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Irving Howe Turned Tardiness Into an Intellectual Stance

Jose Mercado/Stanford New Service

A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe, Edited by Nina Howe, Yale University Press, 416 pp. 

Writing in the crisis-riddled summer of 1969, Irving Howe observed of his generation: “One shorthand way of describing [our] situation … is to say that [we] came late.” Late to modernism, which had climaxed with Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf in the 1920s.  Late to Marxism, which had peaked during the Great Depression and with the emergence of the Popular Front in the 1930s. Late to literary experiment, to movement politics, to the heyday of the radical and non-academic intellectual. “The New York writers,” Howe lamented, “came at the end.”

Of course, one of the features of Howe and his generation is that they not only came late but also too early. Born in the 1920s and ’30s, they might have been too young for the literary radicalism and movement politics of the Old Left, but they were also too old for the countercultural experiments and anti-war activism of the New Left. Having started out at the midcentury—when figures like Lionel Trilling and Sidney Hook were shedding their last traces of radicalism—Howe’s generation was in its twilight by the late 1960s.

This was their strength as well as their weakness. Howe’s generation helped bridge gaps, carrying the Old Left torches of socialism and modernism into a new age of radicalism and cultural experiment. Their predicament also led to a set of intriguing—and, I think, still persuasive—political positions: ones that invoked the images of socialism and radical democracy even as they now espoused the values of liberalism and civil libertarianism.

But coming late also had its drawbacks. Howe sometimes could sound like he was speaking from the caves. Often he seemed to blink in the shock of sunlight, in the brightness of a new political and cultural moment. He could sometimes bully when he meant to advise and sometimes side with those in the establishment when he meant to ally with the dissidents. Philip Roth, smarting from a review of one of his novels, cartooned Howe in Zuckerman Unbound as Milton Appel, the West Side militant of “grown-upism.” Novelists, of course, aren’t historians but they can still speak some truth.

Howe was born in 1920 in the South Bronx. Like many of his contemporaries’ parents, his were first-generation immigrants: outer-borough Jews from outer-borough—that is, Eastern—Europe. They spoke Yiddish at home. His father was a grocer, his mother worked in the garment industry. Politics was a course served at the kitchen table. It was also out in the streets. New York in the 1930s was a hotbed of radicalism—not just Jewish and socialist but also anarchist and trade unionist, Communist and Trotskyist, Catholic and Protestant. There were soapbox proselytizers and sectarian evangelists on almost every corner and in every borough; and Howe joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist Party, just before he began attending high school.

Howe brought the radicalism of the outer-boroughs with him to City College when he entered in 1936. 1936 was a tumultuous year. Germany had begun its process of Gleichschaltung—“political standardization.” Dozens of Russian intellectuals, many of them former Party loyalists, were put on trial in the Soviet Union. For the first time in the West, news was breaking through of Stalin’s purges and famines. One had to pick sides. Already a restive and argumentative spirit, Howe had no problem choosing. He broke from the more mainstream Socialists and joined Max Shachtman’s sectarian Workers Party.

Howe began his career as a writer during these college years. Picking up the pugnacious style of a party publicist, he contributed essays—mostly under pen names—to a variety of radical organs. But already Howe was growing weary of sectarian politics, not only for political but also literary reasons. The pinched narrowness, the polemical ferocity, the acrid skepticism toward all that was elegant or morally complex troubled the young Howe. Marxism—as a mode of cultural as well as social criticism—had hit a wall. “As a theory of historical analysis and social action,” he wrote to a friend, Marxism was full of possibility but it nonetheless “contributes little to the evaluation of a work of art.”

One of the first essays Howe published under his own name was for Partisan Review, a magazine that was coming to a similar set of conclusions around this time. Reviewing a book of criticism by one of PR’s favorite sons—the radical novelist and critic James Farrell—Howe argued that Farrell’s essays reduced “literature to an anterior political and sociological concept,” flattening the barbed, human complexities of the novel into the soft edges of ideological catechism. But worse: Farrell had not only lost his critical but also verbal edge. “Why does Farrell write so badly?” Howe asked at the end of the essay. “I think [his] incapacity for simple prose must be seen in light of his critical methods.”

Howe’s essay must have upset more than a few in the Partisan Review crowd. But nothing made one’s name quicker, at least among the New York critics, then heated confrontation, and over the next half decade, Howe became a regular, writing for them and their New York sister publications: Commentary, The New Republic, and The Nation.

Already Howe’s style and thinking were evolving when he began writing for these publications. His prose was now leavened with a wry elegance—an ironic style modulated and sharpened by his polemical tendencies. He had an enviable gift for compacting a whole history of ideas into a handful of rather precisely executed sentences. There was also an elasticity to his range. He helped discover I.B. Singer, contracting a young novelist by the name of Saul Bellow to translate a story of into English. He championed the soft-spoken complexities of Henry James, the brilliant impieties of Zola, and denounced literary “palookas” such as Howard Fast. He debated Marcuse on the Brandeis campus and lectured on Conrad and Dostoevsky at Princeton. He wrote scholarly studies on William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson and published what, I believe, is still his greatest work, a survey of political fiction titled Politics and the Novel.

Howe still retained his political commitments. In fact, he considered his literary and political inclinations to be one in the same, two sides—utopian and ironic, committed and critical—of the same intellectual vocation. Trilling remarked in this period that this choice between commitment and literary complexity was a “dark and bloody crossroads.” For Howe it was precisely by remaining between politics and literature that one became an intellectual. Trilling insisted on the “moral obligation to be intelligent”; Howe insisted there was a moral obligation to apply such intelligence to politics. To rub social needs against utopian desires, the demand for political action against the supple ambiguities of the literary imagination—this was the task of the intellectual; its friction generated sparks.

This was not a new position. Figures like Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson also articulated such a vision in the 1930s and ’40s: that radicalism was a total stance, political and literary, engaged with discovering not only new images of the world but new social structures. As the French Surrealist, Andre Breton, put it in an address around this time: “‘Transform the world,’ said Marx. ‘Change life,’ said Rimbaud. These two are … one and the same.” But for many intellectuals in the early 1950s it was beginning to appear as if they should not be one and the same. Marx and Rimbaud, Trotsky and Proust, the rigors of politics and the spirited sense of possibility in literature—these were increasingly seen as separate fields of intellectual activity. Trilling, along with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the historians Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Hofstadter, all began to champion a vision of “liberal realism”—of a world in which politics and ideology, political action and morality were separate from one another. One of Howe’s City College friends, Daniel Bell, argued that the 1950s saw an “end of ideology.” In truth, it was more that, for many intellectuals, the decade marked the end of ideological contest.

This was, in particular, true of the Partisan Review critics. American liberalism could seem a prudent compromise after the Great Depression and the rise of authoritarian politics in Europe and the Soviet Union. Instead of the experimentalism of modernism and the egalitarianism of Marxism, many embraced more conservative lodestars: the realist novel, the “mixed economy,” more bureaucratic structures of power. A symposium in 1952 asked a group of PR critics how they related to American culture. Almost all—from Trilling and Hook to Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy—chose the “West.”

Howe was not asked to participate in the symposium. But the essay he wrote in response, “This Age of Conformity,” was a ferocious attack on his contemporaries, accusing them of not only losing their radical commitments—literary and political—in the face of their growing prestige but also coming to terms with troubling new developments in Western capitalism. His essay, however, was not only a dissent. It was also a demand for an alternative type of critic: the intellectual who did not dissolve the tensions between literature and politics but felt comfortable in their strained margins, dangling “between art and experience, between the critical consciousness and the political conscience.” “Nothing here,” Howe concluded, “gives us cause for reassurance or relaxation. … No formal ideology or program is entirely adequate for coping with the problems that intellectuals face in the twentieth century” but “the banner of critical independence, ragged and torn though it may be, is still the best we have.”

The essay rubbed a lot of Howe’s contemporaries the wrong way. “What was I conforming to?” Irving Kristol recalled. “I mean, I lived in the same building as Irving.”

In the winter of 1954, shortly after Howe’s essay, Howe and a Brandeis colleague, Lewis Coser, founded Dissent. “When intellectuals can do nothing else,” Howe wrote in the first issue, “they start a magazine.”

It was said that during a meeting leading up to the magazine’s release there was a witching-hour debate over what the magazine should be called. The New York Radical, suggested one editor. The Better Republic, offered another. The More Partisan Review, pondered a third. But all were shot down for being too positive, for suggesting too much. We are breaking from ideology, explained one editor, not founding a new one. Finally a young man in the back cried out: I’ve got it, he exclaimed. How about No? The room leaned forward with interest. A vote was held. This, too, was pronounced to be too affirmative.

Dissent was, in fact, often criticized—fairly and unfairly—for its censorious tone, its tendency toward negation, its stylized sense of political isolation. A young Nathan Glazer, reviewing its first issue in Commentary, observed that the young magazine marked a considerable blow for the Left. Adolescent in its disavowal “of positive ideas,” its relentless sense of negation represented the postwar Left’s “failure to suggest any alternatives to the policies of which [it] disapproves.” Glazer was not, of course, entirely wrong. But there was also a radical exuberance—a vision of democratic socialism—that cut through it all. The first several issues opened with a set of salvos aimed at the growing consensus around liberal realism. Trilling, Niebuhr, David Riesman, John Kenneth Galbraith—no one was spared. Howe wrote a thrillingly mean-spirited essay on his contemporaries’ obsession with Adlai Stevenson. C. Wright Mills dashed off a pair of brilliant examinations of postwar American political culture: one on the concentration of power, the other on the growing tendency toward conservatism. Harold Rosenberg parodied the “couch liberals” of the Upper West Side and their self-styled sense of moral exhaustion, and Norman Mailer wrote some brilliantly stupid things—perhaps of most famous note: his eminently quotable but utterly incoherent essay on the 1950s “hipster.”

But Howe did appear at times to enforce a certain didactic orthodoxy. Howe wrote a critical review of Ellison’s Invisible Man, praising the electric brilliance of its prose and plot but insisting that the novel was weakened by its faith in the liberatory aspects of American culture. He also frequently tussled with the New Left. While he cultivated a set of younger intellectuals who came of political age during the late 1950s and 1960s—critics like Michael Walzer and Marshall Berman who were sympathetic to the New Left—he also misread the more substantive nature of New Left activism, insisting that its visions of participatory democracy were more style than substance, posture than position.

Some of these skeptical reactions bore fruit—Ellison’s moving, imaginative response to Howe, “The World and the Jug” and much of Walzer and Berman’s early essays—others, however, just left scars. Howe and the first generation of Dissentniks really missed a set of opportunities to engage with new expressions of radical politics and culture. Black radicalism, second-wave feminism, the New Left, the antiwar movement—there was a lot that was wrong about much of their politics but also a lot that this new generation got right and a lot that Howe—falling upon older, more sectarian habits—just flat out missed.

As Berman wrote, Howe argued two things about the New Left: 

(1) The New Left is wrong to be obsessed with style; (2) The New Left has THE WRONG STYLE. Thesis 1 was absolutely right. Obsession with echt-radical style often estranged us from our deepest values: people who were really kindred spirits tore each other to pieces over how they dressed and danced and what they smoked, and over who was really “truly radical”… But Irving seemed…to become the sort of person he unmasked, a man obsessed with style. He seemed complacently happy in a world of thesis 2, where only people with THE RIGHT STYLE were allowed to play. For the next few years, Dissent seemed to care more about somebody flying a Vietcong flag at a mass antiwar demonstration than about what American guns and bombs were actually doing to Vietnam. 

Writing later in life, Howe confessed: “Wasn’t it possible to bring together the dialectical reflectiveness encouraged by Trilling’s criticism with a readiness to engage publicly in behalf of liberal or radical ideas? In principle, yes; in practice, not so easily.”

Howe’s essays—and really in the end it was his essays that were his master form—innovated two distinct forms. The first was a kind of hybrid of political and literary criticism, in which the rough-handed interrogations of the polemicist were twinned with the ear and throat of literature. None of his contemporaries, perhaps with the exception of Mary McCarthy, could write with as much vim as seriousness. Howe’s “Adlai Stevenson and the Intellectuals,” for example, put forward a close reading of the cultural imagery invoked by a Stevenson speech; it also offered up one of the best send-ups of postwar gentility and liberal egg-headism. A more studious essay like “The Idea of the Modern” was, at once, a careful parsing of the modernist turn in European letters and yet bore as much teeth as a canine: snapping with much delight at many of Howe’s former heroes. 

Howe’s second innovation as an essay-writer came from a rather different and surprising tradition: that of Montaigne. Howe was a master memoirist—not just of himself but also of his generation. Like Alfred Kazin and Malcolm Cowley, it could be argued that Howe’s second great body of work were the generational autobiographies that he published throughout his life. “New York Intellectuals” is, perhaps, his most famous and the one we all remember. (It was, after all, the essay that gave currency to phrase the  “New York Intellectuals.”) But Howe mastered the form years before with his haunting 1946 essay, “The Lost Young Intellectual,” in which he narrated the twice-alienated state in which he and so many of his contemporaries experienced in the early 1940s. First his cohort of radical intellectuals experienced a break from the immigrant and often religious milieus of their childhood homes; second they experienced the disenchantment that came in the wake of the movement and sectarian politics of the 1930s and ’40s. By the 1950s, they were “strangers”: late to the values of one generation, too early for the next.

For Howe, this gave his generation of critics its cosmopolitan and guardedly highbrow style. Neither the modernists or Marxists of the 1920s and ’30s nor the radicals or postmodernists of the 1960s and ’70s, Howe’s generation found itself dangling, caught in the middle, always on the defensive. This sense of belatedness took on a particularly twilight hue after all of the political violence and disappointment of the late 1960s. “New York Intellectuals” (1969), “What’s the Trouble?” (1971), and “Strangers” (1977), all take on a rueful, autobiographical quality. It was not so much that Howe was confessing sins but taking stock—of himself, of his commitments, and of his comrades.

Perhaps the most moving of these essays is “Strangers,” where Howe returns to the theme of being twice-alienated. It was an old theme: once the “lost young intellectual,” now Howe was an old one. But time had thickened his complaints, has slowed the drama, had rendered a generational portrait into something more and something less than a biography of his contemporaries. It was a manifesto: “Of such uncouth elements is the American language made and remade. Upon such renewals does American experience thrive.” But what elements, what renewals? No longer was it modernism or socialism, experiment or egalitarianism, but another feature of Howe’s roots: his immigrant Jewish upbringing. “Our writers did not, of course, create a new language, and in the encounter between English and Yiddish, the first has survived far better than the second; but still, we have left our scar, tiny though it be, on their map. … If indeed our dream of a New World paradise is ever to be realized…how can we ever expect to get there except through the clubfoot certainties of schlepping?”

Howe dedicated much of his later life to this Jewish past—secular Jewish culture, one should note, but Jewish culture nonetheless. For a hardened political critic so suspicious of even the faintest whiffs of sentimentality, it appeared that in his later years he had softened. Considering the expansiveness and seriousness of his work on Yiddish culture this seems more than a little unfair. World of Our Fathers—and his co-authored documentary history, How We Lived—were certainly much more than Bar Mitzvah gifts. He tackled the world of his fathers (and some of our grandfathers) with care and skill, bringing to a subject that often was romanticized the seriousness of his political criticism. He also saved much of Yiddish literature (the brilliantly sinful stories of I.L. Peretz, for example) from languishing in obscurity—or, at least, in a language fast being forgotten.

But the truth is, he did on this topic, as was true with his other political work, occasionally waver. There was a faint odor of must that came with his turn toward Jewish culture in the 1970s. It also revealed a considerable unfairness of judgment. While Howe frequently decried the particularisms of other movements—of radical feminism, of the black power and anti-imperialist movements—he eventually picked up his own, that of immigrant Jewish culture. This was not entirely outside of the times; politics had shrunken by the late 1970s and 1980s. Lines of solidarity had become more local and more rooted to communities than movements. There was a general retreat from radical activism and from the heightened sense of political urgency that electrified the 1960s. America was now Reagan’s country, and the tepid welfare-state liberalism that he and his Dissent comrades had once been so critical of was now something worth aspiring to.  Socialism still remained the “name of his desire,” as he and Lewis Coser once put it, but it was now a much more lonely—a more isolated and splintered—vision of political life.

There’s a refrain recurring in many of these later essays—one that is hard to ignore when one reads his essays together (which this wonderful new collection, edited by his daughter Nina Howe, affords). It’s a line from a Henry James letter: “it’s a complex fate.” 

One of Howe’s favorite aphorisms came from a Yiddish fable about the town of Chelm.

Once in Chelm, the mythical village of the East European Jews, a man was appointed to sit at the village gate and wait for the coming of the Messiah. He complained to the village elders that his pay was too low. “You are right,” they said to him, “the pay is low. But consider: the work is steady.” 

For Howe, the steadiness of work is what gave his writing its richness, his politics its sturdiness. A weakness throughout Howe’s career was his tendency to punch first. In writing about literature and negotiating differences on the Left, Howe often shot too fast. He mistook the idealism of the New Left for ideological sectarianism. He unfairly distrusted black and feminist radicalism, seeing in them the sad decline of a more universalistic Left, and he never quite got (or publically engaged with) postmodern fiction. But in the end, Howe often came to regret many of his mistakes and worked to correct them. Several New Leftists eventually joined Dissent’s fold; under the helm of a new generation of editors, the magazine also came to promote radical feminism. Howe fought with those on the Left he cared about, but his combativeness was almost always also an act of ardor. As he observed late in life, “You begin a friendship on the left by attacking somebody.”

Arriving late does not always mean you will make friends. Certainly this was the case with Howe. Friendships were spawned but so were enemies. Howe’s tardiness, however, was more than a generational infelicity; it was a politics, a way of being—an intellectual stance. The critic, for Howe, always wanted something better, something taken from the past and set against the hopes of the future. He read great books but also sought out new ideas, was sensitive to the complexities of literature but also the demands of action. Intellectual life—political, literary, radical life—was an act of balancing between art and experience, critical consciousness and political conscience, particular loyalties and universal desires. Writing in an essay near the end of his life titled “Why Has Socialism Failed in America?,” Howe invoked James again: “James once said that being an American is a complex fate. We American socialists could add: He didn’t know the half of it.”