Irving Howe

By Solotaroff, Ted | The Nation, June 7, 1993 | Go to article overview

Irving Howe


Solotaroff, Ted, The Nation


Irving Howe was one of the last and one of the best of that remarkable group of high-scoring point-makers who have come to be known as the New York Intellectuals. Coming to New York in 1960 when most of them were at the height of their prowess and influence, I happened to be in a good spot--on the bench, so to speak--to watch them play their respective positions, to see the connections and disconnections between their performances and their characters, and, as time went on, to scrimmage against them.

It was not the elating experience I had anticipated. The New York Intellectuals by and large did not have much interest in the next generation. Also, most of them had, along with Partisan Review, completed their move from the left rightward and were contemptuous of those of us at Commentary who at that time were, strange now to say, trying to occupy and renovate their old position. Of those who remained on the independent left or even still held "the whole idea of the intellectual vocation--the idea of a life dedicated to values that cannot possibly be realized by a commercial civilization," the only two prominent figures were Irving Howe, who had written these words a few years before in an essay, "This Age of Conformity"--one of our guiding texts--and Paul Goodman, who was publishing in our pages a major new one titled Growing Up Absurd.

Each seemed to be a lonely eminence, though Goodman would shortly become much less so when the New Left swung behind and then over him, and Howe was to become much more so when it tagged him as a principal critic and told him get out of the way 'cause you don't understand. In the years that followed they were the two I learned the most from, whose sense of vocation I tried to emulate in my own way. There can't have been two radicals less alike: Goodman, the downtown freelancing anarchist; Howe, the uptown and somewhat uptight organizer of democratic socialism. What they had in common was a tremendous desire to be useful--goodman as a kind of village explainer of its dysfunctional ways; Howe as maintainer of the post-Marxist intellectual vanguard in its engagement with the ongoing crisis of modern society.

In order to do so effectively, Howe moved back and forth between two quite alien sectors: the one on the frontier of the labor movement, which was doing the day-by-day work to make a significant difference; the other on the frontier of the modern literary tradition, which viewed the crisis in the most various and deepest ways. …

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