Obituary: Irving Howe
Friday 07 May 1993
THE INHERENT reductionism of stereotypes makes it hard to do justice to Irving Howe. He was a left-wing New York Jewish intellectual who figured prominently in the city's once lively cultural scene, but he was also a quite independent intellectual force, whose writings are wide-ranging, imaginative and unpredictable.
Howe was born in New York, the son of recent Jewish emigrants from the Ukraine, and despite the prestige and success he was later to enjoy (a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and even a MacArthur 'genius' award) he never lost sight of his roots in the Lower East Side of the city, returning to explore them in World of Our Fathers (1976), a best-selling history of Eastern European Jews in America that won the National Book Award. Like so many other first-generation Jews, Howe was educated at the City College of New York during an era when most of the private universities in the United States were effectively closed to minorities. CCNY nurtured Howe's lifelong interest in both politics and literature - and their interconnection.
Given this, it may seem odd that Howe's first two books were distinctly literary studies, of Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner respectively (both published in 1952), but Howe's leftish political sympathies never affected his appreciation of imaginative writing. Like other Jewish-American writers of his generation (notably Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling), Howe was determined not to be confined to an ethnic patch and to show that he could write with equal appreciation about Isaac Singer's shetl world and the salons of Edith Wharton. His work on Faulkner in particular was seminal, for it came soon after Malcolm Cowley's reissue of Faulkner's novels and helped assert the Southern writer's key role in 20th- century American literature.
Although he never took a doctorate, Howe spent his professional life teaching, first at Brandeis, then briefly at Stanford, and after 1963 at Hunter College, in New York. He was co-editor of Dissent, a highly influential but small-circulation journal that specialises in articles and reviews on literary and political topics. Despite Woody Allen's suggestion that the journal merge with the right-wing magazine Commentary and be renamed Dysentery, Dissent was and is a unique exponent of Democratic Socialist views - widely voiced in Europe, perhaps, but rarely espoused in the United States. For the most part, Dissent reflected Howe's own politics, which like Dwight Macdonald's were strongly anti-Stalinist; this made his political writing as much a target for the Stalinist left of the Fifties and the radical student left of the Sixties as for the anti-Communist right. Howe's politics were also strongly influenced by Orwell, whose writings he did much to publicise to American readers previously familiar only with Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm.
World of Our Fathers, Howe's greatest work, is neither overtly political nor literary; rather, it is an extensive social history of a large slice of the mass immigration that transformed America at the turn of the century. Painstakingly researched (it took over 10 years to write), the book documents a world that assimilation has largely washed away - a world of Hester Street and Yiddish speakers colourfully evoked. Beautifully constructed, it represents a confluence of literary control and social reality and is thus a telling example of Howe's own blend of intellect and common sense, aesthetic interests and political concerns.
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