questions continues undiminished. Why is this country the only industrial nation in history that has produced no significant movement for socialism? Were the causes of failure to be found outside or inside the movement? In either case what were they? Why the ups and downs of such small successes as were briefly enjoyed? Why, in the last upswing, did members of the...
(The entire section is 4418 words.)
SOURCE: "Irving Howe: The Pathos of the Left in the Reagan Era," in his The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology and Culture in the United States, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1988, pp. 337-47.
[Marx is an American educator and critic. In the following review of The American Newness originally published in 1987 in The New York Times, he critiques Howe's thoughts on Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualist philosophy.]
Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Probably no impression Tocqueville had during his 1831–32 tour of the United States was more provocative—or dismaying—than the prospect of a society in which, as he puts it, "every man seeks for his opinions within himself," and turns "all his feelings … towards himself alone." But he takes pains, in Democracy in America, to distinguish this "vice" from ordinary selfishness or égoïsme, a passionate and exaggerated love of self that is not characteristic of any particular form of society. Far from being a psychological abnormality, the unusual self-centeredness of Americans is of democratic origin: a calm, mature,...
(The entire section is 3648 words.)
SOURCE: "Lost Causes/Marginal Hopes: The Collected Elegies of Irving Howe," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 215-30.
[Pinsker is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on Jewish-American literature. In the essay below, he presents an overview of the recurring themes in Howe's writings.]
God died in the nineteenth century, utopia in the twentieth.
—from Irving Howe's A Margin of Hope.
At one point in A Margin of Hope (1982), Irving Howe's intellectual autobiography, he speaks of himself as "moving closer to the secular Yiddish milieu at the very moment it was completing its decline"—and then he wonders, almost as an afterthought, if this newfound passion is not perhaps "Another lost cause added to my collection." Such candor on Howe's part has hardly been in short supply; indeed, it is precisely this ability to look upon both the world and the Self with a critical, often skeptical, detachment—and to report the results with an unflinching honesty—that have been the hallmarks of his eloquent, forceful style. In the long arc of his career—as political radical, as polemicist, as editor, as educator, as literary critic, and, not least of all, as writer—there have, indeed, been lost causes aplenty, and, perhaps more important, countless...
(The entire section is 5258 words.)
SOURCE: "Critical Mind, Stubborn Heart," in Commonweal, August 9, 1991, pp. 489-90.
[Siegel is an American educator, nonfiction writer, poet, and critic. In the following review of Selected Writings 1950–1990, he remarks on Howe's literary tastes and criticism.]
Irving Howe's writings continue to enact the tension between thinking and doing, cerebral play and social responsibility, that has been the public trial of the modern, urban-based intellectual; they approach literature as a consequential event, and analyze social and political events as if they deserved the attention of great literature. "My belief," Howe writes in the preface to [Selected Writings 1950–1990], "is that it should be possible for a serious person to hold more than one interest, or one idea, at a time." The lightly ironic tone should not be necessary. No serious person reading these brilliant essays on literature, culture, politics, and society will fail to admire the range of Howe's interests and expertise, or to be moved by the impassioned judgments he expends on what he sees happening in the world before him.
To modify a famous term from T. S. Eliot, Jewish-American intellectuals have usually required an objectionable correlative. Howe himself dubbed the most influential generation of those—now mostly erstwhile—virtuosi of opposition the "New York Intellectuals," a loosely cohesive group...
(The entire section is 1526 words.)
SOURCE: "Critics at the Top," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 14, August 15, 1991, pp. 53-6.
[Donoghue is an Irish-born educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he comments on Selected Writings 1950–1990, noting the relationship between Howe's social views and his literary criticism.]
I don't know what readers would make of Irving Howe's Selected Writings 1950–1990 if they didn't place a high valuation upon the axiom of society; if they didn't regard social considerations as of the first importance. It is not to be expected that in a selection of his essays over a period of forty years Howe will always be found enforcing the same emphases, but he has never forgotten the social imperative or its bearing upon literature and criticism. In "Writing and the Holocaust" (1986) he has this paragraph:
Chaim Kaplan's Warsaw diary, covering a bit less than a year from its opening date of September 1, 1938, is a document still recognizably within the main tradition of Western writing: a man observes crucial events and strives to grasp their significance. Kaplan's diary shows the discipline of a trained observer; his prose is lucid and restrained; he records the effort of Warsaw Jewry to keep a fragment of its culture alive even as it stumbles into death; and he reveals a torn soul wondering what premises of faith, or delusion, sustain...
(The entire section is 1235 words.)
SOURCE: "Remembering Irving Howe (1920–93)," in The New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1993, p. 31.
[A friend of Howe's for many years, Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. In the following essay, he discusses Howe's views on politics, literature, and Judaism.]
It was a moody September morning in 1991, and we were walking down Madison Avenue, gossiping about books, when Irving Howe changed the subject. "Something happened to me in Paris that you might understand" was how he began the least likely conversation we ever had. "I was in the garden at the Rodin Museum. For a few minutes I was alone, sitting on a stone bench between two long hedges of roses. Pink roses. Suddenly I felt the most powerful feeling of peace, and I had the thought that death, if it means an absorption into a reality like the one that was before me, might be all right."
That was all. I mumbled something about the importance of such an experience, and said nothing more; illuminations are not occasions for criticism. But I was filled with gladness for my friend. He had recently recovered from a rattling period of physical infirmity; and during those months, when he fought his fear with the help of Haydn, and Proust, and the first tranquilizers of his otherwise urbane life, I had wondered whether his urbanity, his intellectual strictness, his decades of dialectic, had adequately prepared him...
(The entire section is 1527 words.)
SOURCE: "On Irving Howe," in Partisan Review, Vol. LX, No. 3, 1993, pp. 343-47.
[Radosh is an American educator and historian. In the following essay, he comments on the evolution of Howe's political views.]
Irving Howe was one of our greatest intellects, a man of passion and intelligence who epitomized the now-lost world of the 1930s and 1940s "New York Intellectuals," a term he himself coined in a 1968 essay. He was by profession a literary critic, who wrote about Celine and Emerson, and of course, the world of the Yiddish community in which he grew up, and from which he brought the world's attention to a then-unknown Isaac Bashevis Singer. But Howe was also a student of culture who could not separate himself from the turmoil of his own world. As he once put it, the socialist movement was his school and his university. He grew up in its milieu and, until his recent death, never left its ranks.
Future biographers will eventually give us a full picture of Howe's life. But it is not too early to set out some thoughts about his accomplishments and failures. Howe, of course, tried to do this himself, in his 1982 autobiography, A Margin of Hope. Herein he presented his own estimate of the meaning of his life's course. As usual with Howe, there is much wisdom to be found in its pages. Howe understood, as so many of his contemporaries did not, that in the search for utopia lay the...
(The entire section is 2035 words.)
Capouya, Emile. "The Political Essays of Irving Howe." Commonweal LXXXV, No. 10 (9 December 1966): 295-97.
Reviews Steady Work and describes Howe's politics as a "minimum program adopted in despair of the possibilities for fundamental reform."
Carr, E. H. "A Friend of the Revolution." The New York Times Book Review (26 November 1978): 9, 94.
Compares Howe's Leon Trotsky and Baruch Knei-Paz's The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, noting that both authors seem caught in a paradox concerning the inevitability of history and the perversion of the Russian Revolution.
Donoghue, Denis. "Irving Howe's Steady Work." The New York Times Book Review (11 March 1979): 9, 18-19.
Assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Celebrations and Attacks.
Geismar, Maxwell. "A Rapt & Tumid Power." The Saturday Review (12 July 1952): 10-11.
Reviews William Faulkner, praising Howe's analysis of social-economic patterns in Faulkner's works while criticizing Howe's discussion of cultural and psychological issues.
Klein, Marcus. "Heritage of the Ghetto." The Nation 222, No. 12...
(The entire section is 614 words.)