Reviewing Irving Howe

By Howe, Nicholas | Dissent, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Reviewing Irving Howe


Howe, Nicholas, Dissent


IN CRITICAL REVIEWS and essays about my father, Irving Howe, one frequently encounters a certain neat formulation that declares he was a man who wrote about what he lived and knew. * He grew up with Yiddish as his first language, so inevitably he edited many volumes of translations from that language and then wrote World of Our Fathers; he grew up as a teenage socialist in the Bronx, so inevitably he edited Dissent and wrote books on the American Communist Party, Trotsky, and socialism in America; he entered into a world of ideas about literature around Partisan Review that was more European than American in taste, so inevitably he wrote about Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Stendhal.

* This article is taken from the introduction to The Worlds of Irving Howe, a collection of essays and reviews of Irving Howe's work edited by John Rodden, forthcoming, Nebraska University Press.

For all the truth in these claims, they seem too retrospectively clever, if not too convenient, in reducing the intellectual work of almost fifty years to covert autobiography. Faced with the range and quantity of his life's work, writers have tried to make sense of it all through claims of the inevitable. And, as the reviews in this volume show, there was a great deal of work. The books alone make a considerable pile when stacked together on a desk, and there was much that Howe chose never to reprint in a book: reviews, political articles, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, all of them part of a writer's daily life.

There was one aspect of the writer's life my father did not understand and could be harshly dismissive about. At the mention of "writer's block," he would scoff and say simply that writers were writers because they sat down each day and wrote just as other people went to work each day. That routine was how one learned to write well. Certainly not every piece was for the ages, nor was everything even to be published, and anything (he would always add) could be improved if it were run through another draft and cut by at least ten percent. But the act of writing, day in and day out, mattered to him in ways that breathing and eating matter to other people. That discipline explains much about his life and not simply his productivity. It explains as well his understanding that among all of the books and articles of any working critic, some written out of a long life of reading and others fired off in response to that morning's headline, most would fade but a few would, with luck, remain vital and survive.

What counted was staying engaged with politics and literature, sometimes more with one than the other, sometimes fleeing from one to the other, but always thinking about both. As for the question that seems to have most intrigued those who have written about him--what was the relation in his mind between politics and literature?--the best answer would be in the practice of his life's work. Or, in another way, the answer could only be that the relation was never fixed but continually shifted, depending on a new novel he was reading or the political events of the moment or a rereading of one of his necessary writers such as Stendhal.

Perhaps because my relation to my father grew more from literature than politics, I want to begin with a different response to his life's work than the one I sketched at the start of this piece. In the last fifteen years of his life, we exchanged our writing for each other's criticism and came to trust each other completely as readers. Whatever else went unsaid between us, we could speak with absolute honesty and frankness about each other's prose. We also spoke frequently about ideas we had for new projects, most of which remained in the realm of talk. But those conversations taught me to wonder how it was that anyone comes to a subject and then spends years working on it for a book. Reading through the reviews in this volume thus posed a question for me, one that offers a more oblique approach to understanding the shape of my father's career. …

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