In any discussion of the reader, the political critic, the public intellectual in the second half of the twentieth century, it would be hard to single out a figure more exemplaryóor more controversialóthan Irving Howe. Since Howe's death in 1993 at the age of seventy-two, his work and even his personal aura have had a strong afterlife. Literary criticism, like most political writing, usually fades with time. Once off the scene, the writer can no longer bring old ideas up to date or lend them coherence by sheer force of personality. Howe, on the other hand, remains a vivid presence, and not only among his acolytes. His views were always strikingly formulated, and he is cited at least as frequently as any other critic of the period. Howe's death was followed by many memorial tributes, along with attacks by prominent neoconservatives who saw him still as a thorn in their sideótoo smart a writer, too biting a critic to be easily set aside. More comment followed when Howe's son, Nicholas, brought out his last and most literary work, A Critic's Notebook (1994). With his sharp-tongued humor and debater's edge, Irving Howe played a central role in Joseph Dorman's excellent documentary about four New York intellectuals, Arguing the World (1997). A leading professional journal, American Jewish History, devoted a whole issue to a not altogether friendly reconsideration of Howe's masterpiece, World of Our Fathers (1976), which lies like a lion across the path of historians of Jewish immigrant life. There have already been two well-researched intellectual biographies of Howe: one by a militant conservative, Edward Alexander (1998), who is critical of Howe's politics, early and late; the other by a sympathetic liberal, Gerald Sorin (2002). And two collections of essays about the man and his work, both edited by John Rodden, will appear during the coming year.
More than a decade after his death, Howe continues to attract fierce censure and grateful praise. I'm not the only writer who still hears his voice echoing in my head, wondering at times what he might have thought of this book or that political twist or turn. Dissent, the social democratic journal that Howe founded with Lewis Coser in 1954, remains intellectually robustóan ecumenical magazine of the beleaguered Left, as flexible in its social criticism as Howe himself was in his lifelong commitment to socialism. As it did in the 1950s, today the journal finds itself trying to carve out a "decent" Left at a time when conservatives are dominant, liberals often feel demoralized, and radicals blame the United States for all the world's ills. Moreover, Dissent now embraces many cultural issues Howe tended to exclude from what he conceived as a forum for discussing politics and social policy. By making his peace with the aging radicals of the '60s generation in his last decade, though he didn't always approve of where they stood, Howe insured that the magazine would not only survive but flourish, even as the world's political agenda changed dramatically.
Howe saw himself as a perpetual dissenter, but there were always others ready to follow where he led. His socialism seemed an anomaly in the '50s, as American power grew and intellectuals became more complacent and self-satisfied. Yet he also felt shunted aside by the young leftists of the '60s, and responded with a steady barrage of criticism so intemperate it might have permanently alienated him from those who shared his deepest aims. (He certainly earned the enduring enmity of Tom Hayden.) Yet, three decades later, there is no writer more revered by intellectuals who combine the hope for greater economic equality with a stubborn faith in democracy, who criticize their country for falling short of its ideals but refuse to see it as the root of all evil in the world. For political writers like Richard Rorty, Michael Walzer, Todd Gitlin, and Paul Berman, Howe remains a model of the activist thinker who somehow escaped the clutches of what Orwell called the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the twentieth century, very much as his old antagonist, the protean Ralph Ellison, became the unlikely model for a generation of black intellectuals who had outgrown the ideologies on which they cut their teeth, including black nationalism and Marxism.
The changing fortunes of Howe as a literary critic tell a similar story. The rise of theory, including deconstruction, academic feminism, ideological critique, and postmodernism, isolated him even more unhappily than the waves of conservatism and radical leftism. His style as a critic was marked by the vehement clarity of someone schooled in political argumentóHowe learned his craft in the late '40s as a rebellious protégé of Dwight Macdonald and an anonymous book reviewer for Time magazine. Even in his longest literary essays, Howe remained a working journalist, making certain to give a clear, vigorous account of a writer's career, a book's texture and style, a character's human density, and a work's compelling claim on the reader, an approach that went out of fashion in academic criticism after 1970.
Howe saw this happening even earlier. In a stinging attack on Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, he anticipated what would later be called "the hermeneutics of suspicion," the critic's search for a buried subtext that could reveal the writer's unconscious motives or be used to arraign the work itself: "Like a mass-culture imitation of a psychoanalyst, Fiedler refuses on principle to honor the 'surface' events, characters, statements and meanings of a novel. . . . He engages not in formal description or historical placement or critical evaluation, but in a relentless and joyless exposure. The work of literature comes before him as if it were a defendant without defense, or an enemy intent on deceiving him so that he will not see through its moral claims and coverings." Writing in 1960, Howe had little inkling of how fashionable this adversarial posture would become for later academic critics.
Beginning with his first major work, Politics and the Novel (1957), Howe made his reputation as a social and political critic of literature, not a strictly aesthetic one. But in trying to connect intimately with the literary text and make sense of it to a broader public, he cast his lot, surprisingly, with the formal critics, both New and old, whose approach was already going out of style. After a period of "painful soul-searching" around 1948, Howe reacted sharply against his own sectarian background and the Marxist criticism it had fostered. He took a growing delight in literature itself, apart from its ideological tendency. Fiedler's imperious psychoanalytic method, he wrote, "disregards the work of literature as something 'made,' a construct of mind and imagination through the medium of language, requiring attention on its own terms and according to its own structure." We rightly think of Howe as a historical critic, yet he always grounded his commentary in a writer's language and style, the emotional patterns revealed in the work, and the unique or familiar ways the writer remakes the world.
For many years, the clarity of Howe's prose, along with this focus on the individual author, the individual work, made him seem like an old-fashioned figure on the critical scene, more the journalist and omnivorous reviewer than the full-fledged critic. Yet on writer after writer as different as T.E. Lawrence, Sholom Aleichem, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, I.B. Singer, Edith Wharton, Isaac Babel, and Theodore Dreiser, Howe's essays were often the first place the general reader could turn to for critical illumination. As a sometime radical with a deep, abiding sense of privacy, Howe did not reveal much of himself in these essays. Yet his grasp of these writers was so immediate, so personal, so determined to find the living pulse of their workóand to articulate something almost unsayable in his own responseóthat we come to feel we know him intimately. His sharp, relentless, often scathingly funny voice is no doubt indebted to his political writing but also reenacts his probing, jabbing way of reading. Even his longtime antagonist Philip Roth acknowledged that Howe was a real reader, one of the chosen, whose criticism could cut to the quick.
Like Lionel Trilling, Howe took every literary work, as he did many political issues, as a moral challenge, a set of embodied convictions on how to live. This led him into sweeping polemics in which he played the provocateur, evoking passionate controversy, though at times he went badly astray. It was the outraged moralist in him that led him to attack James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for betraying the legacy of rage in the work of their mentor, Richard Wright, and to revile Roth in Portnoy's Complaint for putting his talent "to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity." The same puritanical streak led Howe to travesty the "new sensibility" of the '60s as a toxic dose of primitive innocence, a form of moral anarchy, and to wonder "whether this outlook is compatible with a high order of culture or a complex civilization." Despite a lifetime fighting for social justice, Howe, like other Jewish writers (including Freud and Trilling), found himself caught up in a tragic vision of almost insoluble moral tension and irreconcilable conflict. In a brief essay on Isaac Babel, he picks up Trilling's cue that Babel, riding with the Red Cossacks through territory dotted with his fellow Jews, "was captivated by the vision of two ways of being, the way of violence and the way of peace, and he was torn between them." But, typically, Howe, speaking out of his own sense of the conflicts between politics and art, gives a historical coloring to Trilling's timeless observation, seeing the soldiers' brutality in political terms: "Babel understood with absolute sureness the problem that has obsessed all modern novelists who deal with politics: the problem of action in both its heroic necessity and its ugly self-contamination." In other words, though radical goals may be admirable, the means at hand to realize them could easily prove offensive, unpalatable. In one story, Babel's protagonist, part journalist, part combatant, is bitterly berated by a Russian soldier for riding through battle without cartridges in his revolver. "Crouching beneath the crown of death," the writer ends up "begging fate for the simplest abilityóthe ability to kill a man." In another story, he meets an old Jew who feels as abused by the forces of the Bolshevik revolution as by the feudal Polish landowners fighting against it; who longs for something "unattainable," a "sweet Revolution," the "International of good people." Characteristically, Howe shows how this tension is enacted in Babel's famously laconic style, where it becomes a tremendous source of energy. Taking up John Berryman's comparison of Babel with Stephen Crane, Howe writes that "in both writers there is an obsessive concern with compression and explosion, a kinesthetic ferocity of control, a readiness to wrench language in order to gain nervous immediacy. Both use language to inflict a wound."
This is no casual insight, no imposed melodrama, but a remark dredged up from deep within the critic's own psyche. Trilling and Howe, both conflicted Jews, respond strongly to the ambivalence about Jews, about violence, about revolution that makes Babel's Red Cavalry so starkly effective and yet eventually made the author himself one of Stalin's victims. This personal identification gives power to Howe's essays, which are often obliquely autobiographical. In a memoir of one of his mentors, Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv, with whom he later quarreled, Howe describes how Rahv turned cautious in the conservative climate of the '50s, stirring others (including Howe) to write the provocative critical essays Rahv himself recoiled from doing. By holding back, Rahv lost his "élan, his nervousness": "He could still turn out a lively piece full of the old fire and scorn, but he had made an estimateópolitically mistaken, morally unheroicóthat this wasn't the time to take chances. And by not taking chances (they didn't turn out to be such big chances either), he allowed his energy to dribble away, his voice to lose its forcefulness." Howe himself, at Rahv's urging, wrote the famous 1954 polemic "This Age of Conformity," one of the key dissenting texts of the decade, which Rahv then published in his magazine. In Howe's account, Rahv's cunning and timidity did him in; as Howe sees it, personal authenticity, keeping faith with one's convictions, is inseparable from political and moral daring. Rahv's flaw, his failure of nerve, gives Howe's portrait of him its tragic cast at the same time as it justifies Howe's own zeal for controversy, his take-no-prisoners approach to public argument, his lifelong persistence as a political campaigner, and the peculiar nervous intensity of his own style.
Howe's personal voice, his refusal to rest or desist, had brought him back into fashion as a critic by the time he died in 1993, in the same way that he became the political conscience for many in the generation after him. Just as he lived to see the end of the Reagan revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union, he saw the beginning of a tectonic shift in the world of literature and criticism. Thanks mainly to the humiliation of the Left in the culture wars of the late '80s and early '90s, a new fascination with the public intellectual challenged the long dominance of theory, with its arcane professional languages. In an obituary tribute to Trilling written many years earlier, in 1976, Howe recalled asking Trilling whether he wasn't terrified of the new methodologists who were taking over the field. (Trilling responded puckishly that he was terrified of everything.) By the time Howe died, the theorists had more or less had their day, and Howe himself became an important model for young literary scholars, like David Bromwich and Ilan Stavans, who were as interested in politics as in culture, and were eager to write for larger audiences without intellectual compromise. For me, Howe had always been such a model, ever since I began reading him as an undergraduate around 1960. When I published my first piece in Partisan Review, in 1962, I got a complimentary note from Howe, who was always on the lookout for young talent. He invited me to write for Dissent, something I didn't actually get to do until twenty-five years later. I didn't meet Howe until the early '70s, and disliked much of what he wrote about politics and the arts in the '60s. It amazed me that he could write a sympathetic essay on Berkeley's Free Speech movement one year, then publish a furious onslaught against the New Left barely a year later. When Philip Rahv criticized him for setting up "anti-Communism as the supreme test of political rectitude on the Left," when Raymond Williams attacked the "rancor" of Howe's tone, its sense of "unjustified superiority," I completely agreedóthough Rahv had scarcely earned the right to attack him from the Left and Williams's position boiled down to the hoary dictum "No enemies on the Left."
Howe escaped from politics, as he had done since the '50s, through his invaluable work on Yiddish literature, editing a series of anthologies, with superb introductions, that brought this largely invisible body of work into the mainstream. Toward the end of the decade, he also wrote two landmark essays summing up the culture of modernism and the world and style of the New York intellectuals. These retrospective essays showed not only his wide purview and bold synthesizing powers but his rueful sense, perhaps premature, that these chapters of cultural history were more or less over. Just as Howe saw himself as a latecomer to Yiddish literature, which paradoxically made him a pioneer in its dissemination to an English-speaking audience, he felt a sense of belatedness in both modernist culture and the fractious circle of the New York writers. Caught between vigorous participation and an elegiac sense of farewell, he became the boldly assertive chronicler who brought the whole subject into focus, as he had done with the work of many individual writers. Yet Howe also believed that cultures could flourish brilliantly in their moment of decline, as I.B. Singer, Chaim Grade, and Jacob Glatstein had shown in the waning days of Yiddish literature, as Southern writers and Jewish-American writers had done when their cultural roots were (in Howe's view) already disintegrating.Not long after I met Howe I joined his department, the doctoral program in English at the City University of New York, and very soon the wariness between us dissolved. In the face of rising neoconservative influence, he had turned left again in the early '70s, bringing his Dissent colleagues along with him. But I was twenty years younger, with a certain awe of him, and because Howe tended to be abrupt and impatient with everyone, I often felt I was keeping him from more important businessóindeed, from getting his work done. The publication of World of Our Fathers in 1976 made him a household name in a way he had never expected, and also increased the demands on his time. Howe had little patience for small talk, and our conversations were swift, amusing, and often practicalóa student to be examined, a wrinkle in a writer's work to be ironed out. (I remember one phone call during which Howe questioned me about the shifting names of the protagonists in Delmore Schwartz's elusive, mesmerizing stories.) I admired Howe for his political probity, literary intelligence, and scorching wit, and felt he was someone I would never really know well but was glad to have on my side. I came to know him better through his writing, which never failed to engage me, and his public appearances, where he was always a master of argument, than through our snatches of conversation, which often seemed truncated. I find today that I annotated almost every page of his 1982 memoir, A Margin of Hope, agreeing and disagreeing more vigorously than I ever did when he was in the room. Yet when he died, I felt a gap in my life that has never really been filled.
On an impulse, Howe retired from active teaching in 1986, but continued writing, editing, and lecturing until his death. In his reviews, he often praised his subjects for staying the course, getting the work done, even in the face of defeat, discouragement, aging, and illness. He wrote of Edmund Wilson that "his career took on a heroic shape, the curve of the writer who attains magisterial lucidity in middle age and then, in the years of decline, struggles ferociously to keep his powers." In describing his flawed heroes, Howe often enriched the portrait by projecting his own fears. The illnesses of his last years frequently left him depressed, and more than once I heard him wonder whether the world really needed another book from him. But he enormously admired Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, for sticking to his political mission, and even for his eloquent style in debate ("he knew more, he talked faster, andómiracle of American miracles!óhe came out with comely sentences and coherent paragraphs"). He described Thomas as "the only truly great man I have ever met." Howe reserved his contempt for the former radicals from his City College days who had grown up poor but turned comfortable and conservative, losing their feeling for the world they had left behind. Enjoying their access to power, as Howe saw it, they had grown complacent and self-satisfied. Another hero of his, a figure of genuine moral authority, was the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, "the least bitter of ex-Communists, the most reflective of radical democrats," whose later books were nonetheless weakened, Howe believed, by "his exhausting struggle with his own beliefs, the struggle of a socialist who has abandoned his dogmas yet wishes to preserve his animating values," something Howe himself understood very well.
It's hard not to see the touches of self-reflection in Howe's portraits of Wilson and Silone. Howe had begun redefining his socialism as early as the '50s, transforming it from historical dogma to moral critiqueó"the name of our desire," as he called it, using Tolstoy's phrase. Eventually it became a more forceful extension of liberalism, an unwavering commitment to the labor movement and the welfare state, and a branch of the left wing of the Democratic Party. The very word socialism became a mantra for persistence and determination; it was Howe's link to the radical past even as he was adapting it to the needs of the present. In the introduction to his 1966 collection of political essays, Steady Work, he described himself as "a man of the left, in a dialogue with himself, asking which of his earlier ideas should be preserved, which modified, which discarded." This tentativeness was borne out not by the essays themselves, which are never less than emphatic, but by the unresolved conflicts between them. This was especially true of his essays on the New Left, which were marred by his impatience with a generation he clearly hoped would follow his political lead. Howe could be polemical, at times even infuriating, without losing his grasp of the complexity of the subject. Echoing Trilling's well-known critique of liberalism in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950), Howe described a commitment to socialism in the mid-twentieth century as "a capacity for living with doubt, revaluation and crisis," yet also called it "an abiding ideal." Socialism for him became a politics of conscience rather than a specific program or a set of goals; he came to admire figures who put their conscience, as well as their powers of observation, before their theories and ideas.
Howe saw Orwell, like Silone, as a writer trying to live by a consistent set of values after they had lost their ideological underpinnings. Aside from A Margin of Hope (1982), Howe's 1968 essay on Orwell is perhaps the closest thing he ever wrote to a self-portrait. In it, he describes Orwell as someone who kept his head, and "wrote with his bones" through the worst political episodes of the twentieth century: "the Depression, Hitlerism, Franco's victory in Spain, Stalinism, the collapse of bourgeois England in the thirties." Howe writes that "for a whole generationómineóOrwell was an intellectual hero." Howe saw in Orwell many of the qualities he aspired to or regretted in himself. Like his other heroes, including Wilson, Orwell was an irascible, even "pugnacious" man, whose essays Howe rightly admired for their "blunt clarity of speech and ruthless determination to see what looms in front of one's nose." Howe notes, without really complaining, that Orwell "is reckless, he is ferociously polemical," even when arguing for a moderate position. In the face of those who see Orwell as some kind of secular saint, Howe doubts that Orwell "was particularly virtuous or good." Although Orwell "could be mean in polemics," he sometimes befriended those he had criticized, for he was driven not by personal animus but "by a passion to clarify ideas, correct errors, persuade readers, straighten things out in the world and in his mind." Howe admires Orwell's "peculiar sandpapery humor" and the "charged lucidity" of his prose, which nicely describes his own. Like Howe, Orwell "rejected the rituals of Good Form" and "turned away from the pretentiousness of the 'literary.'" Orwell, Howe notes, "had a horror of exposing his private life," a theme that surfaces repeatedly in Howe's own pieces (on Joyce, for example, and on Salinger) but also sets parameters for his own memoir. Finally, Howe examines the formal features of Orwell's essays, especially their superb endings. Beginning with Orwell as a moral exemplar who is himself a less than perfect man, who is in fact a difficult man, Howe ends by scanning Orwell's great essays for lessons on how to write. In Howe's final work, A Critic's Notebook, he is still searching and still learning.The best responses to Howe's work have been as attentive to his style as he was to the language of those he reviewed. A few reviewers have taken due note of his remarkable growth as a writer. Early on, in 1964, Ted Solotaroff observed how the critic and the socialist intellectual converged in Howe, not only in his sense of cultural crisis but in "his crisp, meticulous prose, his skill at literary description, his grasp of the relevant issue quite equal to any serious book or audience. He is almost always telling you something sound and worthwhile and he is almost always as clear as glass." In Howe's earlier work, this could be a defect. His literary essays sometimes read like position papers; one could almost discern a shadowy list of points, the skeleton of the argument, behind the merely efficient surface of the writing. But as Howe's politics and even his temperament lost their sharp edges, his feeling for the aesthetic, his exhilaration with the language, blossomed. Rereading the large body of Orwell's essays, he is surprised to find that "the sheer pleasure of it cannot be overstated . . . Orwell was an even better writer than I had supposed." In his review of Howe's 1973 collection The Critical Point, Roger Sale made a similar discovery about Howe himselfóthat "he seems to have grown over the years, and his prose is sharper, the insights more precise and flexible." He concluded that Howe "seems to be trusting his human and literary instincts more than he once did."
By attending to the touch and feel of a text, Howe became more of a genuine essayist. As he mellowed, the nuances, reservations, and exceptions that complicated his case became as important as the argument. He came to love the New York City Ballet, where he learned to appreciate Balanchine's dancers for their eloquence of the body, an eloquence beyond language. The felicity of his own prose, once merely workmanlike, burgeoned along with its complex powers of description. Struck by phrases like Howe's description of the "high radiance" of Frost's greatest poetry, Sale remarked that "only the best critics are generous enough to find the right words for their authors." This laconic verbal precision, itself very literary, contrasts with the tedious elaboration that often mars academic writing, in which every point must be spelled out, every remark illustrated by five examples. Howe later paid tribute to the deeply troubled Delmore Schwartz as "a wondrous talker, a first-rate literary intelligenceóthe sort who can light up the work of a poet or novelist with a single quick phrase." For a true critic, this is a talent as basic as breathing.
Howe never became as fluent a writer as Trilling or Alfred Kazin, or as direct and uncluttered as Orwell and Wilson, those masters of the plain style. Working rapidly, he developed a better ear for his subjects' prose than for his own. But he had one gift absolutely essential to a critic: the power of discrimination; the gift for striking the right note, and for getting under the writer's (and the reader's) skin. His literary judgment, his intuition, could create a benchmark, a point of reference, for serious readers, even those who disagreed with him. It could reach the writers themselves, as Howe's well-known attacks touched a nerve in Ellison and Roth, galvanizing them toward an eloquent defense, in Ellison's case, or a subtle change in direction, for Roth, whose later work, with its historical scope and moral urgency, reveals a debt to Howe's critique.
As a writer himself, Howe acknowledged that his talent for metaphor was limited. I've always been struck by a certain clumsiness in his account of his "reconquest of Jewishness" in A Margin of Hope. But "Jewish Quandaries," the chapter in which this odd soldierly phrase appears, is a penetrating essay (with illustrations from Howe's own life) on the struggle of Jewish intellectuals with their ethnic background; it is also a frank analysis of how Howe's own feelings changed over the years. Speaking for many cosmopolitan radicals who once disdained merely tribal loyalties, he writes ruefully that "we had tried to 'make' our lives through acts of decision, 'programs' that thwarted the deeper, more intuitive parts of our own being." Embarrassed by the immigrant poverty and parochialism of his early years, indoctrinated by the universalism of his later Marxist faith, with its trust in collective movements and contempt for bourgeois individualism, Howe never found it easy to talk about himself. It went against the grain. Yet his memoir, if rarely intimate, shows how well he could think about himself, trusting his human and literary instincts as he increasingly did in his criticism.
As with all the best critics, Howe's work has a strong personal stamp, and he himself comes through on every page: awkward, funny, impatient, at moments ruthless, yet with an uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter, to highlight what really counts. More than a decade younger than Trilling, Rahv, and their generation, Howe always felt like a latecomer, a brash young man among grown-ups; but as a critic and cultural historian, he was distinctly an original, a writer with sweeping powers of synthesis, whose political savvy, humane moral outlook, and keen feeling for art enabled him to find his own voice and deploy it with exceptional power.
This essay is adapted from the afterword to Irving Howe and the Critics: Celebrations and Attacks, a collection of essays edited by John Rodden, to be published in early 2005 by the University of Nebraska Press. Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Gates of Eden, Double Agent, and Leopards in the Temple. His new book, A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World, will be published by Princeton University Press in May.