Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent Summary

Gerald Sorin

Summary

In addition to presenting the intellectual, historical, and personal elements in Irving Howe’s long and productive life, author Gerald Sorin also uses this biography to trace three passions that fed Howe’s thought: socialism, literature, and Jewishness. Sorin’s analysis of the relationships among these three elements emerges within the pages of the biography. Irving Howe is a tribute to Howe himself, to the importance of intelligent political passion, and to the necessity of dissent in a vital democracy.

Howe’s overriding commitment to democratic socialism emerged relatively early in his life. His earliest experiences with Marxism in the American strain came when he joined the Trotskyite Young People’s Socialist League as a teenager. Howe was sensitized early to the deleterious human costs of American capitalism when he observed his own family’s downward mobility during the Great Depression, combined with his childhood witnessing of the economic and social struggles in his largely Jewish immigrant neighborhood in New York’s Bronx of the 1930’s. Howe came of age in a family in which people routinely voted the Socialist Party ticket and supported the unions and in which young people took books, politics, and ideas seriously.

Although Howe later distanced himself from the Trotskyite movements on the American Left, his increasingly sharp anti-Stalinist critique of Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism and the American Communist Party never took him out of the democratic Left. As Sorin makes clear throughout the book, Howe remained a committed democratic socialist until the end of his life. His break with Marxist “orthodoxy” never served as springboard into the so-called neoconservatism of other repentant American leftists. Readers will come away from this biography with a substantive inventory of important distinctions among leftist theories of the American twentieth century: Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyite Socialism, democratic socialism, and liberal radicalism.

Howe was best known outside political circles as a literary critic and scholar. His classic bookPolitics and the Novel (1957) remains an important argument for the fusion of political vision with aesthetic depth in literary art. Howe also wrote books on writers Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Thomas Hardy and many articles of literary criticism. He edited and coedited several collections of Yiddish poetry and prose as well as collections of Jewish American short stories. As a social critic, Howe also wrote or coedited numerous works devoted to American politics and intellectual history. The American Newness (1986), for example, grapples with individualism as a social force via an analysis of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. Howe’s autobiography, A Margin of Hope (1982), serves as his critical commentary on the American twentieth century. His book Leon Trotsky (1978), his early labor study titled The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949), and later books such as Socialism and America (1985) or Steady Work: Essays in the Politics of Democratic Radicalism (1966) show Howe at work as social historian, using the interpretive lens of the democratic Left.

Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent offers such an intellectually detailed and conceptually animated account of Howe’s work, in fact, that many readers will choose to read, or reread, his books and essays. For example, Sorin structures a full chapter around Howe’s 1954 essay “The Age of Conformity,” placing the essay in the broader contexts of that decade’s bureaucratic conformity and the resulting professional and political complacency of much of the American “professional class.” Readers who then tackle the essay itself will find, as promised, a sharp political voice that still inspires a useful political restlessness, even for people who may not share all of Howe’s political ideas.

Speaking of political restlessness, any biography of Howe must account for his notorious entanglements with other writers and activists. Sorin is both fair-minded and specific as he charts these, exploring various disputes, alliances, fusions, and splits with insight and thoughtfulness. Sorin pays close attention to Howe’s long-standing and sometimes fond, sometimes acrimonious (sometimes both at the same time) relationships with other intellectuals like Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, Alfred Kazin, and Michael...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)