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Irving Howe and the Critics

Celebrations and Attacks

John Rodden

Publication Year: 2005

Irving Howe and the Critics is a selection of essays and reviews about the work of Irving Howe (1920–93), a vocal radical humanist and the most influential American socialist intellectual of his generation. Howe authored eighteen books, edited twenty-five more, wrote dozens of articles and reviews, and edited the magazine Dissent for forty years after founding it. His writings cover subjects ranging from U.S. labor to the vicissitudes of American communism and socialism to Yiddishkeit and contemporary politics. His book World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made received the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
John Rodden has chosen essays and reviews that focus on Howe’s major works and on the disputes they generated. He features both Dissent contributors and those who have dissented from the Dissenters—on the Right as well as the Left. Rodden includes a few stern assessments of Howe from his less sympathetic critics, testifying not only to the range of response—from admiration to hostility—that his work received but also to his stature on the Left as a prime intellectual target of neoconservative fire.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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Foreword: Reading Irving Howe

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pp. xi-xvii

In critical reviews and essays about my father, Irving Howe, one frequently encounters a certain neat formulation that declares he was a man who wrote about what he lived and knew. He grew up with Yiddish as his first language, so inevitably he edited many volumes of translations from that language and then wrote World of Our Fathers; he grew...

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pp. xix-xxii

This collection addresses the achievements and legacy of Irving Howe (1920–93), a vocal radical humanist and the most influential American socialist intellectual of his generation. Howe was also a distinguished literary critic who wrote or edited works on Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Yiddish fiction...

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Introduction: Irving Howe, Triple Thinker

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pp. 1-24

Irving Howe and the Critics focuses on Howe's major works and the disputes they generated. Indeed, given the strong dissents across the ideological spectrum from Howe's dissenting radicalism, this book could alternatively have been titled "Irving Howe versus the Critics" (or even—per the title of his 1979 essay collection—"Celebrations...


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pp. 25

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1. A Man of the Left

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pp. 27-31

In one of his essays Ignazio Silone says that, as a child, he once laughed at the sight of a man being dragged through the street by the police. His father reproved him harshly, telling him never to make fun of a man who has been arrested. "Because he can't defend himself. And because he may be innocent. In any case because...

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2. Journey of a Social Democrat

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pp. 32-36

Irving Howe was one of our greatest intellects, a man of passion and intelligence who epitomized the now-lost world of the 1930s and 1940s "New York intellectuals," a term he himself coined in a 1968 essay. He was by profession a literary critic who wrote about Céline and Emerson and, of course, the world of the Yiddish community in which he grew...

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3. An Ex-Maoist Looks at an Ex-Trotskyist: On Howe's Leon Trotsky

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pp. 37-47

A quarter of a century since he wrote it, Howe's biography of Trotsky raises far more questions than it can directly answer. How could a devoted democratic socialist describe a founder of the Bolshevik Party and thus of the Soviet state as "one of titans of the century," not least when the author also recognizes that Trotskyism is "without political...

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4. Our "Uncle Irving": Howe's Conservative Strain

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pp. 48-56

"Uncle Irving" . . . Or so my colleague Elaine Hoffman Baruch and I referred to Irving Howe—a private joke whose origins I have forgotten. Once at a Dissent editorial meeting, which I attended as a frequent contributor, a female member of the board objected to an essay by Baruch that Howe thought extraordinary (it failed some rad-fem test, as I recall): "I don't want...

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5. Irving and the New Left: From Fighter to Leader

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pp. 57-61

I first met Irving in 1965, after he had invited me to expand a letter to Dissent into an article—I thought, "Once in a lifetime, how can I go wrong?" We met for coffee at one of Broadway's many vanished cafeterias. Irving liked what I wrote, was personally very nice (he even gave me a Ninety-second Street "Y" ticket that he couldn't use for the great Yiddish...

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6. Irving Howe, R.I.P.: A Few Tasteless Words

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pp. 62-63

Tributes following his death [in May 1993] appeared in the New York Times (Michael Weinstein, the salesman of "managed competition"; also Leon Wieseltier); the New Republic; Newsday; the New Yorker; and the Nation itself, by Ted Solotaroff ("He leaves the air vivid around him, in Stephen Spender's words, signed with his honor"). This is not to mention...

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7. The Old People's Socialist League [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 64-73

All things considered, the literary critic and political intellectual Irving Howe is having a good afterlife. Since his death in 1993 his reputation, at least in certain quarters, seems only to have grown greater. Every so often one reads a worshipful word about him in the New Yorker or the New Republic or the New York Times Book Review. In a recent book...


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pp. 75

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8. Politics and the Critic

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pp. 77-95

Early in Politics and the Novel Irving Howe writes of "the vast respect which the great novelist is ready to offer to the whole idea of opposition, the opposition he needs to allow for in his book against his own predispositions and yearnings and fantasies." Though he was not a novelist, and did not fancy himself an artist, Irving respected, even loved "the whole...

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9. The Socialist Who Loved Keats

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pp. 96-107

Irving Howe, who died in 1993, holds a unique and still oddly influential place in American intellectual life. Undaunted by normal constraints on time and energy, he pursued two consuming careers simultaneously, as literary critic and as political gadfly. Remarkably, he also taught English, wrote a monumental work of social history...

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10. A Lover of Stories

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pp. 108-111

My father moved in a world of stories. He told his own in World of Our Fathers and A Margin of Hope; he wrote about those of Faulkner and Hardy, Anderson and Wharton, Dreiser and Sholom Aleichem, Leskov and George Eliot, T. E. Lawrence and Pirandello, Delmore Schwartz and Raymond Carver, Tolstoy and Umberto Saba—the list amazes as much for its diversity...

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11. The Literary Craftsman

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pp. 112-113

Irving found his style very quickly. His earliest work displays the tense lucidity that marked his prose for the rest of his life. His voice on the page was so confident that you might have thought it came easily, but he said that it didn't: he once said that he put almost everything he wrote through nine or ten drafts. In an essay on Orwell he wrote that the...

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12. How Irving Howe Shaped My Thinking Life

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pp. 114-116

Looking over everything that Howe published, I have to feel a bit shamefaced about how comparatively little of his work I have read. My personal library does still contain marked-up copies of his critical study of Faulkner, along with his short books Leon Trotsky and American Newness, as well as collections like A World More Attractive and Selected Writings. But...

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13. "My Intellectual Hero": Irving Howe's "Partisan" Orwell

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pp. 117-131

George Orwell was a major influence and near-constant presence in Irving Howe's life for almost a half century. But Howe's intellectual relationship to Orwell deepened over time and was strongly conditioned by Howe's ideological evolution and by contemporary political and social events. His history of reception of Orwell can be roughly demarcated...

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14. Howe on Emerson: The Politics of Literary Criticism

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pp. 132-142

Is Emerson to blame? In two important books, Socialism and America (1985) and The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson (1986), Irving Howe suggests that the answer is "yes": to Emerson must be assigned the burden of responsibility for the failure of socialism—or even for a socialist movement—to establish itself in...

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15. Howe Inside My Head

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pp. 143-146

I met Irving Howe only once.We shook hands, spoke a few cordial words, nothing more. Before that we had exchanged a couple of brief, friendly notes about book reviews I'd written for his quarterly, Dissent. Nevertheless, I had a fairly intense relationship with Howe. I can best characterize it by quoting from an essay by a friend of Howe's, the editor...

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16. World of Our Grandparents

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pp. 149-155

Books that last, books that still matter, change from generation to generation. Two decades after it first appeared, World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe's stirring history of Jewish immigrant life on New York's Lower East Side, is at once the same book and subtly different. Its world is more remote, with few survivors still among us, yet also more immediate...

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17. Father Figures

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pp. 156-162

When it arrives at the point at which its achievements are summed up and a reckoning presented, a culture has gotten as far beyond the tragedies of its own history as is humanly possible. To understand this is to understand the tough integrity of Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, a great work of the historical imagination and a painful elegy...

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18. Of Yiddish Culture and Secular Jewishness

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pp. 163-172

Seven years after Irving Howe first wrote these lines (in "The New York Intellectuals," an essay published in the fall of 1968), the "bits and pieces" have come together as a massive chronicle of Yiddish culture in America, a full-scale social and cultural history of the immigration of the East European Jews to this country and the life they found and...

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19. Standing Guard over Irving Howe's Reputation; Or, Good Causes Attract Bad Advocates

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pp. 173-178

Although I had published nine books prior to Irving Howe, this was the first one that elicited warnings from its prospective publisher (Indiana University Press) about the prejudices of book reviewers in the field. One of Indiana's editors, a scholar in his own right, urged me to drop criticisms of the Israeli Left and of Howe's links with it via...

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20. Irving, In Memoriam

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pp. 179-182

It was a moody September morning in 1991, and we were walking down Madison Avenue, gossiping about books, when Irving Howe changed the subject. "Something happened to me in Paris that you might understand" was how he began the least likely conversation we ever had. "I was in the garden at the Rodin Museum. For a few minutes I was...


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pp. 183

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21. The Relevance of Irving Howe

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pp. 185-189

"It is hard," one critic wrote of Irving Howe in the year 2000, "to imagine another individual who achieved so much success during his lifetime in such disparate fields of endeavor and yet whose contributions are more thoroughly ignored today."1 The critic errs immediately in seeing Howe's three main professional interests—democratic...

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22. A Steady Worker

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pp. 190-200

Irving Howe often puzzled over the coherence of his thought. Did all that abundance and diversity resolve into an underlying pattern? Or did the separate commitments—the politics, the literary criticism, the Jewish history, the editorial labors, the life of a university professor—fly off into a miscellany? At the opening of the collection...

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Afterword: Irving Howe: Finding the Right Words

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pp. 201-211

In any discussion of the reader, the political critic, or the public intellectual in the second half of the twentieth century it would be hard to find a figure more exemplary or more controversial than 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...

Appendix: Wanted by the FBI: No. 727437B a.k.a. Irving Horenstein

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pp. 213-225

Source Acknowledgments

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pp. 227-228


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pp. 229-237

E-ISBN-13: 9780803205222
E-ISBN-10: 0803205228

Publication Year: 2005