American Jewish History 88.4 (2000) 439-448
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My Work on World of Our Fathers
By the time I met Irving Howe in the mid-sixties as a graduate student at Hunter College, he was an established literary and social critic, political analyst, and supporter of socialism. What I admired most about Irving at the time was his combination of tough-minded realism and sustained hopefulness as he strove in his way to improve the human condition by advancing Enlightenment goals of equality, fraternity, and progress. A frequent contributor to the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, and Dissent, which he founded in 1954, Irving by now had become a hero of sorts to many liberal-minded academics of my generation.
I was therefore all the more intrigued when one day in 1967 or '68, during a Henry James seminar, Irving mentioned his need of a research assistant for a social, economic and intellectual history of the Lower East Side he had recently contracted to write for Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. For whatever reason, I raised my hand and embarked on a journey with Irving from Henry James to Henry Street, culminating in the publication of World of Our Fathers in 1976, and How We Lived three years later.
The Irving I knew fully realized that history is always much more than "irresistible forces" colliding "with immovable objects," or the academic analysis of social or political forces, or a series of carefully developed economic charts. For Irving human history at its core was the interaction of men and women as individuals and in groups with society. Irving had a novelist's ability to do what historians are taught to do-to get inside people's heads and experience the way people of another time and place thought and felt, the way they viewed the world, the way they interacted. What Irving wanted to do, in addition to apprehending scientific truth, was to experience and evoke every bit as truthfully the thoughts and feelings of the world of our fathers and mothers. For many academics, observation and empathy are mutually exclusive propositions. For Irving they constituted a balancing act. This was one of many characteristics that made working with Irving a truly memorable experience.
I had never met anyone quite like Irving before. In his approach to modern literature, he found as much to admire in Mendele Mokher Sforim, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Sholom Aleichem as in such American literary masters as Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton and William Faulkner. This approach aroused in me a peculiar sensation, a feeling of [End Page 439] twoness-an American, a Jew-two souls, two thoughts, two sets of overlapping values. I had come across Howe and Eliezer Greenbergs's anthology of Yiddish stories as a Dartmouth undergraduate. Reading it stopped me dead in my tracks. It had never occurred to me as an assimilating son of Yiddish-speaking Jews that I should pay more attention to their life and culture. In light of what he had already done as an interpreter of Yiddish literature, I welcomed the opportunity to help Irving in any way I could in telling the story of the pre-World War I migration of over two million Yiddish-speaking Jews to America.
To get me started, Irving recommended three books-Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, Louis Levine's The Women's Garment Workers, and Moses Rischin's The Promised City. Each in its own way proved indispensable. As editor for over a half a century of the Lower East Side's premier newspaper, the Forverts, Cahan had a greater understanding of its politics, economics and sociology than any other person of his day. That Cahan had poured his thoughts and feelings into a novel with a Lower East Side setting Irving thought so highly of made it a perfect vehicle for providing me with an introduction to that world. Reading Louis Levine's history of the ILGWU together with Morris Hillquit's Loose Leaves From a Busy Life...