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Final Thoughts, Last Morsels

ISSUE:  Summer 1996
A Critic’s Notebook. By Irving Howe. Edited and introduced by Nicholas Howe. Harcourt Brace. $27.95.

Perhaps no one was more skeptical about indulgent collections cobbled together by aging critics or more skiddish about the risks of self-repetition than was Irving Howe. A lifetime at the writing desk had set a high standard, and perhaps even higher expectations. Small wonder, then, that he must have worried about the growing number of short, often quirky pieces he wrote during the last five or six years of his life. Would they add up to a satisfying whole? Even more important, was there sufficient reason to believe that they added a measure of hard-won truth, however provisional, to a lifetime of brooding about what fiction is and does?

Howe, was, of course, one of our century’s great cultural worriers, and it is hardly surprising that he should worry about what he called his shtiklakh, a Yiddish word suggesting “little pieces” or “morsels.” That he eventually convinced himself that his mounting stack of virtuoso turns (originally published in the pages of magazines such as The New Republic, Pequod, The Threepenny Review, and Salmagundi) merited hard covers is testament to the triumph of sound judgment over undue caution. Howe, of course, did not live long enough to complete the project himself. At his death in May 1993, he imagined some 12 or 13 shtiklakh yet to be written; and I suspect that he would have come up with even more, had he been fortunate enough to have been granted additional time to ruminate about matters most contemporary critics never think about at all.

Thus it was left to Nicholas Howe, his son, not only to extend a shaping hand for the material we read as A Critic’s Notebook (Shtiklakh would, I submit, have been a much richer, more evocative title), but also to provide a set of introductory remarks for the short bursts of idiosyncratic material that follows. He fulfills both tasks admirably, fully aware—as only Irving Howe’s son could be—of the appropriate balance and rigorous dispassionrequired.

Still, when thinking about the new subject matters that had gripped his father’s imagination at the end, he could not resist quoting a few lines from a 1979 essay on Daniel Deronda: “Toward the end of their careers, great writers are sometimes roused to a new energy by thoughts of risk. Some final stab at an area of human experience they had neglected or at a theme only recently become urgent.” Howe would probably have bristled at the analogy—literary critics, even very good ones, are not to be compared with the likes of a George Eliot—but Nicholas Howe is certainly right about the energizing sense of sheer risk that characterizes the 40 mini-essays that, taken together, constitute A Critic’s Notebook.

Consider, for example, the opening line from “Anecdote and Storyteller”: “You won’t find much about the anecdote in studies of literary genre: it seems too humble a form to attract the eye of the theorist.” What follows are Howe’s reflections about a small, but crucial matter in the prenovelistic fiction of preurban societies: the provincial Russia of Nikolai Leskov, the Missouri villages of Mark Twain, the shtetl according to Sholem Aleichem, Ignazio Silone’s Abruzzi. Much the same willingness to raise basic, albeit thorny questions finds its subject in discussions about how literary characters are, and are not, like real people or what, exactly, is meant by slippery terms such as tone or taste; why a novel’s apparently gratuitous detail matters greatly or how it is that farce can work effectively on stage and in film, but generally not in fiction. In each case, Howe brings full measures of his long experience as patient teacher and clear writer to the subject at hand. The result is, well, authority—admittedly a fighting word in the age of indeterminacy—but one tempered always by Howe’s willingness to admit that certainties are few, and doubts many.

No doubt the grim reality of his failing health prompted Howe to mingle memory with a renewed sense of literary-political engagement. The former evidences itself in his return to the formative writers of his youth—Chekhov, Gogol, Walter Scott, and perhaps most of all, Tolstoy; the latter in the side blows he directs to those bloodless literary theorists who insist that “characters” are nothing more nor less than verbal constructs, signs that exist only on the page. Why, Howe rightly wonders, should such critics push so hard against open doors, and with such solemn, heavyweight language?:

The great fictional characters, from Robinson Crusoe to Flem Snopes, from Tess to Molly Bloom, cannot quite be “fitted” into or regarded solely as functions of narrative. Why should we want to? What but the delusions of system and total grasp do we gain thereby? Such characters are too interesting, too splendidly mysterious for mere functional placement. (Who’d even look at Emma Woodhouse if she were just an “it”?) Severe critics say that characters “exist only on the page”—but why do critics want to be so severe? They are wrong, too: all that exists on the page are black marks. As symbols for language, these marks stimulate impressions in our minds which lead us to suppose— though we “know better”—that characters exist in their own right, apart from the page. They refuse to be banished. They will not be driven back between covers.

To talk about fiction in these ways is, of course, to risk being written off as a “naive reader” by those who come at texts armed to the teeth with the best that Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes have thought and said; but that is precisely the political point Howe felt pressed upon to make. At a time when the very idea of a democratic culture is under relentless attack, when many fashionable critics care not a fig for the common reader and not a whit for fiction qua fiction, Howe could not entirely resist scoring a few well-turned polemical points:

A number of those drawn to deconstructionist theory, for example, feel that their writings have political implications, though that does not lead them, so far as I can tell, to any viable politics available in the United States. A small academic group describes itself as Marxist, but that strikes me as a bit comic: whatever Marxism may have been, it always saw itself attached to, or in search of, a mass movement for the working class. It was not merely a “method” for literary criticism. But Marxism has gone to universities to die in comfort.

Mostly, however, Howe’s A Critic’s Notebook confines itself to speculations of a more personal sort, often restricting them to five or six suggestive pages. Occasionally, as in the piece entitled “Punitive Novels,” Howe dares to speak candidly about the complicated but necessary relationship between literary value and human redemption. In this case, “punitive novels”—a term Howe himself coined—are those that pile up, with grim insistence, evidences of pain without the slightest hint of moral significance. His case in point is E.A. Ellis’s The Rack, a novel Howe had read when it first appeared in the late 1950’s, and which he now reconsiders in the full light of the body’s decay:

When I first read The Rack I was a young man and was somehow able to put up with the relentless pain it both portrayed and caused; now, decades later, I doubt that I could bear to read this book, honest and estimable as it is. My feeling is that I have since learned enough about pain. And even when I first read The Rack I felt that I was being punished, not for any wrongdoing of which I was aware, but simply because I was the kind of person who reads books. I have since come to wonder, Is this a punishment I am morally obliged to endure, even welcome, perhaps out of a sense of human solidarity? Or it there something gratuitous, even excessive about such writing?

Those who have found it convenient to separate Irving Howe, the indefatigable political animal, from Irving Howe, the insightful literary critic, will likely change their view after reading even a handful of the shtiklakh in A Critic’s Notebook. One could argue that, at the end, the democratic socialism he fiercely defended in the pages of Dissent, the journal he edited from the middle fifties until his death, came to little more than a species of moral humanism. The same might be said of his literary criticism, despite its large stake in social criticism and the enduring residue of what he himself defined as the New York Jewish intellectual style. He was all these things and much, much more. The posthumous publication of his last writings make it clear (as if more evidence were required) that his words will be sorely missed.


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