But Is It History? World of Our Fathers as a Historicized Text

By Heinze, Andrew R. | American Jewish History, December 2000 | Go to article overview

But Is It History? World of Our Fathers as a Historicized Text


Heinze, Andrew R., American Jewish History


Let me open with a caveat, because the title of my essay divulges its thesis--that we must be skeptical about World of Our Fathers as a work of history. During his tumultuous life as a public intellectual, Irving Howe had his share of triumphs and embarrassments. One of those triumphs, the publication of World of Our Fathers, commands our attention in this issue of American Jewish History. As for the embarrassments, Howe found himself in the agonizing position of having to reflect on his failure to understand and morally engage two of the critical events of his time, which were for Jews the critical events of recent history: the battle against Hitler and the establishment of Israel. This failure rested on a stunning lack of historical sense, an Achilles' heel that would hobble him again when he moved from criticism to the craft of history writing. While this essay will try to explain why World of Our Fathers is problematic from a scholarly viewpoint, I do not want to detract from the book's well-deserved reputation as a vivid and spirited portrait offering emotional sustenance to several generations of American Jews.

The question posed to the contributors to this issue of American Jewish History was this: How did World of Our Fathers influence your scholarship on American Jews? On the one hand, when I was preparing the doctoral dissertation that became my first book, I found myself relying only slightly on World of Our Fathers. When I wanted an authoritative source on Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York City at the turn of the century, I turned to Moses Rischin's meticulously researched The Promised City. On the other hand, as an undergraduate at Amherst College at the time World of Our Fathers appeared, I had gone out of my way to hear Howe speak and to buy his book. Like most students, I rarely bought a new book that was not required for a course, and I attended no other public lectures concerning Jewish affairs, so Howe's appearance stands out in my memory of those years. I recall that some friends of mine who took to Black Nationalism suggested I read Howe's book in order to get in closer touch with my "roots." Mixing our leftist principles with the new symbolic ethnicity, we all played a part, whether large or small, in what sociologist Orlando Patterson critiqued in his contemporaneous Ethnic Chauvinism. We were also responding, I think, to the symbolic remnants of exclusiveness at a Potted Ivy League school such as Amherst. Howe's book is one of the few in my library that harks back so many years, and its formidable dimensions, in relation to its neighbors on the bookshelf, continue to exert a psychological influence.

Rather than probe the thematic defects of World of Our Fathers--for example, its inattention to religion and preoccupation with socialism--this essay will measure Howe's book against standards of historical writing. In doing so it will juxtapose World of Our Fathers with Moses Rischin's The Promised City, the first comprehensive history of the Eastern European Jewish immigration to New York. Rischin's book was alive when Howe undertook his effort. Therefore, we must be curious about what the latter sought to correct, amend or improve in the former, at least in that portion of Howe's volume that replicated Rischin's topic, the Lower East Side from the 1870s to 1914. Because Howe was probably less intent on revising Rischin's picture than on presenting his own larger landscape for a broader public, we should also consider briefly the differences between popular and academic histories.

Not everyone can write on physics or philosophy, but anyone with a pen and some documents can write a history. Academic historians occupy a special place because of the intensive training in methods and criticism they undergo, but nonacademics also write valuable histories. Some popular works have relatively little historiographical bearing, yet they succeed at enlightening and entertaining the public. …

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