Irving Howe and the Literary Criticism That Matters

By Pinsker, Sanford | Midstream, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Irving Howe and the Literary Criticism That Matters


Pinsker, Sanford, Midstream


The late Irving Howe is best known for World of Our Fathers, his encyclopedic study of immigrant Jewry on the mean streets of the Lower East Side. But Howe remains important for more than a single book, however brilliant its scholarship or impassioned the writing was. For nearly half a century, Howe's essays, many collected between hard covers, dealt with a wide spectrum of literary and cultural matters. He wrote about William Faulkner and Leon Trotsky, about Bernard Malamud and literary modernism. What made writing essays worth the bother was a personal (as well as cultural) stake in the pages he had turned.

Take, for example, Howe's books on Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner, and what elements might have attracted Howe to them. In each case, these disparate writers came at a time when their respective subcultures discovered a distinctive voice at precisely the moment they were rapidly approaching disintegration. Not surprisingly, Yiddish literature provided the template that Howe imposed on what he imagined were similar situations in the non-Jewish world. This is especially true for his deep-seated attraction to the best Southern writers as well as for his high regard (despite a level of political skepticism) for New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks. As Edward Alexander explains in Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (1998):

   This moment of intense self-consciousness offers to both
   the Southern and the Jewish writers the advantages of an
   inescapable subject--Howe always believed that the best
   subjects are those which choose the writers rather than
   being chosen by them. In both literatures we find the
   complex of emotions the writers bring to the remembered
   world of their youth, and also the psychic costs of
   their struggle to tear themselves away from that world.
   Both regional literatures offer "the emotional strength
   that comes from the traditional styles of conduct--honor
   for the South, 'chosenness' for the Jews--which
   these writers seek to regain, escape, overcome, while
   thereby finding their gift of tongue."

As Howe once told me, whatever the differences separating the politically engaged New York intellectuals from the close-reading (apolitical?) New Critics, at least they conducted their quarrels "in English." Moreover, they shared a belief that the language of criticism must be clear rather than opaque and that it should pay due regard to the moral complexity and stylistic nuances of the work being talked about.

In his last years, when tidal waves of theoretical jargon threatened to scuttle literary criticism (as he had known it), Howe often waxed nostalgic about the days when it was possible to have one's articles appear in Partisan Review and Kenyon, Commentary, and The Southern Review. In this regard, it is worth remembering that John Crowe Ransom, the justly famous editor of Kenyon Review, extended a welcoming hand to Howe early in his career--not only helping him get a post at the Indiana School of Letters, but also printing many of the pieces that would later be collected in Politics and the Novel (1957). When Howe talked about Ransom he invariably fastened on the gracious, handwritten letters he sent him over the years (by contrast, Howe is [in]famous for dashing off scrawled postcards), and always with a deep respect for the best traditions of the Southern gentleman. Once again, such niceties have been a casualty of the culture wars, just as literature itself has been trivialized until the only things that matter are how well, or poorly, a given writer fares in terms of litmus tests such as race, class, and gender.

Whatever else one might say about Howe's response to literary texts, it was not reductive--either in the way that often characterized doctrinaire Marxist critics in the 1930s and 40s or that continues in the work of those who deconstruct literature until each work comes to yet another instance of sound-and-fury signifying "nothing. …

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