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.

At times, however, he went too far in his swing toward what Edmund Wilson facetiously called "liquorary quiddicism" and adopted refined mannerisms and abstract formulations borrowed from Henry James or Lionel Trilling that clearly did not suit his natural voice -- for example, "the very yearning for choice reveals the power of destiny." But at his best -- and most of Politics and the Novelsustains an impressive level of commentary -- he could be passionate and pungent. Summing up Turgenev's political wisdom in Fathers and Sons and other novels, Howe revealed how far he himself had come from the doctrinal certainties of his youth.

He speaks to us for the right to indecision, which is almost as great a right as the right to negation. He speaks to us for a politics of hesitation, a politics that will never save the world but without which the world will never be worth saving. He speaks to us with the authority of failure.

What is most striking in Politics and the Novelis Howe's appetite for novels that are intellectually challenging and construct their plots against a background of crucial historical movements, even when their politics are conservative or reactionary, as is the case in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, Conrad's Under Western Eyes, and James's The Princess Casamassima. Yet some years later, when he confronted Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, a novel lacking the intellectual force or historical significance of those earlier works, Howe rejected the fashionable disparagement of the author's crude style and half-baked ideas. Dreiser, he insisted, "ranks among the American giants, the very few American giants we have had.... What makes him so absorbing a novelist, despite all of his grave faults, is that he remains endlessly open to experience." Unlike the typically dispiriting naturalists, Dreiser "is always on the watch for a glimmer of transcendence.... [for] the possibility of 'a mystic something of beauty that perennially transfigures the world.'" But along with this high-flown if deeply felt sentiment, Howe recognized that Clyde Griffiths, Dreiser's ill-fated hero, embodies a very different universal quality: "He represents ... our collective smallness, the common denominator of our foolish tastes and tawdry ambitions. He is that part of ourselves in which we take no pride, but know to be a settled resident."

AS a critic, Irving Howe cast a wide net. His sympathies extended to obscure novelists and poets; he tried single-handedly to restore the reputation of Edwin Arlington Robinson. He wrote about several generations of Jewish American novelists whose roots and outlooks resonated familiarly in his own experience. And he wrote about Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman, whose Transcendentalist idealism he found both distant and personally affecting. Starting with an admiring book about Thomas Hardy, Howe proceeded in his later years to rediscover for an intellectual public some of the famous but at the time underestimated figures of nineteenth-century British fiction -- among them Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot.

On separate occasions Howe's strong views about contemporary American writers infuriated Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth, and led to unusually memorable ripostes. In a long essay on black writing Howe praised Richard Wright's novel Native Son (1940) for its racial ferocity and "clenched militancy." He took issue with James Baldwin's objection that Wright's "protest" fiction represented blacks only as victims. He also deplored Ralph Ellison's comment, on receiving the National Book Award for Invisible Man (1952), that he tried "to see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom." With an uncharacteristic rhetorical flourish Howe laid down his private party line: "How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest?"

So peremptory a pronouncement by a Jewish critic who claimed all of world literature as his terrain clearly invited attack. Ellison rose to the occasion with a searing essay ("The World and the Jug," included in his book Shadow and Act)that went beyond simply answering Howe to an eloquent recall of his own critical awakening and his choice of literary models.

I was freed not by propagandists or by the example of Wright ... but by composers, novelists, and poets who spoke to me of more interesting and freer ways of life.... While one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's "ancestors." Wright was, in this sense, a "relative"; Hemingway an "ancestor."

The exchanges between Howe and Ellison were sharp but civil, with Howe yielding somewhat toward the end; polemics on a coruscating level, they deserve to be reissued under one cover.

Howe's other target of provocation was Philip Roth, a literary street fighter more than capable of taking on his tormentor. A decade after writing a favorable review of Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus(1959), Howe decided that the novelist's rising reputation, with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint(1969), needed major surgery. In a full-scale broadside, "Philip Roth Reconsidered," Howe committed an act of what he might have called literary slum clearance. He convicted Roth of vulgarity, condescension, and moral callousness before going on to specific stylistic crimes.

Another decade later -- resentment percolating over time -- Roth introduced into his semi-autobiographical novel The Anatomy Lesson the critic Milton Appel, whose harsh reconsideration of the hero's work cut him to the quick. "You pervert my intentions, then call me perverse!" Zuckerman-Roth shouts over the phone to his accuser. "You lay hold of my comedy with your ten-ton gravity and turn it into a travesty. My coarse, vindictive fantasies, your honorable, idealistic humanist concerns." But to an interviewer Roth once held up his Irving Howe file and said wistfully, "He was a real reader."

MOST of Howe's criticism was not so embattled. On the contrary, writing about novels and poems served him as an escape from the polemical strains of politics, a way of moving from the public realm to the private, from social issues to personal relations. In the last years of his life, having spent more than three decades dealing with complexity and subtlety, he turned his attention to discovering some basic secrets of fictional art. How can an author convey goodness without sentimentality or bathos? Why does the "tone" of a novel, that elusive emanation of style, often speak to us more strikingly than the solid logic of incident and character? Why do certain "gratuitous details," not essential to a novel's structure, remain most vividly in the mind and memory?

These are some of the questions Howe addressed in short pieces collected by his son Nicholas in a posthumous volume titled (1994). Answering them, he displayed a side of his critical persona not prominent earlier. Here he was playful, ruminative, modest, and curious. He found a special wisdom and delight in the works of writers' late years -- such as the "transparency" and "lack of complicating devices" in one of Chekhov's last stories. A comment on Leo Tolstoy opens with this touching tribute:

Reading the aged Tolstoy stirs the heart. He will not yield to time, sloth, or nature. He clings to the waist of the lifeforce. Deep into old age, he battles with the world, more often with himself, returning in his diaries, fictions, and tracts to the unanswerable questions that torment him. Blessed old magician, he is free of literary posture and the sins of eloquence.

Turning in his own later writings toward a Tolstoyan plainness, Howe shared the old magician's "need for meaning" and "restlessness of mind," even as he too on occasion succumbed "to moral crankiness ... to intemperate demands for temperance."

The journey from combative youth to contemplative old age -- in politics as in literary taste -- was a long and instructive one, much of it told in (1982), Howe's "intellectual autobiography," the most personal and engaging of his books. The 1950s saw a broad movement among the New York intellectuals away from dogmatic leftism and toward a more flexible liberalism and a more benign appraisal of American society. Even as he moved in that direction, Howe was among the last of his former comrades, and the most reluctant, to give up an intransigently radical stance. Although he spent most of the postwar decade, after a stint in the Army, building an academic and literary career, he missed the excitement of a "movement,"a community of fellow believers "absorbed in ideas beyond the smallness of self."

How does one create a movement out of abandoned doctrines and uncertain hopes? Howe's answer was apologetically ironic: "When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine." In 1954 he and a colleague at Brandeis University launched Dissent,a quarterly that advocated, and at the same time tried stumblingly to define, "democratic socialism." As might be expected, a magazine so earnest and political in its ambitions did not produce the cerebral fireworks of the old Partisan Review.Times had changed, and even radical intellectuals had found jobs and tenure in the universities. Much of the theoretical and analytical writing in Dissentbore the heavy weight of academic stolidity. The redeeming liveliness came from younger writers grappling with the more urgent problems of improving daily life -- in housing, health care, welfare, and race relations -- or from less ideological reporting by seasoned journalists about, for example, life among the unemployed in a Pennsylvania mining town, or the chaotic early period of the Sandinista takeover in Nicaragua.

Perhaps the most valuable function of Dissentand its contributors in the late 1960s and early 1970s was to keep their democratic sanity when all around them on the New Left -- students, professors, and The New York Review of Books-- were losing theirs to some apocalyptic vision of revolution inspired by Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh.

But for Howe and his colleagues -- Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America (1962) helped to launch the War on Poverty, and the political philosopher Michael Walzer -- the main purpose of Dissentwas to clarify the moral status and practical viability of socialism, vaguely defined as a more equitable, more universally democratic society. They were on strong ground in deploring the obvious inequities and injustices of capitalism. But they also recognized the far deadlier injustices of societies around the world that called themselves socialist. The position they took was that socialism could not be said to have failed; it had simply never been tried, because, in Howe's words, "there can be no socialism without democracy."

The real question for the Dissent circle was Can there be socialism withdemocracy? To their credit, they took this question seriously. They had seen power corrupt and absolute centralized power corrupt absolutely. Was it possible to avoid the totalitarian potential of socialism? One response argued that since all modern societies, including capitalist ones, are moving toward some form of economic collectivism, the crucial issue is whether controls will be democratic and participatory or bureaucratic and authoritarian. Another argued that power and authority should be scattered by way of autonomous industries, small private enterprises, and worker involvement in management, so as to create an economic version of checks and balances.

Howe admitted that the solutions suggested were tentative, inconclusive, and possibly unworkable. But he insisted that his utopian vision of socialism served a useful function, even if it could never be attained. Just as religious faith provides fallible humankind with a touchstone for private moral behavior, he argued, so too could faith in democratic socialism nudge people's resistant consciences toward a more decent and generous level of public behavior. The epigraph to Howe's collection of political and social essays, Steady Work (1966), restates this religious-secular equation in an astringently self-mocking way.

Once in Chelm, the mythical village of the East European Jews, a man was appointed to sit at the village gate and wait for the coming of the Messiah. He complained to the village elders that his pay was too low. "You are right," they said to him, "the pay is low. But consider: the work is steady."

The Messiah, alas, never arrived in the small towns of Eastern Europe. So by the tens of thousands the inhabitants of the shtetlssought a more tangible salvation in America. From 1880 to 1914 approximately one third of all Eastern European Jews emigrated, a total of nearly two million, most of them to the United States. They came to escape pogroms, poverty, and restricted horizons. Irving Howe told their story in fascinating detail and sweeping historical perspective in World of Our Fathers.He described the shock of adapting to an entirely new, mostly urban world. He traced their gradual entry into American politics (especially the leftist variety), business (especially Hollywood), labor unions (especially in the garment trade), and cultural life. America gave the immigrants unprecedented security and opportunity, and gained in return an infusion of energy and enterprise, intellectual passion and theatrical flair.

Howe recognized the richness and historical uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the United States. But he also saw the costs of success: the dispersion of bustling city neighborhoods into bland, assimilated suburbs, the weakening of a strain of "intense moral seriousness" as Jews moved up the economic ladder. Most of all Howe regretted the inevitable loss of an entire culture centered on the Yiddish language -- a colorful world of poetry, prose, theater, and ritual that the immigrants brought with them, only to find their children and grandchildren losing interest as they became Americanized. Not content with teaching, editing Dissent,and turning out a steady stream of books, reviews, and essays, Howe took on the task of overseeing the translation into English of the best of Yiddish writing even as the store of readers and writers declined. When in low spirits he would ask himself, "Another lost cause?"

HOWE'S attraction to lost causes was a direct consequence of his longing for the "heroic," a word that appears often and almost always with approval in his writing. But who could have imagined that Irving Howe, the prideful man of the left, would find an empathic hero in T. E. Lawrence? The famed Lawrence of Arabia, author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was an acknowledged agent of British imperialism, using his entrée into the Arab leadership to further British military advantage in the First World War against the Turks, then allied to the Germans.

Yet Howe's long essay "T. E. Lawrence: The Problem of Heroism" is one of his finest, because it draws on feelings far deeper than political sympathy: "If we come to him admiring whatever in his life was extraordinary, we remain with him out of a sense that precisely the special, even the exotic in Lawrence may illuminate whatever in our life is ordinary." But Howe was not wholly uncritical of this limelight-seeking adventurer. He saw Lawrence's early feats of physical endurance and his later feats of military bravura as "in part symptoms of a vanity which took the form of needing always to seem original."

Like Lawrence, Howe yearned to play a heroic role in some socially transforming historical event. His own vanity took the form of needing always to seem more principled and militant than his political adversaries. Even when he expressed doubts about the nature and viability of socialism, he could not forgo a posture of self-righteous superiority to those, especially old comrades, who no longer shared his dwindling faith. Still, there is something admirable in his unwavering insistence that American society could be fairer, more fraternal, more pervasively democratic, than it is. But he could hardly have found it heroic to wind up de facto on the fringe of the left wing of the Democratic Party.