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). Alter was the first, but by no means the last, reviewer of liberal persuasion to present himself as a guardian of Howe's reputation and to imply that one of my main aims in writing a book about a man who had been my friend for over two decades was to dance, or perhaps spit, on his grave.
For example: "Alexander needs to mention Howe's change of name [from Horenstein] again and again--perhaps twenty times in the book before I stopped counting." Alter apparently did not drop his abacus before the end of the last chapter, for 20 is indeed the number of times that Howe's original name has by then been mentioned. That name appears 14 times in the first two chapters for the (not very sinister) reason that they deal with Howe from birth through 1942, when Horenstein was indeed his real name (as it would be until 1946). The subject of name-changing comes up several times, because Howe himself discussed it repeatedly, although in his youth he usually neglected to mention his own case. In 1966, he condemned Jewish radicals for choosing "for their 'party names' almost anything that did not sound Jewish"; in 1982, he said that Jewish name-changing had "less to do with Marxist strategy than our own confused and unexamined feelings about Jewish origin." Name-changing is also relevant to Howe's activity as a union organizer and to his quarrels with Philip Roth and Sidney Hook, who once accused him of manipulating pseudonyms to evade responsibility. (Once, when I visited Irving in his CUNY office, he made a point of showing me the entry for one Kalman Trilling in Bialystok community records so that I would know that "Lionel, contrary to what many people thought, never changed his name.") But nowhere do I say or imply that Howe's change of name was, in Alter's grotesque formulation, an "act of turpitude ... that put him on a footing of lifelong probation."
In order to show his intellectual growth over the decades, I contrasted Howe's 1938 "Trotskyist" invocation (as recalled by Daniel Bell) of" historical necessity" to justify his hero's suppression of the Kronstadt sailors' rebellion of 1921 with his explicit rejection of this totalitarian rationale for murder in his 1986 New York Times book review of Israeli novelist Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939. Alter blusters furiously over the first item in the contrast--why, he asks, criticize someone for views he held at 20? --but omits the second. Why? So that two paragraphs later he can (mis)report that "Alexander makes no mention" of Howe's "prominent laudatory reviews of ... Aharon Appelfeld and other Hebrew novelists." My attempt to show the process of maturation in Howe is thus depicted as mean-spirited insistence on recalling the sins of his youth; and Howe's use of Appelfeld's novel to make his point disappears.
About my suggestion that Howe felt some (guilty) responsibility for creating the New Left, Alter sneers: "[Imagine] the Weathermen reading Politics and the Novel!" But Howe had written much more than Politics and the Novel (a book I praise unstintingly) prior to the 1960s. Bernadine Dohrn, Tom Hayden, and Todd Gitlin may not have read that book, but they certainly had read and taken to heart much that was published in Dissent, for example Mailer's "The White Negro," published in the very same year (1957), which became the bible of New Left nihilism. Does Alter suppose that Howe in later years deeply regretted printing that piece because he didn't like the way Mailer was now growing his hair, or because he felt complicit in the monstrosities that "The White Negro" had engendered and had come to believe that, as he wrote in 1960, "at some point sorcerers must take a bit of responsibility for their strayed apprentices"?
But most of all it was my criticism of Howe's dealings with Israel and of the Israeli left that enraged Alter. His untidy passions on this topic had been on display in his sledgehammer attack on Ruth Wisse (New Republic, November 1992) for her book If I Am Not for Myself ..., which criticized the liberal betrayal of Israel and also the dramatic and moral bias of leftish Israeli novelists who tended to charge fellow Jews for incurring the hatred against Israel. In May 1993--it is probably relevant to observe--I defended her book against Alter in the pages of Commentary. "Revenge is a dish best served cold."
The subject of Howe's relationship to Israel and Zionism is a complicated one. Although he once wrote that "in this era of blood and shame, the rise of the Jewish state was one of the few redeeming events," his support of Israel was often conditioned upon the hope that socialism, dead in the U.S., could be resuscitated in Israel, "as good a model as we have for the democratic socialist hope of combining radical social change with political freedom." But should support of Israel's "right to exist" (a chilling phrase redolent of Nazi lucubrations on whether Jews had the "right to live") be contingent on its being virtuously leftist? In early June 1967, Howe signed his name to a New York Times ad calling on the U.S. to reopen the Gulf of Aqaba, blockaded by Egypt, and to "safeguard the integrity, security, and survival of Israel and its people." But in the (post Six-Day War) August issue of Dissent, he insisted that he was neither a Zionist nor a Jewish nationalist. Again in 1982, and with characteristic honesty, he stated that "I still don't think of myself as a Zionist--I'm not a Zionist." But Alter would have none of this, and so he excoriated me for intolerantly refusing to grant that Howe represented one (and, as it happens, Alter's very own) part of the "spectrum of Zionist" opinion.
Several subsequent assaults on my book showed the influence of Alter's, especially in their resistance to contrasts between "early" and "late" Howe. These are contrasts that Howe himself made repeatedly in his autobiography, where he says that when he had occasion to look back over his early work, he took a mild pleasure in noticing that whatever his foolishness and self-importance in those days, at least he could write a passable sentence.
Stephen Whitfield, writing in American Jewish Archives (1998), whipped himself into indignation similar to Alter's over the very same passage about Howe's early Trotskyism. "Trotskyism," writes Whitfield "is [for Alexander] unforgivable. As late as page 194 ... Alexander still cannot help scorning Howe's rationalization of the Bolshevik suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921. Howe's remarks, the biographer does not bother to remind the reader, occurred at the age of eighteen." Apparently Whitfield, professor at Brandeis, could not figure out that my reference on this very page to "the Howe of 1938" was a reference to Howe "at the age of eighteen." The discussion in question here runs from pages 194 to 195 of my book; so far from being "scornful," it is--as a normally attentive sixth-grader could tell--entirely laudatory and devoted to showing "just how far Howe had come with respect to the invocation of 'historical necessity' as justification for murder." Whitfield had read Alter's review much more carefully than he had read my book--which, by the way, describes Leon Trotsky as "one of Howe's most impressive achievements."
Whitfield also aped Alter's resentment of my criticism of Howe's youthful extremism in opposition to the war against Hitler. He suggested that the scores of articles Howe wrote (and, as an editor of Labor Action, caused to be written) before age 28 should be ignored because they "had no consequences whatsoever." At what age, one wonders, should a biography written according to the Whitfield rules begin? Should one omit mention of George Eliot's life while the great Judeophile novelist was still Mary Ann Evans and insisting--this at age 28--that Jews are an "inferior race" and that "everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade"?
Following a similar line was Deborah Dash Moore of Vassar, standing guard over Howe's infallibility in the journal Sh'ma (April 1999). She found the book "unpleasant" because it "reads like a long, argumentative tirade" against Howe. In a letter to the journal (unpublished, like the one about Whitfield) I recalled how I had not only written favorably of every book Howe ever published but had praised him for "a kind of life-wisdom that went beyond political differences [and] expressed itself in a prose as supple ... and analytically precise as that of any critic writing in English in this century" and even urged that "if the world of American letters cannot emulate [Howe's] intellectual heroism and tenacious idealism, it should at least remember them." Moore alleged that the book contained nothing except "sniping and criticizing [Howe's] views." Since she did not bother to say just which "views" I had criticized, I took the trouble of specifying: they were his belief (held until 1947) that the Allies should not have gone to war against Hitler, and his advocacy of the pro-PLO policies of Peace Now, one of what Orwell called the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the academic world that Moore inhabits.
Sometimes a journal's letter refusing to print rebuttal of a review was as solemnly idiotic as the review itself. Alan Cooper, writing in Left History (1999), not only identified me--as did some other reviewers--as a tribune of Commentary, a person who felt personally "threatened" by "Howe's godlessness," and a dubious claimant to Howe's friendship (in Cooper's world, George Eliot's precept that "opinions are a poor cement between human souls" is unknown). He also complained that I had made no reference to "correspondence carried on outside of periodicals" until the last chapter. When I laboriously documented the falsehood of this allegation with a long list of previously unpublished letters cited in earlier chapters, the editors replied that as a journal of history they were not concerned with "factual criticism," only "intellectual substance."
I venture to think that Howe would have been embarrassed by these febrile defenders of his complete life and works, standing guard over his reputation from age 16 to 72. Unlike them, he did not hold the jejune notion that liberals should always stick together, praise each other when they speak well and praise each other when they speak ill, support each other when they are right and support each other when they are wrong. He understood that the real measure of a thinker is his ability to enter the minds of people formed in schools opposed to his own; and he was always mindful of the fact that, as he liked to say, good causes often attract bad advocates.
(1.) Irving Howe-Socialist, Critic, Jew (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).
EDWARD ALEXANDER is professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. The author of Irving Howe--Socialist, Critic, Jew, his most recent book is Classical Liberalism & the Jewish Tradition. See p. 41 of this issue for a review of this book.…
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Publication information: Article title: Standing Guard over Irving Howe; or, Good Causes Attract Bad Advocates. (Arts and Letters). Contributors: Alexander, Edward - Author. Magazine title: Midstream. Volume: 49. Issue: 4 Publication date: May-June 2003. Page number: 32+. © 2009 Theodor Herzl Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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