Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent
This book is gripping. Gerald Sorin has managed to create scholarly work which is both comprehensive and lively. He is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of Jewish Studies at SUNY New Paltz. His volume on Irving Howe is a comprehensive critical biography devoted to a well-known American intellectual and is part of the larger body of his works on American social thought which include The New York Abolitionists: A Case Study of Political Radicalism [Contributions in American History, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1971]; Abolitionism a New Perspective [Praeger Publishers, 1972]; The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920 [Indiana UP, 1985]; The Nurturing Neighborhood: the Brownsville Boys Club and Jewish Community in Urban America. 1940-1990 [NYU Press, 1990]; A Time for Building: The Jewish People in America, 1880-1920 Vol 3 [with Henry L Feingold, Johns Hopkins UP, 1992]; and Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America [Johns Hopkins UP, 1997].
It is a highly recommended read for anyone with an interest in the New York intellectual milieu spanning from the 1930s to the present. It has just received the 2003 Jewish Book Award. That it is finely constructed and written with enthusiasm for Irving Howe is an added bonus.
One of the qualities of this volume is that Gerald Sorin is an empathetic biographer who not only presents Howe's personal life with tact but who also recreates each decade's flavor (the 1930s East Bronx, the "college nickname "Fangs," the "CCNY chopped liver sandwiches" [p. 17], "the G.I unemployment insurance of twenty dollars a week" [p. 51], the gift of motherly "chicken soup" [p. 108] or summers at Wellfleet [p. 221]). He helps the reader see political entanglements as personal and generational dilemmas. Thanks to a thorough documentation (Howe was a prolific writer), Gerald Sorin offers a reevaluation of a thinker whose dismissal as a conservative originated in the far left in the 1960s and 1970s. He draws on textual evidence to straighten up records, and explain how misappreciation for Howe gradually grew. This balanced vindication of Howe is based on the notion that Howe can still be valuable to American left-liberalism today.
Gerald Sorin clearly states the issues at stake from his very first lines: "Irving Howe rose from Jewish immigrant poverty in the Depression-ridden East Bronx of the 1930s to become one of the most important public thinkers in America, preeminent in three major fields of general interest: radical politics, literature and Jewish culture" [p. ix]. These three tracks are the backbone of the volume which explains why Howe felt socialism, literature and Jewishness were all worthy but endangered causes. His commitment to socialism coincided with disillusion about Stalinist communism, his devotion to literature collided with a bewildering evolution of literary criticism, and Yiddish-defined Jewishness was about to be overcome by assimilation and social mobility. However, the volume shows that Howe preserved this "heroism of tiredness" [p. xiv] against all odds and lived a "life of conviction" [p. xiv].
The volume follows a chronological thread, starting with "The Trauma of Sharply Fallen Circumstances" [pp. 1-14] which Howe, born Irving Horenstein in 1920, experienced as the son of immigrant laborers (Nettie and David Horenstein). They ran a small grocery store that went out of business during the Great Depression. Their experience of downward mobility shaped Howe's political conscience and turned him towards the world of books. Depression pushed his parents out of relatively middle-class West Bronx into the deprived, depressed East Bronx in 1930. But thanks to a combination of good public school teachers, a family "drive for perfection" [p. 7] and a Jewish reverence for learning, Howe pulled himself from early destitution to a place of eminence in mainstream society. Not only did books help him understand Depression poverty and inequality were "the result of unjust social arrangements" [p. 9], but they also bridged with his family values of "tikn olam (the injunction to repair or improve the world) and tsedakah (action to promote social justice)" [pp. 12-261] and prepared him to join the left-liberal politics of the socialist movement. Howe was a socialist activist even before he entered the City College of New York, he joined the Trotskyist wing of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) before it became the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party. Gerald Sorin notes that many radicals saw socialism as "a secular version of the Judaic prophetic tradition" [p. 12] and that joining the left "was not so much out of generational rebellion as a product of socialization" [p. 13]. This echoes Gerald Sorin's earlier works which stressed how "acculturation" more than "assimilation" best described the experience of Jewish Americans.
"Illusions of Power and Coherence at CCNY" [pp. 15-30], "The Second World War and the Myopia of Socialist Sectarianism" [pp. 31-50] and "The Postwar World and the Reconquest of Jewishness" [pp. 51-77] document Howe's Trotskyist debut, his leaving the SWP in 1940, his leaving the Workers Party in 1952 (the Workers Party was called the Independent Socialist League by 1949), his belated but staunch commitment to democratic socialism and his reassessment of Jewishness. His 1940 change of name is explained in this context of political redefinition. Gerald Sorin details how he broke with Marxist orthodoxy and disentangled himself only several years after World War II. A taste for music, extensive reading during his army years in Alaska and Partisan Review helped him relinquish his Marxist sectarianism. The pages devoted to Howe's and a generation of Jewish intellectuals' blindness to the Shoah in the 1940s are especially balanced in that Gerald Sorin does not fall into retrospective judgmental comments. He explains how a desire to prove one was assimilated together with an attachment to Marxist categories (universalism, class exploitation, the wars of capitalism, the need for socialist revolution, 41) blocked their understanding of the real nature of Nazism. His analysis aptly complements Carole Kessner's landmark The 'Other' New York Jewish Intellectuals  and Alan Wald's landmark The New York Intellectuals: the Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s .
Gerald Sorin next maps Howe's road out of doctrinaire radicalism through literature and his new appreciation of Jewishness as an intellectual process of self-acceptance rather than a commitment to religious observance or Zionism. He recreates the larger context in which Howe developed a ''taste for complication, which is necessarily a threat to the political mind'' [p. 47] during his Princeton then Brandeis years (with Richard Blackmur, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Dennis Wrong). He documents his work with magazines (Time, Partisan Review, The New Republic) and Howe's links with the "New York Jewish intellectuals:" Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, Paul Goodman, Sidney Hook, Clement Greenberg, Lionel Abel, Nathan Glazer, Isaac Rosenfeld, Irving Kristol, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, William Barrett, James Baldwin, Robert Lowell, James Agee, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Elizabeth Hardwick, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Harrington, Richard Hofstadter (et al). That they were neither a group nor all Jewish gives a more accurate and nuanced understanding of a generation which gradually cohered around or against Partisan Review.
"The Origins of Dissent" [pp. 103-122], "The Age of Conformity" [pp. 123-139], "The Growth of Dissent and the Break up of the Fifties" [pp. 140-157], and "More Breakups" [pp. 158-187] shed light on Howe's internal conflict between his political commitment and literary aspirations (during his years at Brandeis, Stanford and City University Graduate Center). They also stress that Howe witnessed two cultural shifts: he witnessed how the 1950s and 1960s left behind ideas of alienation, anxiety, disorientation and guilt in society which had earmarked the 1930s and how the European model of an adversarial intelligentsia gradually receded in an age of conformity with and acceptance of the American model. Illuminating pages account for Howe's need to sustain "dissidence from within American culture and [for] the need for critical non-conformism to go along with the reaffirmation and rediscovery of America" [p. 91]. He refused the self-satisfied status quo and advocated "the critical stance, the very raison d'être of the intellectual" [p. 96] in the name of social justice. But he did not give in to communist radicalism either, arguing that he preferred the inadequate capitalist American democracy to a totalitarian regime which sacrificed civil liberties. These chapters describe how each of Howe's articles (e.g. "The Age of Conformity," 1954) echoed in the larger society, how he made and lost friends while trying to walk this fine line between the need to dissent and the refusal of sectarian ideology, between the recognition of America's bounties and the refusal of self-congratulation. Thus, Gerald Sorin helps us understand that the creation of his magazine Dissent, a quarterly journal (January 1954) is an attempt to hold a new ground between liberal reformist Commentary and Stalinist Monthly Review. The journal sought to defend socialism from the conservative anti-communism borne by the cold war while promoting innovative essays in cultural analysis. By the end of its first decade, Dissent had become a leading intellectual reference.
"The Turmoil of Engagement, The Sixties, Part 1" [pp. 88-210], "Escalation and Polarization, The Sixties, Part 2" [pp. 211-245], "Retrospection and Celebration" [pp. 246-272], "Sober Self-Reflections, Democratic Radical, Literary Critic, Secular Jew" [pp. 273-299] chronicle the slow erosion of Howe's political and literary aura as a public intellectual until his death in 1993. He failed to revitalize the anti-Stalinist left, was gradually ignored by the radical New Left and the counterculture movement which came to view him as a neoconservative, "an incipient supporter of US imperialism" [p. 226], a reactionary bent on defending liberalism, civil liberties and democracy --on the Vietnam war [p. 210 ff.], on the support for Israel, [p. 226ff.]. Howe also felt "lonely" in the new world of academia and out of tune with his students and peers. He found himself facing an assault on the literary canon by the New Left which rejected high culture and turned him into a negative icon of conservative ideas. Ironically, as Gerald Sorin points out, Howe's socialism and literary practice were the product of a conservative impulse rooted in his Jewish upbringing: "Howe's secular Jewishness, then, contributed not only to his socialist perspective, it also provided him with an 'inner conservatism', which served as a way of balancing his radical public role" [p. 232].
The whole book chronicles Howe's slow return to his Jewish identity. He came from a Yiddish-speaking family and was non-observant but we are told how he first found in Yiddish then Israeli-Hebrew literature a means of grappling with ''the fact of Jewishness.'' Along with his collaborator, the Yiddishist Eliezer Greenberg, he had helped introduce Yiddish literature to America. Their first joint anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories had contained a selection by an unknown Jewish refugee from Poland named Isaac Bashevis (Singer). The story was "Gimpel the Fool," and it was translated by a young man called Saul Bellow. Howe was drawn to the classic Yiddish authors Mendele Moykher Sforim, I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, in part, because the Jewish world of the ''kleine menschele'' which they described reflected Howe's interest in the poor. Much later, in the 1970s, he developed an interest in the shtetl portrayed by these Yiddish authors, which came to constitute a societal ideal against which he could measure his dissatisfaction with capitalist America. Impoverished though they had been, Eastern European Jews had lived in a close-knit society structured by a sense of responsibility for one's fellow Jew. That society became the subject of his 1976 World of Our Fathers, a historical exploration of the European Jewish culture brought to America at the start of the twentieth century. This very popular book was the product of Howe's gradual "reconquest of Jewishness." Despite this positive reformulation of his personal identity as a secular Jew, Howe felt alienated from the past and a misfit in the present. He was concerned with the disappearance of Yiddishkayt, and by the 1980s he was convinced that it had died out while his democratic socialist ideals and his practice of literature were also declining .
Over the pages, the reader discovers the biography of a fighting intellectual thanks to Gerald Sorin's balanced perspective. Even Howe's shortcomings are smoothed out by very forgiving words. Gerald Sorin mentions Howe's emotional life with a light and delicate touch, as in his humorous parenthesis on Howe's third marriage ("men and women raised in the 1930s and 1940s, even intellectuals, married," [p. 199]). He pays close attention to the complexity of causation and context, or peer-group imitation [p. 178]. However, this is very minor. I will end with three points which remain open questions for me and do not invalidate Gerald Sorin's findings.
My first point is the imprint of Howe's commitment to the left and his recognition today as a leftist. The book amply documents how these intellectuals (Howe, Trilling, Greenberg, etc.) owe their awakening to their links with the Communist or Trotskyist movement. Yet, their major achievements occurred after their revolutionary periods and some major figures deradicalized in the post World-War II decade. They were eventually displaced or marginalized by new forms of cultural radicalism (the counter-culture, African American activism, Feminism, identity politics, etc). Gerald Sorin mentions accusations of "conservatism" and often hyphenates his characterization of Howe and the Dissenters as left-liberals. Howe would not have been called a leftist after the 1950s and he would not be included in the American left tradition without mixed feelings today. Does this negative assessment only inform the reception of Howe by the radical left? Gerald Sorin's balanced vindication of Howe is not positioned along their radical dismissal nor is it positioned against the larger academic reappraisal of the "other Jewish intellectuals" on the left. He offers an academic "third way." So, the question is now, will other historians join him in the future?
The other point is about Jewishness. I understand that it is presented as the defining part of Howe's evolution towards conservatism (inner conservatism rather than economic or social conservatism). However, I wonder if Jewishness can be limited to the binary choice between a radical disentanglement pitted against a conservative reclaiming of identity. I think not. Jewishness is not defined only by the mutually exclusive terms of a rebellious rejection or a conservative reconquest. This is a traditionally sectarian reduction of Jewishness which can be read very differently within the broader context of Jewish cultures. Howe's early choices also fit into the largely Jewish-American non-Zionist stand before the war. Like Jews elsewhere he wished to join the mainstream and a Jewish homeland did not concern him. He is not the only Jewish intellectual who realized how crucial it was to his life and community after the war. Even his position as a rebel, a critic above the fray can also be interpreted in a larger Jewish culture perspective: Howe's adversarial strategy is also an inherent part of two Jewish traditions, that of the rabbi and that of the prophet. I borrow from Irving Kristol's "Liberalism and American Jews" [Commentary ,1988, pp. 19-23] of course to argue that Howe opted for the prophetic stance, criticizing in the name of higher ideals when other intellectuals opted for the rabbi's position by assuming responsibility for society from within. Read from within the Jewish cultures, I wonder if Howe's "reconquest of Jewishness" assumed the kind of responsibility that Jewish tradition has always demanded of its learned elite.
Which leads me to Marie Syrkin. Gerald Sorin shows that Howe was committed to comradeship, fraternity and community yet he antagonized all his friends. And those who did not belong to his cohort came under his heavy fire (Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth). Marie Syrkin is a case in point. They had much friendlier relationships towards the end of Howe's life but respect for her and her Zionist commitments was belated [p. 320]. Yet, her Bundist-shaped sympathy for the underprivileged was not only in print: she had first-class experience of what it meant to teach in a rundown, poor urban school and she contributed to a reassessment of public education while Howe watched from the safer distance of the best colleges of the country. She managed her career as a Labor Zionist journalist, a woman teacher in male academia and as a Zionist activist but I recall hearing her say that Yiddish solidarity was too often Jewish male inclusiveness. Howe's regrets for his blindness to the Shoah are fairly mentioned by Gerald Sorin but Marie Syrkin did more in deeds for her fellow Jews in distress during the war than Howe, despite claims "that he had a more developed sense of 'what really finally mattered' " [p. 164]. This raises both the question of the definition of activism, and of left-liberal Jewish intellectuals' relation to Israel.
Finally, Gerald Sorin shows Howe earned his living as a professor, though he never held more than a bachelor's degree, but he was always suspicious of institutionalized knowledge and academic constraints. This might explain why he proved unable to adapt to the intellectual evolutions of American and world criticism (beyond and after New Criticism). Literary criticism became in the 1960s a legitimate field of scholarly expertise rather than the preserve of the aristocratic "man of letters" who had "feelings" for and "sensitive reactions" to literature. Unfortunately, Howe represents the kind of pre-structuralist critical practice which has been discarded worldwide for its lack of updated command of what a literary text is. This has nothing to do with misperceiving a great writer (Roth), a lack of understanding for "the new sensibility" [p. 231], a "revulsion from the moral and sexual upheavals of the sixties" [p. 231], or the "licentiousness of the young" [p. 232]. I wonder if his legendary speed at churning out essays on the latest novels, his energy at running a quarterly-then a bi-monthly publication [p. 219] "before it returned to quarterly publication in 1972" [p. 247]--combined with too high a dose of narcissistic pride did not keep him from reading his contemporaries who were exploring connected fields and constructing tools which have changed the way one reads, creates and loves literature. Howe may not have taken the time necessary to read and master the concepts invented by linguistics, narratology, pragmatics, reception theory, and so forth. They cross path with postmodernism but are not limited to it. They are neither inaccessible nor incomprehensible. To argue that they are is usually a worrying sign of anti-intellectualism. In other words, Howe's involvement in politics and high-profile events may have cost him the time it takes to do a literature professor's homework, i.e. to keep learning. In the field of literary criticism, he did not happen to be out of tune with his time, he allowed himself to become out of tune with his time. So I wonder if his literary essays have more than a historical value today for a literary critic. But Gerald Sorin makes a convincing point when he argues together with Howe in favor of intelligible and humane literary criticism which is accessible to the well-educated "common reader."