restricted access Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (review)
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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 149-152



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Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew. By Edward Alexander. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. xx + 284 pp.

To begin at the beginning--or just before it--the descriptive but confrontational title of this study of Irving Howe is just what one might expect from Edward Alexander. His interest in things Jewish has brought [End Page 149] him from his early days as a critic of Victorian literature to participation as a self-described "belligerent" in "the Jewish wars" 1 --the seemingly perpetual, always heated, highly opinionated, politically polarized disputes among Jewish intellectuals that, for decades, have filled the pages of leading journals and newspapers. Howe himself was a major figure in those wars, usually on the opposing side from Alexander. Yet the latter seems filled here with real affection for his subject, whom he terms "a kind of miracle," even as he describes with contempt Howe's more egregious contretemps (p. ix). Alexander's impressive research and insights, as well as his acerbic sense of humor, transport his study well beyond Howe himself, making it an engrossing, scholarly documentary of the main currents in American thought for over half the decades of the twentieth century. Above all, this is a fascinating cultural history, told through the life and times of one prominent writer and critic who, if he occasionally misfired, was never missing in action on a major issue. Yet the subtitle is bound to cost Alexander readers--and not among those ambivalent about socialism or criticism, either. It will be their loss, for Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew is as enjoyable as it is enlightening to read.

The subtitle also provides Alexander with the milestones of his subject's intellectual journey for, while Irving Horenstein was certainly born a Jew in 1921 in the Bronx, he only seemed to appreciate that fact fully long after he had become Irving Howe. Indeed, "Irving Howe" and other "Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms," under which his early, mostly political commentaries were published, were in fact a denial of his Jewishness on a basic level. As Alexander explains, although the young Howe and other Jewish activists insisted "that workingmen, especially socialist workers, were immune to antisemitism, they did not believe what they preached; rather, they assumed that the ordinary workingman would be far more susceptible to ideological appeals from Howe and Garrett and Gates than from Horenstein and Geltman and Glotzer" (p. 17). How ironic, then, that by the 1960s Hannah Arendt could attack the name of Irving Howe as synonymous with the "Jewish establishment" (p. 119).

The first half of the study documents this transformation of Howe. Alexander clearly relishes his role, first in confirming Howe's often blistering criticism of his liberal and Marxist antagonists, and then in exposing the follies of Howe's own positions. According to Alexander, Howe "stumbled into socialism" as a boy, and his intellectual commitment to Marxism was undercut by Howe's own admission that "in [End Page 150] economics I was a complete bust" (pp. 3, 4). As a young Trotskyite in the years before and during the Second World War, Alexander explains, Howe believed "that he had kept clear of the taint of Stalinism" (p. 9). But his anti-war bias was based on a misreading of what he believed to be "an imperialist war" on both sides (p. 15), and Germany's war against the Jews was discounted or ignored completely. Later, of course, Howe would admit that position was "a serious instance of moral failure on our part" (p. 46), but Alexander expounds in telling detail how Howe's attitude toward and understanding of the Holocaust was distorted not just during the war, but for years afterwards, "when everybody knew about the destruction of European Jewry" (p. 46). Nor did Howe's doctrinal blindness to the destruction in Europe sensitize him to the threats faced by Jews before and after the re-establishment of the State of Israel.

This, then, is one of the central questions that Alexander raises: "just when and why did Howe change his perspective on his...


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