Standing Guard over Irving Howe; or, Good Causes Attract Bad Advocates. (Arts and Letters)

By Alexander, Edward | Midstream, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Standing Guard over Irving Howe; or, Good Causes Attract Bad Advocates. (Arts and Letters)


Alexander, Edward, Midstream


Signs of trouble ahead for my book about Irving Howe (1) appeared long before the book did. Late in 1993, shortly after the Oslo accords were signed, and Jewish liberals were smooching with Arafat on the White House lawn, I bumped into Howe's widow Ilana in a coffee shop on Madison Avenue. We had met twice before, and she recognized me. After thanking me for a memorial tribute I had published in Congress Monthly after Howe's death in May, she said that it was too bad he had not lived to see the Rabin-Arafat handshake, which she was sure would have pleased him. And what, she asked, did I think about the peace agreement. "Yihiyeh ason," I answered (using her native Hebrew), i.e., it will be a catastrophe. She glowered, and we parted. When I began to write the book a couple of years later, she refused to respond to my letters or grant me permission to gain access to Howe's army records.

In April 1995, I gave a lecture at the University of Cincinnati called "Irving Howe and Secular Jewishness: An Elegy." It was the germ of the book to follow and adumbrated both its emotional tone (sympathetic and reverential) and its guiding ideas. As a courtesy, I sent the galleys of Cincinnati's publication of the lecture to Howe's son Nicholas. He replied in September 1995 with a letter apparently drafted with the help of a lawyer, threatening to sue me if I should ever again make use of his property--he was referring to about a dozen letters from Irving to me that I had quoted from in the lecture as well as the piece in Congress Monthly--and declaring that he would not cooperate in any way with my book about his father.

Up to that time, I had been receiving a great deal of helpful information from Dennis Wrong about Irving's life at Princeton from 1948 to 1953. But in October, Wrong wrote to say that he could not send me the correspondence he had just offered because "one of the editors of Dissent told me that Nick ... had reservations about your project and that you were a contributor to Commentary." Nick "thought it possible that you might dismiss [Howe's] politics in a 'condescending' way and mentioned that you had cited such a remark by I. B. Singer." (Indeed I had: Singer had said to me about the father of this humorless son: "A wonderful man; he's done so much for Yiddish literature and for me. But he's not a youngster anymore, and still, still, with this socialist meshugas.")

Not all the reaction to my Cincinnati lecture was querulous and litigious. Robert Alter, for example, wrote on October 6, 1995: "I finally got around to reading your lecture on Irving Howe, and I wanted to tell you how much I liked it. I thought you struck just the right note, and paid appropriate honor to the ideal of Jewish secularism that Irving championed (and of which, toward the end, he despaired ...). I was also struck by your demonstration that one can admire a person even across a gap of political differences...."

Although I had published nine books prior to Irving Howe, this was the first one that elicited warnings from its prospective publisher (Indiana University Press) about the prejudices of book reviewers in the field. One of Indiana's editors, a scholar in his own right, urged me to drop criticisms of the Israeli left and of Howe's links with it via Peace Now. If I didn't, he predicted, the book would go unreviewed (as indeed it did) in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, or be savaged in most "liberal" journals. I complied, but (as would soon be evident) inadequately: I reduced twelve pages on this topic to eight (in a book of 284 pages).

Early reviews of the book, in librarians' and publishers' journals, by Nathan Glick in The Washington Times, and Sanford Pinsker in The Philadelphia Inquirer, were very favorable; and the book became a Jewish Book Club selection. But then came the most prominent review of the book by a weighty critic in an important journal: namely, Robert Alter in The New Republic (July 6, 1998). …

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