Irving Howe Essay - Critical Essays

Howe, Irving


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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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) 1977
Leon Trotsky (biography) 1978; also published as Trotsky, 1978
Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary (essays) 1979
How We Lived: A Documentary History of Immigrant Jews in America, 1880–1930 [editor, with Kenneth Libo] (nonfiction) 1979
A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (autobiography) 1982
Socialism and America (nonfiction) 1985
The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson (nonfiction) 1986
Selected Writings 1950–1990 (essays) 1990
A Critic's Notebook (essays) 1994


Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (review date 24 September 1949)

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...

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Malcolm Cowley (review date 8 April 1951)

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...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 13 July 1952)

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...

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Frank O'Connor (review date 31 March 1957)

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...

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Joseph M. Duffy, Jr. (review date 10 May 1957)

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...

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Arnold Beichman (review date 22 May 1958)

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...

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Michael Harrington (review date 1 August 1958)

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...

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David Littlejohn (review date 4 July 1970)

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...

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Theodore Solotaroff (review date 1 February 1976)

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...

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Robert Alter (review date April 1976)

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...

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Alexander Rabinowitch (review date 23 September 1978)

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...

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Irving Howe with Sandra Greenberg (interview date Winter 1980)

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...

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Robert Brustein (review date 3 February 1983)

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...

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Julian Symons (review date 4 March 1983)

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...

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C. Vann Woodward (review date 30 January 1986)

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...

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Leo Marx (review date 12 March 1987)

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.


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Sanford Pinsker (essay date Spring 1989)

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...

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Lee Siegel (review date 9 August 1991)

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...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 15 August 1991)

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...

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Leon Wieseltier (essay date 23 May 1993)

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...

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Ronald Radosh (essay date 1993)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 614 words.)