Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent

Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent

by Gerald Sorin

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A New York Times “Books for Summer Reading” selection

Winner of the 2003 National Jewish Book Award for History

By the time he died in 1993 at the age of 73, Irving Howe was one of the twentieth century’s most important public thinkers. Deeply passionate, committed to social reform and secular Jewishness, ardently devoted to

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A New York Times “Books for Summer Reading” selection

Winner of the 2003 National Jewish Book Award for History

By the time he died in 1993 at the age of 73, Irving Howe was one of the twentieth century’s most important public thinkers. Deeply passionate, committed to social reform and secular Jewishness, ardently devoted to fiction and poetry, in love with baseball, music, and ballet, Howe wrote with such eloquence and lived with such conviction that his extraordinary work is now part of the canon of American social thought.

In the first comprehensive biography of Howe’s life, historian Gerald Sorin brings us close to this man who rose from Jewish immigrant poverty in the 1930s to become one of the most provocative intellectuals of our time. Known most widely for his award-winning book World of Our Fathers, a rich portrayal of the East European Jewish experience in New York, Howe also won acclaim for his prodigious output of illuminating essays on American culture and as an indefatigable promoter of democratic socialism as can be seen in the pages of Dissent, the journal he edited for nearly forty years.

Deeply devoted to the ideal of democratic radicalism and true equality, Howe was constantly engaged in a struggle for decency and basic fairness in the face of social injustice. In the century of Auschwitz, the Gulag, and global inter-ethnic mass murder, it was difficult to sustain political certainties and take pride in one's humanity. To have lived a life of conviction and engagement in that era was a notable achievement. Irving Howe lived such a life and Gerald Sorin has done a masterful job of guiding us through it in all its passion and complexity.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Sorin portrays Howe the tough political fighter alongside the brilliant writer and generous friend…Sorin has built a solid portrait of the writer and critic…he does a very good job of illuminating the relationship between politics and literature in Howe’s intellectual life, particularly the way in which his socialism was informed by his reading of Yiddish literature
Washington Post Book World
In this fine biography, Gerald Sorin show us why we need more Irving Howes today. Sorin traces the shifts and turns in a life that wound up creating one of America’s most thoughtful leftists…A complexity of political views, a tension-ridden intellectual life (rather than academic careerism), an ability to criticize while remaining humane—these are things we need a lot more of today. For reminding us of this, we have not just Irving Howe but Gerald Sorin to thank.
Sorin skillfully captures the illuminating fire of Howe’s convictions, conflicts, and achievements. [His] deep understanding of Howe’s belief in intelligent public discourse…enables him not only to portray a great intellectual but also to encapsulate a key era in American politics.
The Los Angeles Times
Irving Howe was also, as Gerald Sorin tells us in his appropriately subtitled Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, a lifelong socialist activist, a man for whom, as Howe often said, the socialist movement was his school and university. What Sorin has accomplished in this beautifully written, balanced and probing intellectual biography is the most complete picture we have of Howe, a portrait of how one Jewish intellectual and activist struggled daily to balance scholarship and politics and the life of the mind and a life of action. — Ronald Radosh
Publishers Weekly
Irving Howe's 1976 The World of Our Fathers-a bestselling masterpiece of cultural history, as well as an "implicitly autobiographical" work-has become a classic of Jewish-American history and secured Howe a prominent place in American letters, even while many of his other major works-a 1951 literary study Sherwood Anderson, or his 1957 Politics and the Novel-now go unread. Howe's life and career are emblematic of many Jewish intellectuals of his time. He was born in 1920 and raised in the crushing poverty of the Depression; both of his parents worked long days for low wages in the garment industry. Howe's family instilled in him an intellectual life and the "quest for absolute perfection." Howe early joined the Young People's Socialist League, and his involvement with the heady intellectual political atmosphere at City College of New York prepared him for his later published work in Commentary and Partisan Review in the 1940s, his founding of Dissent in the 1950s and his influential career as a critic and political commentator. Sorin is primarily interested in Howe's intellectual and political life. And while he does include some words critical of Howe-such as a critique of Howe's famous attack on Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, in which his subject called the author a "female impersonator"-Sorin's tone is overwhelmingly adulatory, even fawning. While Sorin did interview nearly 50 informants, much of the material comes from Howe's autobiographical writings. This is an important first step in re-examining a major intellectual and should serve as a springboard for more in-depth and balanced evaluations. Photos. (Jan. 15) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Sorin (history and director of Jewish studies, SUNY at New Paltz; A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920) here presents a richly detailed life of Howe (1920-93). Widely known for his 1976 book World of Our Fathers and for his nearly 40 years as editor of Dissent, Howe was an important figure in 20th-century political and social thought. Sorin encompasses the range of Howe's involvement in the issues of his day, from his anti-Stalinist activities in the 1930s to his participation in the cultural and political changes of the 1960s and beyond, and he explores the role Howe's Jewish heritage played in shaping his worldview. Howe's writings on American culture and his activism in numerous political causes are covered in great detail, as are his years as a professor and educator. The result is an insightful and comprehensive biography. Recommended for academic libraries and larger public libraries.-Michele McGraw, Hennepin Cty. Lib., Edina, MN Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“What Sorin has accomplished in this beautifully written, balanced and probing intellectual biography is the most complete picture we have of Howe, a portrait of how one Jewish intellectual and activist struggled daily to balance scholarship and politics and the life of the mind and a life of action. . . . Sorin has ably captured the life and passion of this most unusual man, whose commitment to democracy is a legacy still worth cherishing.”
-LA Times

Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent offers such an intellectually detailed and conceptually animated account of Howe’s work. Sorin did an excellent job.”
-Magill's Literary Annual

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A Life of Passionate Dissent

New York University Press

Copyright © 2002 New York University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0814798217

Chapter One

The Trauma of Sharply Fallen Circumstances

World of Our Fathers

IN ONE OF those odd coincidences of "Jewish geography," David Horenstein and Nettie Goldman, Irving Howe's parents, had lived as teenagers in the shtetlekh of Bukovina (between Russia and Romania), and had arrived in the United States in 1912 on the same boat. But they did not get to know each other until they met in the Bronx, where they spent the next thirty-five years together.

When Irving was born on June 11, 1920, and throughout the 1930s and '40s, the Bronx neighborhoods in which the Horensteins lived were predominantly Jewish, and Yiddish was the language of the home, streets, and shops. At the newsstands, popular Yiddish dailies, including the Forverts and Der Tog, sold as well as or better than English-language papers. The Yiddish language, a significant carryover from the Old World, provided parents who spoke the foreign tongue an element of familiarity in an alien land. Their young children, therefore, often started school knowing Yiddish better than English. This was true for Alfred Kazin and Daniel Bell and many other children of Jewish immigrants who later would be counted among the New Yorkintellectuals. And it was certainly true for Irving Howe, who could both read Yiddish and speak it.

The public school proved to be an arena in which immigrant children began to differentiate themselves from their parents. Howe recalled an instance of this process of distancing from his very first day: "I attended my first day of Kindergarten as if it were a visit to a new country. The teacher asked the children to identify various common objects. When my turn came she held up a fork and without hesitation ... already trying to distinguish myself ... I called it by its Yiddish name: 'a goopel.' The whole class burst out laughing at me with that special cruelty of children." That experience, Howe said, "is one of the most vivid memories of my life. I felt terribly humiliated." And "that afternoon I told my parents that I had made up my mind never to speak Yiddish to them again, though I would not give any reasons. It was a shock for them, the first in a series of conflicts between immigrant and America."

Despite his theatrical announcement at the tender age of five forsaking the so called mamaloshn, Howe, while growing up, read the Yiddish papers-mostly "on the sly." They were "very amusing," Howe said, "and ... after I began to get a little more intellectual I found to my astonishment that I could get more out of Der Tog"-which had the best Yiddish writers-"than out of American papers."

What looked like complete rejection, then, was really an exercise in ambivalence for Howe, whose denials later turned into extraordinary affirmations. Howe's translating and editing work with Yiddish poets and writers, beginning in the 1950s, was for him part of a "reconquest of Jewishness," a repossession and reformulation of ethnic identity. So, too, was Howe's work on World of Our Fathers (1976), a monumental, and implicitly autobiographical book that reflected his search for authentic, coherent, and enduring Jewish meaning in the collective experience of ordinary Jewish men and women.

This is not to suggest that the family conflict in the immigrant ghettos was unreal or always "resolved" over time. The generational struggles, resentments, and disappointments were intense, and pervasive. Daniel Bell, who witnessed these tensions in the lives of so many of his contemporaries, thought that the "bulk of Jewish immigrants" experienced anxiety over adjusting to the New World-an anxiety they "translated into the struggle between fathers and sons." And Lionel Trilling, a leading member of the predominantly Jewish New York intellectuals, wrote that in his time "we all were trying to find a release from our fathers." In this, Irving Howe was no exception.

At eight or nine, Irving used to play ball in an abandoned lot not far from his parents' grocery store in the West Bronx. If Irving was late coming home for dinner, his father would come out, still wearing his white apron, shouting from a distance-"Oivee!" This Yiddish twist, or "mutilation" as Howe described it later, always produced amusement among the onlookers, and in him a sense of shame; and though he would come in to eat-"supper was supper!"-he would often skip on ahead of his father as if to indicate there was little, if any, connection between them. Nearly forty years later Howe admitted still feeling shame, not so much from having been publicly embarrassed, as from having been mortified-for no good reason-by his father's behavior.

Time and distance offered a chance for perspective on this typical, perhaps inevitable, kind of interaction between immigrant fathers and native-born sons. But for the children it was already a sign of difference, an early hint of the alienation that would grow between foreign-born parents and their Americanizing children. And it did begin early, as we saw with Howe's kindergarten experience. Differentiation and alienation were especially pronounced for those children who became intellectually inclined like Trilling and Kazin, or Ruth Gay, Vivian Gornick and Kate Simon, or Daniel Bell and Irving Howe. Their whole experience and their search for truth led them to an increasing relativism, to the necessity of choosing values and not merely internalizing those with which they were raised.

But as Howe put it later, "it seems unlikely that anyone can ... simply decide to discard the [tradition] in which he has grown up. Life is not that programmatic; it is rare that the human will can be that imperious; and a tradition signifies precisely those enveloping forces that shape us before we can even think of choices." In 1961, at the age of forty, Howe also said, "Only now do I see the extent to which our life ... was shaped first by the fact that many of us came from immigrant Jewish families." Even a family like Irving's, which was no longer strictly observant in faith or behavior but whose entire life was informed and shaped by Jewishness, provided a moral context and an "essential goodness of soul," that Howe said was unmatched by anything he ever found outside the Jewish immigrant community. "We did not realize then how sheltering it was to grow up in this world." And there is the proverbial rub. Only much later, after having left home, too late for the parents, did Irving and some of the other very bright boys and girls from the working class see the extent to which their lives had been formed, and formed positively, by their immigrant families and by their nearly all-Jewish environment. In the New York of their youth, they came to realize that "the Jews still formed a genuine community reaching half-unseen into a dozen neighborhoods and a multitude of institutions." Within the family and within the shadow of these institutions-landmanshaftn, mutual-aid societies, philanthropic associations, labor unions, and even the store-front shuln-Irving Howe and his cohort, without seeking it, had found "protection of a kind."

In one of those shuln, "ramshackle and bleak with its scattering of aged Jews" and "run by a poor rabbi trying to eke out a living," Irving, in 1933, became a bar mitzvah. His mother baked a lekach, a honey cake, and if the bar mitzvah wasn't any benefit to him, as Howe later claimed, "it was a benefit to ten old men [who] ... had something to eat that day." In preparation for the traditional ritual, Irving had attended heder-reluctantly, by his own admission, and sporadically, because the family had not always been able to put aside enough for tuition. At those times, Irving's father, though not well educated in Jewish sources, would himself "make a pass at teaching [him] a little Hebrew."

Heder was not the only thing for which there were inadequate funds. The Horensteins, although rarely if ever hungry, were always poor and had become even poorer after the crash of 1929. In 1930, less than a year into the Great Depression, Irving's parents lost their grocery business, and the family was plunged into severe poverty. Forced to move from a relatively middle-class area in the West Bronx (a relatively narrow strip lying between Jerome Avenue and the Harlem River) to Jennings Street, one of the "worst streets" in a working-class neighborhood of the East Bronx, ten-year old Irving experienced a transition that he said "was very difficult ... perplexing and painful." Later he compared this drop in social status to that suffered by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville: "I, too," Howe said, "had experienced 'the trauma of sharply fallen circumstances.'"

It was the ambition of most families in the East Bronx to reach a point in life where they could afford to become residents of the West Bronx. But the Horensteins had been forced to make the reverse journey. It was not as bad as returning to the Lower East Side, many remembered, but it was bad enough. Even if one had not been located on the tree-lined Grand Concourse with its proliferation of food stores, ice-cream parlors, and specialty shops, to live in the West Bronx meant to enjoy the best the city had to offer, including relatively modern buildings, many with elevators. The East Bronx, in contrast, was grim. Dilapidated frame houses and muddy brown or gray walk-up tenements predominated, and trees outside of Crotona Park were extremely rare.

The move to the East Bronx for David, Nettie, and Irving, as for many other families, was not only a drop in social status, but also a decline in living standards. The Horensteins had to move in with Irving's grandmother, who lived in a badly aged five-story tenement building. The halls on the ground floor were poorly lighted, and the stairwells were dark and "spooky" and retained the smells of too many people living together. From the courtyard, especially in summer, one could hear the noises emanating from two dozen other kitchens and the screeches of as many clotheslines.

Worst of all, the cramped apartment the Horensteins were forced to share already sheltered Depression-idled uncles and aunts saving on rent. Unemployment in the East Bronx, as elsewhere, "was bad, very bad," Howe remembered. In fact, disproportionate numbers in the East Bronx were on relief or were employed short term with the Works Progress Administration, and nearly everyone needed to squirrel resources. For almost three years Irving slept on a folding cot in a room he occupied along with his grandmother and aunt. "No doubt," Howe said, half seriously, this suffocating "arrangement accounts for some of my subsequent psychic malformations."

When things got even worse in 1931 and 1932, Howe's father would say with characteristic grim humor, "At least we're not on Fox Street." But the Horensteins were only three short blocks north of Fox Street and clearly fearful of further descent, social and physical. "We were very close to destitution," Howe recalled. And "the pain of this," he said, was "overwhelming."

Irving suffered some pain on the streets as well. He had difficulty adjusting to the "toughies," as he called them, and he longed for the more carefree days of the West Bronx, where he had had no hesitation in leaving his apartment to play stoop-ball or, better yet, baseball-a game he continued to love throughout his life. Living in the East Bronx educated Howe in the "hardness of existence." Here, during the Great Depression, he grew to adolescence and political consciousness. The streets, with their narrow tenements and sharply rising stoops, their alleyways and vacant lots and hiding places, toughened and roughened the children of immigrants by schooling them in the actualities of American urban life. Here, beyond the immediate reach of teachers and parents, Irving came to be pretty fast on his feet and developed a rather sharp tongue, and learned other strategies of survival as well. These streets could induce a "bruising gutter-worldliness," a "hard and abrasive skepticism" that echoed well into adulthood. But the streets were also a place where Irving and the friends he eventually made could roam-away from the adult-dominated territories of home, school and shop-tasting the delights of freedom, the mysteries of sex, and the excitement of the unpredictable.

Still, Howe, even in the last year of his life, remembered his social descent "from the lower middle class to the proletarian-the most painful of all social descents," as "the great event of [his] childhood." He said that the sudden and confusing change in circumstances, in a childhood he characterized as not especially happy up to that point, was "like having everything fall out from under you." At the same time, however, the "great event" which forced his parents into the physically oppressive and enervating wage labor of the garment industry also helped shape and develop Howe's lifelong commitment to the labor movement and his most powerful and enduring political values.

Howe remembered his mother coming home exhausted every evening, after ten hours of work and a 45-minute subway ride. She ended her week with a $12 paycheck. "My father, who stood all day over a steaming press-iron [came] home during the summer months with blisters all over his body. When the great strike of the garment workers was called by the ILGWU in 1933 my folks, who had had no experience with unions before, responded immediately." Even Howe's mother, Nettie, who had never been on a picket line before, went out. To Jewish workers like Irving's parents, the idea of scabbing was inconceivable; as inconceivable, Howe said, "as conversion to Buddhism." So, like tens of thousands of others, David and Nettie Horenstein picketed, borrowed money for food, and stood fast. When the strike was over, Nettie brought home her first new paycheck of $27 for the week. "It seemed like heaven," Howe remembered; "we felt freer, better, stronger," and prouder, too, that they had helped accomplish this for themselves.

The Horensteins moved to new, less crowded quarters. They were still living in a poor neighborhood near Crotona Park in the East Bronx, but they had meat on the table at least once a week "and many other small things" that, according to Irving, "made life much more agreeable." Irving's mother could even buy him some "grown-up shirts" for his birthday, and since that time, Howe said, "I've always had a thing about shirts." And now the family could also afford an occasional outing to the movies or to Yankee Stadium. But the "best times were at home in the comfort of our innerness," Howe remembered fondly, as when "my father and I sat in the kitchen dipping bits of apple into glasses of hot tea," or as "on those Sunday evenings when there was enough money to indulge in delicatessen."


Excerpted from IRVING HOWE by GERALD SORIN Copyright © 2002 by New York University
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“Irving Howe”s career, with its constantly shifting strands of political activism, literary commentary, and accessible Jewish scholarship, makes a great subject for an intellectual biography. Painstakingly researched and fluently written, Gerald Sorin’s book strikes just the right balance between sympathetic identification and critical distance. Making excellent use of interviews, memoirs, and unpublished letters, Sorin recreates the many significant issues that engaged Howe. He brings considerable drama to Howe’s gradual break with Marxist sectarianism, his shifting perspectives on socialism, his momentous reconnection to Jewish culture, his battles with the New Left, and the literary controversies that accompanied his steady growth as a subtle reader and vigorous, penetrating critic.”
-Morris Dickstein,author, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties

“What Sorin has accomplished in this beautifully written, balanced and probing intellectual biography is the most complete picture we have of Howe, a portrait of how one Jewish intellectual and activist struggled daily to balance scholarship and politics and the life of the mind and a life of action. . . . Sorin has ably captured the life and passion of this most unusual man, whose commitment to democracy is a legacy still worth cherishing.”
-LA Times


“Gerald Sorin has written a lively and compelling biography of Irving Howe. A New York intellectual, Howe figured in most of the major and many of the minor debates of mid-twentieth-century America: socialism, modernism, Yiddish culture, civil rights, the new politics of postwar America, and the antiwar movement of the turbulent sixties. Howe spoke out forcefully and fearlessly, carving a place for intellectuals with moral vision. Sorin“s first biography deftly captures the complexity of the man and his eras.”
-Deborah Dash Moore,author of To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.

“Sorin does a solid and convincing job of chronicling Howe's life and times.”
-The Jewish Quarterly Review


Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent offers such an intellectually detailed and conceptually animated account of Howe’s work. Sorin did an excellent job.”
-Magill's Literary Annual

Meet the Author

Gerald Sorin is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of Jewish Studies at SUNY New Paltz. His most recent book is Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America.

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