Socialism and the Writing of American Jewish History: World of Our Fathers Revisited(1)

Article excerpt

"The International--we know what the International is. And I want an International of good people."

Isaac Babel, "Gedali"

Twenty-five years after its publication, Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers remains a classic. A best-seller, reprinted many times, and a National Book Award winner, it is the most widely read history of American Jews ever published and is likely to remain so for a long time. World of Our Fathers is not a conventional work of history; its personal tone, lyrical prose, and cogent insights make it "almost a genre unto itself," in Robert Alter's words.2 Few historical works manage to be incisive, emotionally stirring, and pleasurable to read over almost 700 pages.

World of Our Fathers appeared just as American Jewish history began to "come of age" as an academic field.(3) Yet for all its praise and popularity World of Our Fathers has exercised little influence on the field's direction. This claim may seem improbable. Judging from reviews and personal conversations, World of Our Fathers and its author are generally held in high esteem. Over the years, the book has inspired interest in American Jewish history and has even provided a formative intellectual experience for aspiring historians, as several contributors to the present issue of American Jewish History attest. World of Our Fathers continues to be read and assigned in courses, and it still serves as a source of quotations about the immigrant experience.

Nonetheless, if a book's influence is measured by the extent to which it shapes the research priorities of a field, then the scholarly legacy of World of Our Fathers is disappointing. A small number of historians have briefly taken issue with one or another of Howe's ideas or have used World of Our Fathers as a foil in studies of subjects neglected in the book.(4) Regrettably few studies, however, have dealt with Howe's main subjects and themes in a sustained manner, either by exploring them further or arguing against them. World of Our Fathers, in this sense, has been treated more with respectful disregard than scholarly engagement. The present symposium on World of Our Fathers is a welcome departure.

What explains the discrepancy between World of Our Fathers' popularity and its limited scholarly influence? It is tempting to attribute this to the familiar professional bias against popular history. Howe, of course, was neither a specialist in American Jewish history nor a trained historian, but a political essayist and literary critic. Several reviewers have pointed out the book's factual errors; others have found the book's generalizations too speculative.(5) In an era suspicious of "grand narratives," the broad sweep of World of Our Fathers runs counter to the current professional sensibility. Such reservations, however, do not explain the work's treatment in the field considering that popular books (and other events outside the academy) routinely stimulate or provoke new research. In a contrary vein, it has been said that World of Our Fathers' comprehensiveness exhausted the study of immigrant Jews; it simply left little more to say. "[I]n the wake of Howe's bestseller the scholarly study of East European Jewish immigration declined," Jonathan Sarna writes in a 1990 survey of scholarship on American Jews. "Howe's 720 page opus seemed more than ample to cover the field."(6) Though generous to Howe, this explanation is not satisfying in light of numerous wide-ranging books that have not foreclosed further research but opened up new areas of inquiry. A vivid and suggestive work like World of Our Fathers continues to have the potential to do the same.

I propose a different explanation for the fate of World of Our Fathers by contrasting its main concerns with those of the field as it has come to be constituted in the twenty-five years since the book's publication. The salient difference is not between popular and professional approaches to history, but between differing conceptions of the Jewish past, particularly of who and what deserves to be included in the "domain" of American Jewish history. …