Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."