Irving Howe and the Critics is a selection of essays and reviews about the work of Irving Howe (1920–93), a vocal radical humanist and the most influential American socialist intellectual of his generation. Howe authored eighteen books, edited twenty-five more, wrote dozens of articles and reviews, and edited the magazine Dissent for forty years after founding it. His writings cover subjects ranging from U.S. labor to the vicissitudes of American communism and socialism to Yiddishkeit and contemporary politics. His book World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made received the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
John Rodden has chosen essays and reviews that focus on Howe’s major works and on the disputes they generated. He features both Dissent contributors and those who have dissented from the Dissenters—on the Right as well as the Left. Rodden includes a few stern assessments of Howe from his less sympathetic critics, testifying not only to the range of response—from admiration to hostility—that his work received but also to his stature on the Left as a prime intellectual target of neoconservative fire.
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About the Author
John Rodden is the author of Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves and Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, both published by the University of Nebraska Press, among other books.
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Irving Howe and the CriticsCelebrations and Attacks
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
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This collection addresses the achievements and legacy of Irving Howe (1920-93), a vocal radical humanist and the most influential American socialist intellectual of his generation. Howe was also a distinguished literary critic who wrote or edited works on Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Yiddish fiction and poetry, and numerous other authors and literary topics; his most important critical study was Politics and the Novel (1957). Howe's most successful works of nonfiction were World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (1976), which became a national bestseller, and his intellectual autobiography, A Margin of Hope (1982).
Although Howe taught in the English departments of Brandeis University, Stanford University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY) for four decades, he considered himself not an academic but an intellectual and literary-political critic (which included his editing of Dissent, a quarterly devoted to democratic socialism that he cofounded in 1954). He exemplified what has come to be known as the "public intellectual" and made a significant and enduring contribution to American culture and literary studies.
Irving Howe was the most prominent member of the second generation of New Yorkintellectuals, the chiefly Jewish secular group associated with Partisan Review, which, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, became the leading literary-intellectual quarterly in the United States. Ultimately I believe it possible that, given his contributions to the revival of Yiddish literature, his founding of Dissent, and his rich oeuvre of literary and political criticism, Howe will come to be regarded as an even greater figure than the New York intellectuals of the elder generation, such as Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, Harold Rosenberg, and Hannah Arendt.
The biographical facts make the literary-political accomplishments of Irving Howe all the more impressive. He was born in New York City, the only child of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. Yiddish was the language spoken at home. He learned English on the street and in school. He grew up in the Lower East Side and the Bronx, and he graduated from City College of New York (CCNY). Inspired by his grandmother, who had been a teenage activist in Europe, Howe was a committed Trotskyist in high school and an activist pamphleteer for the Shachtmanite sect by the time he entered CCNY. Howe was, by all accounts, a polemical, dogmatic Trotskyist radical in his youth. However, his intellectual integrity enabled him, not long after World War II, to loosen and eventually break free of this ideological straitjacket.
Irving Howe's postwar literary-intellectual career can be demarcated in three broad phases. In the late 1940s and '50s Howe was best known as the editor and sparkplug of Dissent; an activist critic and a member of the Partisan Review circle; and a contemporary historian, the latter distinction based on his much-admired volumes The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949, coauthored with B. J. Widick) and The American Communist Party: A Critical History (1957, cowritten with Lewis Coser). In the mid-1950s Howe met the Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg. They began to translate Yiddish prose and poetry into English. Eventually they published six collections of stories, essays, and poems, elevating Yiddish writers, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, to international attention.
With the publication of A World More Attractive in 1964, the praise and castigation of Howe's work intensified in both directions, opening up a second phase of his reputation. During the next decade Howe drew kudos from such Establishment figures as Lionel Trilling and hostile notices from New Left and counterculture voices. Howe also became better known as a literary and political essayist, always ready to comment on contemporary cultural trends. And yet, as generational tensions increased with the progress of the Vietnam War and American campus violence, Howe's moderate socialism seemed too threatening to mainstream critics and too tame for New Left tastes. Nonetheless, Howe's works of strictly cultural criticism, such as Thomas Hardy (1967), Decline of the New (1970), and The Critical Point (1973)-which remained largely free of polemical content-were increasingly admired by both academic and nonacademic critics. During these years he also established friendships with numerous European writers, such as Ignazio Silone and Günter Grass, and through his criticism and reviews helped the Hungarian novelist Gyorgy Konrad achieve renown in the English-speaking world.
Howe's social history of the bygone American Jewish life of his childhood, World of Our Fathers, which briefly reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and received the 1977 National Book Award for nonfiction, marked the beginning of a third and final stage of his career. From the mid-1970s until his death Howe was praised and pilloried as the leading radical humanist voice of intellectual America and as a pillar of the liberal-Left. Howe came in for especially harsh attacks from the neoconservative movement that formed around Commentary and the New Criterion in the 1970s and '80s.
Even as these assaults from the Right grew louder, however, Howe became less and less polemical, turning his attention again to historical issues-though now with an intensely personal and often nostalgic tone. His backward-looking reflections included not only World of Our Fathers but also a short biographical study of Trotsky, a moving autobiography (A Margin of Hope), an elegy for the lost cause of democratic socialism (Socialism in America, 1985), and a last essay collection (Selected Writings, 1950-1990, 1990)-which also turned out to be his last book published before his untimely death in May 1993 at the age of seventy-two.
Along with his heroes George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe represents a dying literary breed. One leitmotif of this volume is that he stands in their tradition and serves as an example of how and why to revive this older model of writer/critic/intellectual.
Howe's reputation as a critic was partly in eclipse during much of the 1980s and 1990s, as university literature departments moved away from broadly accessible cultural criticism and toward theory, multiculturalism, post-structuralism, and professionalism. But the literary situation today seems again poised to reorient itself toward issues of wider public concern beyond the literary academy. With the republication in 2002 of Howe's masterful critical study Politics and the Novel, my hope is that the timing is apt for renewed attention to Howe's life and legacy.
Irving Howe and the Critics also appears as Dissent, which Howe faithfully edited for four decades, celebrates its fiftieth year of publication in 2004. Woody Allen's joke two decades ago in Annie Hall, that the magazine might merge with the neoconservative journal Commentary and be renamed Dysentery, elicits today no more than a smile from serious readers. Allen's movie has become a period piece, whereas Dissent continues to represent the distinctive voice of American social democracy and radical humanism.
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In the course of writing this book, I have incurred numerous debts, which it is my pleasure to acknowledge. My thanks first go to Nicholas Howe, who spoke with me about his father and who generously contributed both a foreword and photographs to this volume. I am also grateful to numerous acquaintances and professional colleagues of Irving Howe at Dissent, several of whom shared insights about his oeuvre and alerted me to little-known biographical facts. In addition, I wish to thank a disparate group of colleagues who enriched my understanding of Howe's world and the milieu of the New York intellectuals: Robert Boyers, Nathan Glick, Alfred Kazin, Richard Kostelanetz, Steven Marcus, William Phillips,Norman Podhoretz, and Richard Rorty.
I am especially indebted to several friends and colleagues who read the manuscript, whole or in part, and gave me both detailed criticism and warm encouragement: William Cain, Morris Dickstein, Jonathan Imber, Beth Macom, Neil McLaughlin, Michael Kazin, Mark Krupnick, Michael Levenson, Jim Sleeper, Harvey Teres, Alan Wald, Michael Walzer, and Dennis Wrong.
To Lynn Hayden, who exhibited endless patience and unwavering trust during the months that she furnished this maturing manuscript and its author a home, I dedicate this book.
JGR Austin, Texas August 2004
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