Irving Howe’s essays made him one of America’s foremost radical cultural and literary critics in the post-World War II and Cold War generations. Though a member of the group that his essay of 1969 helped define as “The New York Intellectuals,” the anti- Stalinist writers and critics who emerged around the Partisan Review in the late 1940s, Howe used the essay to criticize their larger move toward neoconservatism. His landmark essay of 1954, “This Age of Conformity,” which attacked the Cold War complacency and complicity of American intellectuals, and Lionel Trilling in particular, with American power, stands today as one of the defining essays of the 1950s; it also marked Howe’sm conflicted refusal to give up his socialist Jewish background, and appeared simultaneously with his cofounding of the democratic socialist journal Dissent in that year. Howe’s political pieces were often fiercely polemical, directed against perceived authoritarianism on the left almost as often as against the right, whom he was capable of joining on issues such as preserving the literary canon, and critically eviscerating, as in his 1986 essay, “Reaganism: The Spirit of the Times.” Howe’s essays on Yiddish literature and his substantial translations were also cultural landmarks. The historical essays of World of Our Fathers (1976), which evoked and bid farewell to the Yiddish culture of New York’s lower East Side, produced his only bestseller. But the doubleedged and even conservative nostalgia of his essays on Jewish culture never led him into the ranks of Jewish neoconservatives; instead, he joined Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the 1980s. Howe’s essays appeared in Dissent, Partisan Review, Commentary, the New York Times, the Nation, and other venues, defining the terrain on which battles over high and mass culture, postmodernism, McCarthyism, relations between blacks and Jews, Israel, American Jewish identity, the New Left, and many other issues would be fought. His essays were often major cultural interventions, identifying the fault lines that would shape American cultural criticism in the postwar period.
Born Irving Horenstein, Howe began writing essays in the late 1930s for journals of the Trotskyist movement such as Labor Action, under pseudonyms which included R. Fahan, R.F.Fangston, and Theodore Dryden. He achieved a larger audience when his essays helped to define the particular genre of essay for which the New York Intellectuals became famous. Described by Howe himself as a kind of essayistic attempt at “brilliance,” the essay Howe pioneered often yoked high and low culture together, while defending a Modernist aesthetic critical of mass society against the political reduction of literary autonomy that had occurred during the leftist period of the 1930s. The New York Intellectuals’ essayistic style Howe helped create was erudite, but decidedly nonacademic, even when Howe became a faculty member at Brandeis University in the 1950s. The brash intelligence displayed, sometimes seen as “rudeness” by Howe’s contemporaries with their genteel ethos, highlighted the critic’s personality at times as much as did the subject. As Howe himself suggested in his autobiography, A Margin of Hope (1982), this style was influenced by the immigrant Jewish milieu in which he and many of the New York Intellectuals were formed. This assimilationist form of the essay allowed a new group of writers, faced with their status as cultural outsiders to the American scene, eventually to lay claim to being the United States’ first “Europeanized,” cosmopolitan group of urban intellectuals.
To achieve such a cosmopolitan style, while retaining his socialist and Jewish commitments, Howe’s essays and their choice of subjects often walked a fine line. “The essay,” Howe wrote, “required a margin of impersonality, or a showing forth of personality through indirection.” This tension between polemical display and aesthetic reserve, and even ethnic withdrawal, often produced essays which defined and sometimes exemplified problems dividing American culture as a whole. One of Howe’s last essays, in his posthumously published collection A Critic’s Notebook (1994), lamented the postmodern proliferation of reading publics as the loss of the concept of the “common reader.” The talent Howe credited to T.S.Eliot was one he himself possessed: “he had an enviable capacity for raising the shapeless concerns of his readers to the level of explicit issues.” At times, Howe’s commitment to such public purpose produced results which were indistinguishable from the Cold War liberalism and neoconservatism he decried. In his denunciations of the New Left, his writingoff of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, his attack on Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, or his siding with cultural conservatives on “The Value of the Canon” (1991), the pressures of sustaining the socialist identity of Jewish leftists through the Cold War and beyond led Howe to excoriate positions his political and cultural sympathies otherwise might have embraced.
On the other hand, the critical debate Howe engaged in with Ralph Ellison over Howe’s attempt to define the African American novel, “Black Boys and Native Sons” (1963) stands as a crucial document of American literature, and as a powerful articulation of tensions surrounding the expression of cultural difference in postwar America. On such contentious subjects, Howe often wrote more measured essays, such as “Universities and Intellectuals” (1964), which predicted the contesting of politics in the university during the culture wars of the early 1990s.
Howe’s essayistic achievement ranged from “Mass Society and Postmodern Fiction” (1963), which provided one of the first, if hostile, definitions of postmodernism, to “The Culture of Modernism,” a kind of manifesto for his generation, to belletristic appreciations of writers as diverse as W.E.B.Du Bois, Isaak Babel’, George Orwell, Ignazio Silone, Theodore Dreiser, Lev Tolstoi, Laurence Sterne, and Virginia Woolf, to critiques of the behavior of intellectuals during the Red Scare, to the fate of socialism in America. Howe’s importance as an essayist is represented by the scope of this work, almost all of which displayed an uncanny, eloquent ability to lay bare the tensions subtending the postwar American “consensus.” Like the writing of Julien Benda, Howe’s essays raise fundamental questions about the responsibility of intellectuals in modern and postmodern society. They remain crucial documents, and often the unconscious subtexts, for postmodern discussions of liberalism, radical politics, ethnic identity, and cultural criticism in the United States.
Born Irving Horenstein, II June 1920 in the East Bronx, New York. Socialist from the age of 14. Studied at the City College of New York, B.Sc., 1940; Brooklyn College, 1940– 41. Served in the U.S. Army, 1942–45. Married Arien Hausknecht: one daughter and one son; later married Ilana Wiener. Contributor to various journals, including the Nation, Partisan Review, and Commentary. Cofounder and editor, Dissent, 1954–93. Taught English at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1953–61, Stanford University, California, 1961–63, and Hunter College, City University of New York, 1963–86.
Awards: several, including the Bollingen Award, 1959–60; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1960; Jewish Heritage Award, 1975; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1975–76; National Book Award, for World of Our Fathers, 1977. Died (of cardiovascular disease following a stroke) in New York, 5 May 1993.
Essays and Related Prose
Politics and the Novel, 1957
A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics, 1963
Steady Work: Essays in the Politics of Democratic Radicalism, 1953–1966, 1966
Decline of the New, 1970
The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture, 1973
World of Our Fathers, 1976; as The Immigrant Jews of New York, 1881 to the Present, 1976
Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary, 1979
The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson (lectures), 1986
Selected Writings, 1950 to 1990, 1990
A Critic’s Notebook, edited by Nicholas Howe, 1994
Other writings: the autobiography A Margin of Hope (1982), and books on American literature, literary criticism, and politics. Also edited many editions of works by major American writers, and works on socialism.
Bloom, Alexander, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986
Cain, William, “An Interview with Irving Howe,” American Literary History 1 (Fall 1989): 554–64
Cooney, Terry A., The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986
Isserman, Maurice, “If I had a hammer”: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, New York: Basic Books, 1987:79–118
Jumonville, Neil, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991
Krupnick, Mark, “Irving Howe,” in Modern American Critics Since 1955, edited by Gregory S.Jay, Dictionary of American Literary Biography, vol. 67, Detroit: Gale Research, 1988:167–75
Pinsker, Sanford, “Lost Causes/Marginal Hopes: The Cultural Elegies of Irving Howe,”
Virginia Quarterly Review 65 (Spring 1989): 215–30
“Remembering Irving Howe,” Dissent (Fall 1993):515–49
Wald, Alan M., “Portrait: Irving Howe,” in The New York Intellectuals: The Rise of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987: 311–21
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