The Socialist Who Loved Keats

The late Irving Howe -- literary critic, biographer, historian and teacher -- was a beacon of a certain kind of intellectual and moral possibility

Irving Howe

IRVING Howe, who died in 1993, holds a unique and still oddly influential place in American intellectual life. Undaunted by normal constraints on time and energy, he pursued two consuming careers simultaneously, as literary critic and as political gadfly. Remarkably, he also taught English, wrote a monumental work of social history (winner of the 1976 National Book Award), and helped to salvage a rich but dying language. In none of these realms did he make any concessions to political correctness or literary fashion.

In a period that saw a steady decline of socialist movements and an almost unanimous acceptance of market capitalism, he persisted in calling himself a democratic socialist, not because he expected socialism to revive and succeed but because he wanted to reiterate the urgent moral need for a fairer, more fraternal, more egalitarian society. Howe attracted a youthful following drawn to his tough-minded idealism, itself traceable to such incorruptible forebears as Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, socialist leaders of a more innocent and hopeful age.
Beyond politics, Howe had been immersed since adolescence in the art and ambiguities of literature. During a bout of scarlet fever he read the collected poems of Milton, Keats, and Wordsworth. By age nineteen he was lecturing the comrades on the loss of faith in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and the clash between Western reason and Eastern mysticism in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. He left a sizable body of literary criticism that faithfully conveyed in each case the essence of a work and the quality of the author's mind. Such a legacy may not produce a school of disciples -- his voice was too idiosyncratic for easy emulation -- but it may well sustain its beneficent influence on emerging younger critics. It is symptomatic of Howe's resilient double nature that he wrote books about the union leader Walter Reuther and the novelist William Faulkner, about Leon Trotsky and Thomas Hardy, about socialist doctrine and literary modernism.

Irving Howe may have been the last of a special breed of wide-ranging literary-political New York intellectuals who were grouped around the Partisan Review.Although its fees were pathetic and its circulation rarely over 10,000, by the late 1940s the Partisan Reviewwas recognized as the country's most prestigious and influential voice of high culture. Its special flavor was provided by a small group of regular contributors who came to be known as "the New York intellectuals." No one has more relentlessly analyzed, criticized, and celebrated this group than Irving Howe, a latecomer and troublemaker but one of their own. The New York intellectuals, he wrote in a magisterial essay so titled,

have a fondness for ideological speculation; they write literary criticism with a strong social emphasis; they revel in polemic; they strive self-consciously to be "brilliant".... [Their] social roots ... are not hard to trace. With a few delightful exceptions -- a tendril from Yale, a vine from Seattle -- they stem from the world of the immigrant Jews.

The sly references to Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, both of whom were among the founding editors of PR, could be expanded to include many more non-Jews. It is testimony to the magnetic appeal and rising reputation of PRthat T. S. Eliot offered the journal one of his Four Quartets and that the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick left her native Kentucky for New York because, she confessed, "I wanted to become a New York Jewish intellectual."

In recent years a deluge of memoirs, critical studies, and Ph.D. dissertations have attested to the powerful influence the New York intellectuals had on the cultural tastes of American elites and on the reading lists of university literature and sociology courses. But Howe called attention as well to the impact of the PRstyle on the emerging group of Jewish novelists that included Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer: "I think it no exaggeration to say that since Faulkner and Hemingway the one major innovation in American prose style has been the yoking of street raciness and high-culture mandarin which we associate with American Jewish writers."

This association of apparent opposites so intrigued Howe that he returned to it often in discussing the New York intellectuals. And in a curious way it could be seen in the two conflicting impulses of his own literary career. On the one hand, he strove for a tone of high moral seriousness and an elevated language that early on legitimized his ambition to be accepted as a significant critic. On the other, he wanted to avoid academic stuffiness and to preserve elements of the blunt style of polemic -- sardonic, fast-paced, at times merciless -- that he had mastered in the sectarian alcoves of the City College of New York.

The dominant qualities in Howe's critical prose are its lucidity, its muscular flexibility, and its drive, all serving his gifts for vivid exposition and persuasive analysis. But there was also a lighter side to this earnest critic. When a writer charmed or impressed him, he would occasionally incorporate the author's tone and tempo into his own commentary. A particularly infectious example of this mimetic talent erupted when Howe introduced the brainy sad-sack hero of Saul Bellow's Herzog.

Where shall a contemporary novel begin? Perhaps unavoidably: with the busted hero reeling from a messy divorce and moaning in a malodorous furnished room; picking at his psyche's wounds like a boy at knee scabs; rehearsing the mighty shambles of ambition ("how I rose from humble origins to complete disaster"); cursing the heart-and-ball breakers, both wives and volunteers, who have, he claims, laid him low; snarling contempt at his own self-pity with a Johnsonian epigram, "Grief, Sir, is a species of idleness"; and yet, amidst all this woe, bubbling with intellectual hope, as also with intellectual gas, and consoling himself with the truth that indeed "there were worse cripples around."

Having indulged himself with this savory imitation of Bellow's style, Howe returned to his own sober voice, delivering sweeping yet shrewdly accurate appraisals of the author.

All of Bellow's books -- whether melancholy realism, moral fable, or picaresque fantasia -- represent for him a new departure, a chosen risk in form and perception. Bellow has the most powerful mind among contemporary American novelists, or at least, he is the American novelist who best assimilates his intelligence to creative purpose. This might have been foreseen at the beginning of his career, for he has always been able to turn out a first-rate piece of discursive prose; what could not have been foreseen was that he would also become a virtuoso of fictional technique and language.

The essay on Bellow was written in what I would call Howe's "middle period," roughly 1960-1975, when he evolved an apolitical approach to literature, along with a style of clarity, intellectual rigor, and emotional responsiveness. In retrospect, his major work of the 1950s, Politics and the Novel,marked his transition from political man incidentally fascinated by literature to professional literary man (he taught English for nearly forty years, at Brandeis, Stanford, and the City University of New York) who wrote and edited political articles in his spare time. Howe found that each of eleven selected novelists, from Dostoevsky and Hawthorne to Malraux and Orwell, raised troubling questions about morality, character, and motive. The temptation to deliver judgments based on socialist convictions must have been strong. But Howe made a deliberate effort to avoid the often righteous tone of his political writing. The essays in display an unexpected tolerance of diverse ideologies, along with an empathy even for weakness of character and an appreciation of eccentricity and charm for their own sake.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In