Authors: Irving Howe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic, historian, and biographer

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The U. A. W. and Walter Reuther, 1949 (politics; with B. J.Widick)

Sherwood Anderson: A Critical Biography, 1951

William Faulkner: A Critical Study, 1952

Politics and the Novel, 1957

The American Communist Party: A Critical History, 1957 (with Lewis Coser)

A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics, 1963

Steady Work: Essays in the Politics of Democratic Radicalism, 1953-1966, 1966

Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study, 1967

Decline of the New, 1970 (literary criticism)

The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture, 1973

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, 1976

Leon Trotsky, 1978 (biography)

Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary, 1979

A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1982

Socialism and America, 1985

The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson, 1986

Selected Writings, 1950-1990, 1990

A Critic’s Notebook, 1994

Edited Texts:

A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, 1954, revised 1989 (with Eliezer Greenberg)

A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, 1969 (with Greenberg)

Beyond the New Left: A Confrontation and Critique, 1970

Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs, Diaries, 1972 (with Greenberg)

Yiddish Stories: Old and New, 1974 (with Greenberg)

The New Conservatives: A Critique from the Left, 1974 (with Coser)

Ashes out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet-Yiddish Writers, 1977 (with Greenberg)

Beyond the Welfare State, 1982

Alternatives: Proposals for America from the Democratic Left, 1984

The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, 1987 (with Ruth R. Wisse and Khone Shmeruk)

Biography

Irving Howe made his mark as an editor, literary critic, and political writer. He was born into a working-class family in New York City on June 11, 1920, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, David and Nettie (Goldman) Howe. The major influence on Irving’s youth was Max Schachtman, a Polish-born disciple of Leon Trotsky. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York in 1940, Irving, who profoundly admired Trotsky, turned to full-time writing and editing for Labor Action, the periodical of Schachtman’s newly founded Workers’ Party.{$I[AN]9810001133}{$I[A]Howe, Irving}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Howe, Irving}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Howe, Irving}{$I[tim]1920;Howe, Irving}

Howe was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and posted in Alaska. In 1946, after his discharge, Howe began to write literary criticism for periodicals outside Schachtman’s orbit, such as Commentary, The Nation, and the leftist literary magazine Partisan Review; in 1948 he became a book reviewer for Time magazine. In 1951 his study of the Midwestern short-story writer Sherwood Anderson was published; a book on the southern writer William Faulkner came out the following year; and in 1957 there appeared Politics and the Novel, a series of essays dealing with the treatment of ideology in fiction. In 1953 Howe was appointed professor of English at Brandeis University; later he taught at Stanford University from 1961 to 1963 and, after 1963, at City University of New York.

Although Howe broke with Schachtman politically in 1952, he refused to embrace the then-fashionable notion that Socialist ideology was no longer relevant to American life. To provide a Socialist analysis of current affairs, Howe cofounded, in 1954, the magazine Dissent.

From the mid-1960’s onward, Howe criticized the New Leftists, who gained support by opposing the Vietnam War, for what he considered to be moral absolutism and a dangerous naïveté about Communism. As a literary critic, Howe opposed the cultural radicalism of the 1960’s as well. In the last section of a 1968 essay, “The New York Intellectuals,” reprinted in Decline of the New, he attacked what he saw as the irrationalism of those artists and writers popularly known as the counterculture.

After the demise of the New Left, Howe, who had now begun to criticize the United States’ drift toward political conservatism, gradually became more a scholarly chronicler of the Socialist tradition than an effective advocate for it. Howe’s massive history of the Eastern European immigrant Jews of New York City, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, became a best-seller. Other historical works followed: a biography of Trotsky in 1978, Socialism and America in 1985, and a book on nineteenth century American intellectual history called The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson in 1986. His A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, appeared in 1982.

In Politics and the Novel Howe extols as literary role models the Englishman George Orwell and the Italian Ignazio Silone, both believers in a humane and liberal socialism. Despite his strong political convictions, however, Howe tries to balance political and artistic criteria in his judgment of works of literature. In “Literature and Liberalism,” reprinted in Celebrations and Attacks, Howe concedes that, apart from the dissident writers of Communist-dominated Europe after 1945, the great twentieth century European writers have generally been indifferent or hostile to democratic values. Although the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, discussed in essays in both A World More Attractive and Celebrations and Attacks, and the American poet Ezra Pound, treated in an essay in The Critical Point, were Fascists and anti-Semites, Howe recognizes some virtue, however flawed, in their literary output.

Howe ascribes the pessimism in Sherwood Anderson’s fiction to his upbringing in a small town left behind by economic growth, and he sees William Faulkner’s questioning of inherited southern myths as a response to the challenge posed to southern traditions by both the values of the industrialized North and the beginnings of southern industrialization. He views English novelist Thomas Hardy’s origins in a rural part of an industrializing England as one source of the creative tension lying behind such novels as Jude the Obscure (1895). Howe perceives this struggle to make the wrenching transition from traditional to modern society not only in the lives of Faulkner and Hardy and in the characters of their fiction but also in the lives of Jewish immigrants to New York. In his World of Our Fathers, Howe attributes marital desertion among the immigrants to their sudden liberation from the rigid social controls of the traditional Eastern European Jewish small town. The Socialist movement, Howe argues, rebuilt among the immigrants the sense of community shattered by the traumatic transition to a new, urban-industrial society.

Over the years Howe reassessed both the feasibility and the desirability of Socialism. In a 1954 essay, “Images of Socialism,” reprinted in A World More Attractive, Howe argues that a future Socialist society will not be free of all conflict, contrary to some Marxists’ notions. In Leon Trotsky the mature Howe, while still insisting that workers’ control over the economy is compatible with democracy, expresses skepticism about such hallowed Marxist doctrines as the revolutionary mission of the proletariat and the need for public ownership of industry. To the Howe of the 1980’s a major reason for the failure of Socialism to take root in the United States is the deep-rooted faith, shared by both reformers and conservatives, in America as the promised land of individual freedom. Yet in both Socialism and America and The American Newness Howe voices the wistful hope that what is valuable in American individualism might somehow be reconciled with the democratic Socialist ideal.

Many on the Left regarded Howe’s attacks on the New Left as intemperate; younger literary critics deplored his polemics against the counterculture as indiscriminate. Neoconservatives, who applauded Howe’s views on the New Left and the counterculture, disparaged as blind and irrational his faith in Socialism. Even Howe’s most widely praised book, World of Our Fathers, was said by some to have overemphasized the role of the Socialist movement and the trade unions in the immigrant subculture.

Although many admired Howe’s indifference to intellectual fashion, few ever regarded him as a seminal thinker. Howe failed to inspire younger generations of academic literary critics or historians. He was part of the second generation of New York intellectuals, born some ten to fifteen years after the first pioneering generation that is associated with the Partisan Review. Although his Politics and the Novel is innovative in subject matter if not in methods, Howe produced no truly original critical theory; his gift was that of popularizing complex ideas. Similarly, World of Our Fathers derives its value not from startlingly new interpretations, or from the use of new research methods, but from the author’s ability to bring insights from his own experience to bear upon the past and from his exceptionally lucid prose style.

BibliographyAlexander, Edward. “Irving Howe and Secular Jewishness: An Elegy.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 45, no. 1 (1996): 101-117. A retrospective by a Howe scholar.Alexander, Edward. Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. An intellectual biography that gives prominence to Howe’s Jewishness.Alexander, Edward. “Irving Howe’s Socialist Defense of the Canon.” Academic Questions 12, no. 2 (1999): 63-70. Looks at Howe as an educator.American Jewish History 88, no. 4 (2000). All ten essays in this issue are devoted to a reassessment of Howe’s World of Our Fathers as a Jewish text. The article by Kenneth Libo, Howe’s research assistant, casts light on Howe’s writing strategies and habits.Douglas, Ann. “The Failure of the New York Intellectuals.” Raritan 17, no. 4 (1998): 1-22. Assesses Howe along with other New York intellectuals, focusing on writing style and cultural power.Isserman, Maurice. If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. 1987. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. The story of Howe’s Trotskyist years, and of his years as editor of Dissent up to the early 1960’s, are covered in this memoir.Riccio, Barry D. “New York Intellectual: The Case of Irving Howe.” Journal of American Culture 19, no. 3 (1996): 75-85. Assesses Howe in the context of his intellectual social circle and its tenets.Rodden, John, ed. Irving Howe and the Critics: Celebrations and Attacks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. A collection of reviews and essays about Howe’s major works and about the controversy they generated.Rodden, John. “The Reputation of Irving Howe.” Society 40, no. 2 (2003): 58-69. A profile that highlights Irving’s varying, and sometimes contradictory, group affiliations.Rodden, John. “Wanted: Irving Howe FBI No. 727437B.” Dissent 49, no. 4 (2002): 79-85. Relates the history of Howe’s surveillance by the Federal Bureau of InvestigationRoskies, David G. “Inside Scholem Schachnah’s Hat.” Prooftexts 21, no. 1 (2001): 39-57. Analyzes Howe’s characterization of Jewishness in a short story cowritten with Eliezer Greenberg.Sorin, Gerald. Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent. New York: New York University Press, 2003. A popular full-length biography, perhaps a little too adulatory but based in research both in Howe’s papers and interviews with people who knew him.
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