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

By Michaels, Tony | American Jewish History, December 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Michaels, Tony, American Jewish History


"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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.