Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy

By Jonathan Frankel | Go to book overview

Religion, Thought and Education

Edward Alexander, Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. 284 pp.

The career of Irving Howe (1920–1993), socialist, literary critic, and editor of Dissent magazine, raises many stimulating issues for consideration by students of mid-twentieth-century Jewish American culture. The most challenging is the meaning of political “commitment” for the Jewish intellectual in the wrenching decades that spanned fascism, Stalinism, lynch law, the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel, the revolt of colonies against their European masters, and the rise of the New Left of the 1960s.

The premises underlying Edward Alexander's approach to “commitment” are very different from those held by Howe, who referred to Alexander as his “favorite reactionary” (p. xii), and they sometimes appear to be the polar opposite of my own. Still, the virtue of his “biography of Howe's mind” (p. xi) is that it recognizes the centrality of this basic issue in Howe's life and work, paying tribute to its ongoing relevance for all those who seek to negotiate the conflict between a life of action and that of the literary imagination.

Alexander's project is also compelling in his observation that Howe's mind was a “complex unity” running along “three tracks: socialist, Jewish, and literary” (pp. ix— x). Such a tripartite division in a biography invokes the danger of schematism; yet if one allows for overlapping and entanglements, the categories constitute a plausible division of the central—and most vexing—components of Howe's oeuvre.

Thus Alexander begins his critical survey of Howe's thought with a summary of Howe's youth in the East Bronx, including his attraction first to the Socialist party's youth group and then to Trotskyism. Chapter 2 treats Howe during the 1940s, when he edited and wrote for Trotskyist newspapers, and held the mistaken view that fascism could not be defeated prior to a socialist revolution in the West. Subsequent chapters trace his initial forays into the pages of Partisan Review and Commentary, his break from the Trotskyist movement, his early writings about secular Jewishness (which he distinguished from Judaism), his intervention in the debate over the award of the Bollingen prize in 1949 to the antisemitic poet Ezra Pound, and his initial inattentiveness to the founding of Israel.

The last four chapters review Howe's successful career in literature, his editing and translation of Yiddish texts, his launching of Dissent, his response to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), his debate with the African American writer Ralph Ellison, his conflicts with the New Left, his jousting with the Jewish American nov-

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