God died in the nineteenth century, utopia in the twentieth.
—from Irving Howe’s A Margin of Hope.
At one point in A Margin of Hope (1982), Irving Howe’s intellectual autobiography, he speaks of himself as “moving closer to the secular Yiddish milieu at the very moment it was completing its decline”—and then he wonders, almost as an afterthought, if this newfound passion is not perhaps “Another lost cause added to my collection.” Such candor on Howe’s part has hardly been in short supply; indeed, it is precisely this ability to look upon both the world and the Self with a critical, often skeptical, detachment—and to report the results with an unflinching honesty—that have been the hallmarks of his eloquent, forceful style. In the long arc of his career—as political radical, as polemicist, as editor, as educator, as literary critic, and, not least of all, as writer—there have, indeed, been lost causes aplenty, and, perhaps more important, countless opportunities to mourn their passing, to reflect on their respective failures, to sit shiva in elegantly formed paragraphs.
For Howe—and, one might add, for much of American literature—nothing quite succeeds like failure, or failing that, the intellectually bracing aroma of fallen grandeur. As a very young, young man, Howe had known the giddy excitment of editing—and, in truth, doing much of the writing—for Labor Action, a Socialist publication longer on certainty and argumentation than it was on irony. As Howe remembers it, he
He was all of 21 years old at the time, but circumstance, inclination, considerable talent, and, yes, let us admit it, luck had turned him into a Socialist to be reckoned with. By his own admission, Howe had become a Socialist “at the advanced age of fourteen”; the East Bronx had been his teacher, but Howe would be the first to insist that his was hardly an extraordinary “education”: those with eyes to see and hearts to feel came to similar conclusions about the way the world was, and might become.
. . . lived by the excitment of turning out this four-page weekly. . . . It was the best training of my life and one of the happiest periods, too. . . . Prolific and cocksure, brimming with energy and persuaded I had a key to understanding the world, I needed only the reams of yellow paper on which I typed and the New York Times from which to draw facts. (Blessed New York Times! What would radical journalism in America do without it?)
City College deepened his convictions, sharpened his political skills—not in its classrooms (which more often than not, Howe found boring or irrelevant, if he showed up at all)—but, rather, in the now-famous debates that pitted the Socialists of Alcove 1 against the Communists of Alcove 2. The Communists, as Sherwood Anderson once pointed out, “meant it,” and while Howe was sharp enough to see how large a role ideological fixities played in their passionate certainty, he was also vulnerable enough to see that his penchant for abstract thought, for elaborately nuanced argument, came with liabilities as well as assets.
The more interesting question, then—and one Howe poses to himself in A Margin of Hope—is why a Socialist, rather than a Communist? After all, in 1934 the Communists were more numerous, more active, more fashionable. They, rather than the Socialists, sat smugly in History’s catbird seat. Perhaps it was, as Howe suggests, simply a matter of timing: the Socialists got to him first. Or perhaps it was that “Jewish Socialism”—a phenomenon Howe describes as “not merely politics or an idea, [but rather] an encompassing culture”— contained more of the life actually lived among immigrant Jews—more of its rhythms, its ironic quips and deepseated skepticisms, its Weltschmerz and compassion.
But one also suspects that long before Howe encountered Moby-Dick he was destined to number himself among the world’s “loose-fish.” There are those who bristle at the discipline that politics often demands and those who find it oddly comforting. Howe discovered early that his temperament was more congenial with the former. Still, “the trouble with politics,” Oscar Wilde once quipped, “is that it takes up one’s evenings.” One could argue that politics consumed a goodly portion of Howe’s energy, and his life. And if the bald truth be told, only in those moments—short-lived and nostalgically recalled—when he threw himself heart-and-soul into the “movement” did the sheer tedium, the petty bickering, seem worthwhile:
Granted, even this giddy time of boundless confidence and selfless commitment did not come without costs—a certain narrowness of focus, a honing of skills longer on argumentation than on substance, a penchant for moral smugness. In such a world—with its internecine squabbles and unshakeable convictions—what one did, above all else, was “take positions.” For Howe, nothing seemed more evident during the Depression than the simple, everywhere observable fact that history itself had reached a point of crisis, that capitalism was in its death throes.
Never, before, and surely never since, have I lived at so intense a pitch, or been so absorbed in idea beyond the smallness of self. It began to seem as if the very shape of reality could be molded by our will, as if those really attuned to the inner rhythms of History might bend it to submission.
Years later, of course, Howe would admit that capitalism turned out to be more resilient than he had reckoned (his was “by no means a fatuous conclusion in the thirties, only a mistaken one”), but that is only to say he had not figured either on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s shrewd ability to deflect revolutionary ardor with modest economic reforms, or on the willingness of so many workers—including trade unionists—to accept them.
Granted, one savored those moments when history confirmed the prophetic wisdom of this-or-that radical position— the Trotskyites were “right” about the Moscow Trials, “right” about the Soviet Union, “right,” in a word, about Stalin—but all too often their arguments were no match when pitted against simpler, thrillingly melodramatic scenerios. The Spanish Civil War provided an instructive case in point:
Nonetheless, it was socialism’s peculiar destiny—its fate, if you will—to be the bearer of complicated, and complicating, news. Howe’s own position in the movement, especially as its numbers and influence dwindled into what might more accurately be described as a sect, was doubly complicated because he was an intellectual in a country that tolerates, even sometimes encourages, dissent, but that does not take it seriously:
The most cogent of the issues raised by the anti-Stalinist Left had to do with democratic rights within Loyalist Spain, the way the NKVD, the Russian secret police, had taken over an increasing share of police powers. We were saying what George Orwell would say in Homage to Catalonia—a book that earned him a hail of scorn. Our criticism had a moral rationale but was politically very difficult, perhaps impossible, at a time when fascism had taken over most of Europe and the socialist spirit was in full retreat. We were complicating the Spanish question in ways that seemed insufferable. That the loyalist Spain which so stirred hearts could also be guilty of allowing the NKVD to kidnap and murder Andrés Nin, the POUM leader, was simply too much. People could not bear to hear that La Passionaria, the flaming defender of Madrid, was also a ruthless Stalinist persecuting political opponents. People could not bear to hear that even in loyalist Spain there was reason to dismay, cause for grief.
Such isolation is, of course, intolerable for those committed to radical politics; but it can be a boon, perhaps even a necessity, to the reading and sustained reflection that produces literary essays. In Howe’s case, the line between literature and politics, between what he calls “intellectual salvage operations” and versions of autobiography was never sharply defined; the passions of the streets expressed themselves at the writing desk. To be sure, these opposite tugs—nearly always studies in contradiction—fused brilliantly in Politics and the Novel (1957), but, even here, Howe would insist on the necessary autonomy of the literary imagination, on establishing a clear line of difference between those who felt that literature is the handmaiden of ideology (e.g., the vulgar Marxist criticism practiced by those who wrote for the Communist New Masses) and his own view that a “political novel” comes into view when the novelist’s attention begins “to shift from the gradations within society to the fate of society itself.”
We were driven back [Howe explains in retrospect] to a position somewhat resembling that of the nineteenth-century Utopian Socialists: isolated critics without a social base.
And yet, for all the Howe’s combativeness and political savvy, one has the sense that there is an important part of him that prefers the beauty, and the quiet, of aesthetic contemplation. His collaborations with Eliezer Greenberg, for example—which produced such important anthologies of Yiddish literature as Voices from the Yiddish and the Treasuries of Yiddish poetry and stories—began as yet another “salvage” job, an attempt to preserve a once-vibrant culture at its point of extinction, but to hear Greenberg actually read the poems of Mani Leib and Moshe Leib Halpern, of Jacob Glatstein, and then to argue about this nuance, that twist of translation, was a respite that required no lofty rationalization. Remembering those afternoons (which began in 1953 and stretched through the turbulent sixties) Howe put it this way:
There was a pleasure in doing something absolutely pure—arguing over a recalcitrant idiom, measuring the suitability of a story for linguistic transformation, trying to cajole an underpaid translator to give “a little more blood.” Our working together in the late sixties became for me a source of happiness—one day a week away from the Vietnam war and the polemics with leftist ideologues into which I had locked myself.
If it is true that Howe, like other New York intellectuals, made a specialty of not being a specialist, if his career is a study of energy spread over a wide variety of interests and disciplines, it is also true that his is a life in which the word “accident” must be used with caution, and with quotation marks. I mentioned earlier that Howe began collaborating with Greenberg in 1953. Howe tells a part of the story in A Margin of Hope: he had reviewed a collection of Sholom Aleichem’s stories in Partisan Review, and Greenberg had sent him a note, saying, first, that he liked the piece and, second, that they should “become partners.” Normally, one keeps such “offers” at a healthy arm’s length, but this one struck psychic paydirt. Howe went to see him, unsure as to what this “partnership” might consist of, and the rest is history.
But there was a prehistory as well—and for that one must imagine an Irving Howe just beginning to establish himself with the New York crowd and anxious to review books for, say, Partisan Review. Enter Philip Rahv, the legendary gruff-neck who ran PR with an iron fist and an icy wit. Or more correctly, enter the Irving Howe who was ushered into the journal’s office and then asked to scan a shelf of review copies in the event that a book might strike his fancy. Here is a case where possibilities really are dizzying, where the moment’s choice might spell the difference between success and failure. Howe chose Sholom Aleichem, Rahv smiled his approval, and the wheels that would grind slowly toward World of Our Fathers were set into motion.
Accident? Hardly. Indeed, one could argue that the story really started much, much earlier—in Howe’s painful, ambivalent memories of his Yiddish-speaking childhood, and in the extraordinary piece he wrote about it called “The Lost Young Intellectual.” In seeking to describe “a new social type”— the author who has published a few stories, perhaps even a novel, and who reviews books for obscure magazines; the painter whose pictures do not reach public view; the leader of a revolutionary political group with few followers; and, most of all, “the unattached intellectual who can function neither as creator nor politician because he is either frustrated and barren in his cultural pursuits or disillusioned with politics”—Howe was, at one and the same time, giving expression to a general condition, and a portrait of himself. As the essay’s subtitle would have it, a man such as this is both “marginal” and “twice alienated”:
To be sure, Howe invented neither the condition nor the term we call “alienation”—and, to his credit, he did not crusade on its behalf. Earlier, Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home, and Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man had explored much the same Zeitgeist and later the task of making the word itself fashionable, then widely popular, then finally devalued, fell to others in the Partisan Review crowd.
Usually born into an immigrant Jewish family, he teeters between an origin he can no longer accept and a desired status he cannot attain. He has largely lost his sense of Jewishness, of belonging to a people with a meaningful tradition, and he has not succeeded in finding a place for himself in the American scene or the American tradition.
But it was Howe who best understood how this peculiar brand of alienation operated on the heart’s field, how its “ambiguous compound of rejection and nostalgia” led to blockage and grief, but also to the possibility of an elegiac mode that could encompass both the pangs of history and the pain of self. In this regard, a vignette from “The Lost Young Intellectual”—and one Howe repeats in World of Our Fathers—is especially revealing:
One cites these painful lines without being quite sure how to describe this mixture of bravado and self-laceration, this subtle blending of irony and indignation, this laying bare of the conflicts that raged—admittedly, on less discerning, less articulate levels—between American sons and immigrant fathers. Never shy about turning his analytical skills inward, Howe wrote himself down as “a victim of his own complexity of vision: even the most harrowing of his feelings, the most intolerable aspects of his alienation, he must still examine with the same mordant irony he applies to everything else.” Although it might, in Hemingway’s famous words, “be pretty to think so,” nice-Jewish-boys are not likely to rebel by floating down the East River on a raft. Supper is supper, and postures (including alienation) are postures. So one does what one can—in this case, Howe writes “The Lost Young Intellectual.” But one must also learn to live on in the full knowledge of one’s age and its defining burdens. In this manner, Howe’s composite intellectual
When I was a few years older, about eight or nine, my parents had a grocery store in an “Americanized” Jewish neighborhood, the West Bronx. I used to play in an abandoned lot about a block away from the store, and when I’d neglect to come home at supper time, my father would come to call for me. He would shout my name from afar, giving it a Yiddish twist: “Oivee!” I would always feel a sense of shame at hearing my name so mutilated in the presence of amused onlookers, and though I would come home—supper was supper!—I would always run ahead of my father as if to emphasize the existence of a certain distance between us. In later years I often wondered how I would react if my father were again to call “Oivee” at the top of his lungs in, say, Washington Square.
. . . can find consolation and dignity, however, in the consciousness of his vision, in the awareness of his complexity, and the rejection of self-pity. To each age its own burdens.
“The Lost Young Intellectual” has the ring of manifesto about it, albeit one less fueled by revolutionary zeal than by a sense of impasse and cultural despair. But for all its handwringing—one suspects, for example, that Howe was always far more “rooted” in Jewishness than he lets on—this early essay introduced the themes, or in Howe’s case, the causes for lament, that he would explore more fully later.
Consider, for example, the strains as well as the estrangement that Yiddish caused for those who spoke mamaloshen in their parent’s kitchen and King’s English in the public kindergarten. As Howe relates one particularly chilling moment, it is easy, perhaps too easy, for us to imagine the humiliated five-year-old consigning Yiddish forever to the ashcan of History:
Rather like Howe’s “confession” about racing home past his immigrant father, his vow to forsake Yiddish was forged more in ambivalence than in theatre; the truth is that the longest journeys often end where they began. The same paradox often applies to the denials that turn into affirmations.
Like many other Jewish children, I had been brought up in a constricted family environment, especially since I was an only child, and at the age of five really knew Yiddish better than English. I attended my first day of kindergarten as if it were a visit to a new country. The teacher asked the children to identify various common objects. When my turn came she held up a fork and without hesitation I called it by its Yiddish name: “a goopel.” The whole class burst out laughing at me with that special cruelty of children. That afternoon I told my parents that I had made up my mind never to speak Yiddish to them again. . . .
To be sure, World of Our Fathers is not “affirmation” as most rabbis understand, and use, the term. It is an encyclopedic, meticulously researched account of the immigrant Jewish world; it is a tale with epic grandeur and tragic sweep; it is, indeed, an intellectual “salvage job” of the first water. But it is also autobiography. By telling the story of the world that European Jews fled, and the world they found, and made, in America, Howe comes to better understand himself.
Does this mean that he “solved” the nagging problem of his Jewishness? Of course not, although that is precisely the yardstick commonsensical, pragmatic Americans prefer. Howe knows better. One hopes to find a problem, and by exploring it for its own sake, to discover things infinitely more precious than “programs”:
My own hope [Howe explains] was to achieve some equilibrium with that earlier self which had started with childhood Yiddish, my language of naming, and then turned away in adolescent shame. Yiddish poetry, somber or wild, brought me no comprehensive views about “the Jewish problem,” but it did something more valuable. It helped me to strike a truce with, and then extend a hand to, the world of my father.
But that much said about Howe and secular Yiddish, let me hasten to add that his alienated young man also suffered loneliness and isolation on the political front. As Howe put it in what would virtually become a New York intellectuals’ anthem: “With the appearance of the depression, and the decline of large sections of the intelligentsia to marginal and often lumpen status, our intellectual could no longer feel security or strike roots; he has today become the most atomized member of an increasingly atomized society.” To be sure, much of this generalized disenfranchisement would dissipate during the 1950’s, but for Howe certain questions continued to nag: why had American socialism failed? What had literary modernism meant? And later, Could one be a “loose-fish” and a tenured professor?
Let me suggest, first, that these questions are more intimately related than they appear to be at first glance. To write critical studies of Sherwood Anderson or William Faulkner, books out to “prove” that the son of an immigrant could take on heavyweight American authors, was, on one level, an act of chutzpah. For Howe, critical reading required little more than a focused concentration and a pencil. Others, however, were less sanguine. And what the raised eyebrows and whispers finally came down to was this: could the son of an immigrant be trusted to teach, and to write about, American literature?
In the case of the book on Faulkner, other factors muddied the branch waters. There were whole worlds of difference— in politics, in demeanor, in “style”—between the New Critics who clustered around Nashville and the New York intellectuals. Granted, those most associated with Partisan Review also published their criticism in Kenyon Review, and as Howe told me recently their quarrels about literature had the advantage of being conducted “in English”—which is to say, both groups reacted to books, rather than “texts,” and talked about them in understandable language, rather than in a heavy-water jargon.
Still, there must have been a sense that some people had squatter’s rights to Faulkner while others had to learn about grits in the library stacks. Howe, of course, belonged squarely in the latter camp. He grew up with people who drank celery tonic, not Dr. Pepper; there were other “Irvings” in his neighborhood, but not, I suspect, a single Joe Bob. In short, there must have been some hangers-on in Nashville who regarded Howe as a literary carpetbagger.
Granted, none of this should matter, and for the best of the New York intellectuals and for the most impressive of the New Critics, it did not. Both groups agreed wholeheartedly with T.S. Eliot’s position that all a critic really needs is “intelligence.” Howe might miss a Southern nuance here, a whiff of verbena there, but even his most grudging critic would admit that he was a perceptive reader and a persuasive writer. After all, if the central question for apologist Southern writers was “How could God allow us to lose the War?”, and the agony that modernist Southern writers struggled with was “Why do you hate the South?”, Howe had been pondering similar questions—albeit, in another country—all his life.
Not surprisingly, then, the Faulkner that most interested Howe was the one who shared his passion for elegy, for missions of retrieval and rescue. For what are novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! if not exercises in lamentation, written at the moment when cultural residue and cultural extinction occupied the same uneasy space? And, for that matter, what is Eliot’s The Waste Land, modernism’s quintessential epic, but an extended lament for the redemptive rhythms that afflict industrial societies in the ambivalent space between “memory and desire”?
My point is simply that the energies that Howe plowed into the making of World of Our Fathers were not unlike the energies he expended on behalf of Faulkner or what he called “The Idea of the Modern.” But here again, Howe found himself attracted—or perhaps more correctly, chosen—by subjects he came to “late,” when traditions were breaking apart rather than in formation. As he put it in “The New York Intellectuals”—an account of writers such as Meyer Schapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Sidney Hook, and Lionel Abel, and of those times, that place they shared—their essays flowed less from a definable tradition than from a nagging sense of its passing:
Indeed, one could argue that the New York intellectuals missed out on virtually everything but the essay; and more, that their appetite for polemical argument, for dazzling analyses, for verbal pyrotechnics, helped to redefine what the literary essay was, and could be.
The great battles for Joyce, Proust, and Eliot had been fought in the twenties and mostly won; now, while clashes with entrenched philistinism might still occur, these were mostly mopping-up operations. The New York intellectuals came toward the end of the modernist experience, just as they came at what may yet have to be judged the end of the radical experience, and as they certainly came at the end of the immigrant Jewish experience. One quick way of describing their situation, a cause of both their feverish brilliance and recurrent instability, is to say that they came late.
Perhaps nothing says more about the current literary scene than the spate of book-length studies about the New York intellectuals. There is, for example, Alexander Bloom’s Prodigal Sons (1986), Terry A. Cooney’s The Rise of the New York Intellectuals (1987), and, most recently, Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals (1987). In each case, the scholarly footnotes are longer than Howe’s original essay; what Howe saw as a loose arrangement of kindred spirits—more given to combativeness than to comaraderie—has, in retrospect, become our side of the Atlantic’s Bloomsbury Circle.
However, what these scholarly studies, valuable as they are in many respects, tend to overlook is the sheer volume of fear that was an inheritance from immigrant Jewish fathers, and that often masqueraded as bravado—or as chutzpah—in the most Utopian schemes of their sons. As Howe said, again in retrospect and with an understanding he would not have been able to articulate in the mid-thirties:
Later, when Howe writes about the titanic struggle between Left and Right as it was so advertised during the Spanish Civil War, he sees the nightmare of our century against a backdrop of catastrophe: “Nothing else [Howe asserts somberly] reveals so graphically the tragic character of those years than that the yearning for some better world should repeatedly end in muck, foul play, murder.” If history has taught us anything it is to distrust those with a programatic reading of “history”—whether it come as garden variety utopianism or with a full head of Marxist steam.
Immigrant Jewish life left us with a large weight of fear. Fear had seeped into Jewish bones over the centuries, fear had become the intuitive Jewish response to authority, fear seemed the strongest emotion that the very world itself, earth, sky, and sun, brought out in Jews. To be Jewish meant—not this alone, but this always—to live with fear, on the edge of foreseen catastrophe. “A Jew’s joy,” says the Yiddish proverb, “is not without fright.”
And yet, for all the hard lessons of experience—the disappointments, the friends lost in the heat of critical debate, the battering that our century has given to dreams of a “world more attractive”—Howe continues to operate on what his autobiography calls “a margin of hope.” All Utopian visions are not the work of villains and thugs:
Dissent—the journal Howe founded in 1954, and that he has edited ever since—is, Howe tells me, both an attempt to “salvage” (that word again) what may be left of socialism and an effort to “build a bridge” toward some new, as yet unformed, political consciousness. Writing in Commentary, Midge Dector makes it clear that she has her doubts. Those unwilling, or constitutionally unable, to see the handwriting on the board room walls are destined to dream away their lives on the sidelines:
. . . surely there is another utopia. It exists at no point in time and space, it is never merely given, it cannot be willed either into existence or out of sight, it speaks for our sense of what yet may be. Or may not. But whether a real option or mere fantasy, this utopia is as needed by mankind as bread and shelter.
But even a book like Socialism and America (1985) which patiently and thoughtfully tries to explain why Socialist movements wax at some moments, wane at others—and more important, that deals with what one chapter takes up under the heading “Why has Socialism Failed in America”—contains as much hopefulness as it does elegy. In short, one wonders if those like Midge Dector have quite the stranglehold on realpolitik they so proudly claim.
From this [utopian] posture, no failure of policy ever need be confronted, no error needed be confessed . . .he [Howe] can cling to his belief in the principles of liberty and his hopes for a worldwide movement in the public welfare without having to involve himself in the question of how those beliefs and hopes might actually be secured.
By contrast, Alan Wald’s book, The New York Intellectuals (which argues on behalf of a revitalized Trotskyism), adds yet another reductive label to those that Howe had accumulated over the space of four decades. He was an “inveterate reformer,” one who insists on “proposing political solutions” that, in Wald’s view, “probably assisted the decline if not the demise of the anti-Stalinist left.” In a word, Howe not only began to talk about himself as a “democratic socialist,” but worse, much worse, he also began to imagine that “a movement in America might choose to drop the socialist label: who needs, once again, to explain that we do not want the kinds of society that exist in Russia and China, Poland and Cuba? But, at least with regard to America, we continue to speak of small groups trying to keep alive a tradition.”
“Trying to keep alive a tradition”—that, as much as anything, might do rough justice to the seemingly disparate activities that make up the zigzagging graph of Howe’s career. Sometimes, as in The American Newness (1986), he appears to come full circle, returning to consider an Emerson that he had largely avoided. Writers like Hawthorne, like Melville, even like Fitzgerald, had seemed to be kindred spirits—storytellers a generation or two removed from some former, forever-lost greatness. But the transcendentally inclined Emerson was neither Howe’s cup of tea nor was he his secret sharer. Still, “to confront American culture” [Howe argues] “is to feel oneself encircled by a thin but strong presence. I call it Emersonian. . . .”
Moreover, what he calls Emerson’s “newness”—largely a muscular sense of the American Self at the very threshold of revolutionary possibility and freewheeling thought—permeates our literary culture and, more important, the very air we breathe, the sky under which we, as Americans, stand. To be sure, with Emerson there is much to quarrel about: the gauzy side of this thought; the easy pantheism that ends with a god in every tree; and, perhaps most of all, his habit of seeing history through a glass lightly.
Howe is right, of course, in thinking about Emerson as a spirit to which one responds—and it is in what he calls “the literature of loss” (virtually all post-Civil War writers) that he plants his critical feet on congenial ground. For it is loss, and what can be salvaged from that loss—the inclination toward elegy always balanced by slim, but precious margins of hope—that characterizes Howe’s achievement as a critic, as a writer, as a political theorist, and as a man.
In an age where fashion exerts a grip as powerful as it is fleeting, where critics “jump ship” before they have sailed beyond safe, public harbors, Irving Howe is a study in what can be gained by what the title of one of his books calls Steady Work. In this regard, as in so many others, his own words say what needs to be said with conviction and with eloquence:
Irving Howe has proved capable of precisely this “ultimate grace of a career,” and he has done so—painfully, honestly, insightfully—in rich measure.
. . . American intellectuals seem capable of almost anything except the ultimate grace of a career devoted to some large principle or value, modulated by experience and thought, but firm in purpose.