Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew, by Edward Alexander

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Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew, by Edward Alexander

Near the end of Edward Alexander's study of Irving Howe, he comments on two works Howe published in the second half of the 1970s. "In World of Our Fathers [1976], Howe embraced what he had once rejected; in Leon Trotsky, published in 1978, he repudiated much (if not quite all) of what he had once embraced." While this observation might seem a touch off-hand, it hits upon several crucial elements in the work of Irving Howe.

Not the least of these elements is the wide array of intellectual areas in which Howe made significant contributions to American intellectual life, beginning in the immediate postwar years and continuing until his death in 1993. As Alexander's subtitle suggests, Howe wrote provocatively and importantly as a socialist thinker, as a literary critic, and as historian and archivist of the Eastern European Jews and their literary traditions. He was, in the phrase of John Simon, a "one man triumvirate."

Yet Alexander's cryptic comment also suggests that a careful reading of Howe's work shows not only inconsistencies, but a sense in which his arguments often seem pegged to the moment. Always intellectually engagé, one can still feel the heat of Howe's words, years after they appeared. What we may not feel, after reading about it all, is a sense of the total person.

Edward Alexander has set about the task of assessing this enormous literary outpouring. He has chosen, or felt obligated, to write "a biography of Howe's mind," telling us that he was unable to interview Howe's wives and children and prohibited from quoting from Howe's letters. A professor of English at the University of Washington, Alexander moves through Howe's books and articles chronologically, tying them to the issues and events of each era. This tends to create an awkward sense in which books and articles come to be equated with decades, crucial events only creating the context for the works.

Alexander's approach does offer the reader a glimpse of the multifaceted interests of this New York intellectual. But it ultimately leaves the impression that the sum of the parts is different from the whole. In the 1970s, Howe catapulted out of the more narrow world of intellectuals and critics and climbed to the top of the bestseller lists with his evocative portrait of the world of his father. He had already taught at Brandeis, Stanford, and the City University, had been published in all the important intellectual journals of the era, and was a widely respected socialist and literary critic. Yet today, just five years after his death, Howe seems, if not forgotten, something of a tangential personality of the era.

Perhaps this is because of his wide-ranging interests, perhaps because of his street-fighter's style. We read Alexander's summaries and analysis of Howe's works and come away with the sense of a brilliant and restless mind, but of no real coherence to his oeuvre. Some modern students may read Howe the socialist theorist, once the hardboiled Trotskyist who moved away from Marx but never abandoned what he called democratic socialism. Others may encounter the literary critic, often attuned to the modern temper but ultimately caught between the champions of multiculturalism and the frequently reactionary traditionalists who guard their notion of "the canon" like palace gates. Still others may turn to his anthologies of Yiddish writing, as well as his magisterial history. Yet, one does not get the sense of an intellectual figure like that of his contemporaries Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, or Daniel Bell. While widely different, what these intellectuals seem to possess is an overall intellectual coherence within their works.

To explain why this is not the case with Howe requires more than Alexander sets out to do. …