Obituary: Irving Howe

Irving Howe, writer and critic: born New York 11 June 1920; staff, Brandeis University 1953-61, Stanford University 1961- 63; Professor of English, Hunter College, City University of New York 1963-86 (Distinguished Professor 1970-86); married Ilana Wiener (one son, one daughter); died New York City 5 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing