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A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe (REVIEW)

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A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe. Edited by Nina Howe, with a foreword by Morris Dickstein. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.)

“Who will last, and what? A word as green/ as Genesis, making grasses grow.”

–Abraham Sutzkever (trans. Cynthia Ozick) in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, ed. Irving Howe, Ruth  Wisse, Khone Shmeruk.

The late Irving Howe often accused Americans of historical amnesia, and would not have been surprised to learn that names such as Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, and Irving Howe are now largely forgotten, and as little recognized by young professors of literature as the names Matthew Arnold and George Eliot. Indeed, these academicians are more likely to have read what Howe called the “stupefyingly opaque” prose of the French theorists than Middlemarch or Oliver Twist. Howe’s daughter Nina, although she reports at least “one Irving Howe sighting” a month, has  undertaken to restore her father’s voice to the prominence it once had. This is a laudable project, for voices such as Howe’s are heard no more, though a glance at his imitators in Dissent Magazine may call to mind  his observation that good causes often attract bad advocates. Not only did his prose epitomize what Flaubert called “le mot juste;” he possessed  what  his literary collaborator (and political adversary) Ruth Wisse called “perfect pitch” as a literary critic; and, contrary to what has been alleged by his detractors, he did not pervert literary judgment by political prejudice. No dogmatic socialist could have celebrated, as  he did, Faulkner’s conviction that “fraternity is morally finer than equality,” or praised Conrad’s conservatism as resistance to the omnivorous state, or called Dostoevsky’s The Possessed “the greatest of all political novels.”

Professor Howe (who teaches at Concordia University in Montreal) has wisely organized her book chronologically, decade by decade, rather than thematically.  It is difficult to separate literary from political, social, ethical, and Jewish concerns in Howe’s voluminous work, which in retrospect seems the product of a well-ordered industry rather than a single human being.  She omits everything Howe wrote prior to the fifties, which means that we are spared a great deal of Trotskyist journalism in Labor Action (which he edited), including  relentless opposition to Roosevelt’s “capitalist” war against Hitler and even attacks on supporters of that war for some time after it was over. (It should, however, be remembered that Howe served in the U. S. army from 1942-46.)

On the whole, Nina Howe has done an excellent job of selecting her materials, although—because she reprints only essays and not chapters from books– one misses having even a part of the magnificent introduction to Howe’s  greatest act of literary salvage, his Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954). That book, which once could be found in the home of every literate Jewish family, remains a central document in the story of Howe’s quixotic attempt to establish “secular Jewishness,” a project that engaged him until 1977, when Hillel Halkin’s brilliant book Letters to An American Jewish Friend convinced him that only two choices remain to Jews: Israel and religious orthodoxy.

Instead of a selection from the Treasury,  editor Howe begins the book with her father’s  “This Age of Conformity,” an essay that is largely responsible for the negative view of the fifties that has now become so fashionable, especially among people who think that bad times for leftist politics means bad times for America. Howe himself had serious misgivings about the piece. By the standard of urbanity he was just beginning to develop, it was a throwback to his fierce, ragged, unkempt style of the forties, one which he himself later called a “scatter-shot piece,” a polemic that Rahv “got me to write…in which I attacked almost everyone for the growing conservative mood of the moment.” Fortunately, Nina Howe also reprints her father’s essay of 1965 called “New Styles in ‘Leftism,'” which is a distinctly unsympathetic analysis of the 60s left’s cultural style, domestic politics, and unreflective belief in the decline and general wickedness of “the West.” (To this list he would soon add the Israel-hatred of young Jewish leftists.)

A Voice Still Heard is a valiant effort to remind us of one of the most fully achieved careers in American letters. Unlike so many writers in the last two centuries who “turned” from literature to social and political criticism, Howe remained permanently loyal to three great commitments: politics, literature, and Jewishness. To all of them he brought affection and critical intelligence. He began in the socialist movement as a fervent anti-Stalinist and believer in the capacity of socialism to end war and injustice, and of Marxism to explain everything. But by the sixties he was no longer a Marxist, his socialism was hard to distinguish from liberalism, and he acknowledged the universal failure of socialism as a political movement. But he transformed it into a myth of considerable power as an ethical instrument.

Stirred belatedly into Jewishness (not exactly Judaism) by the Holocaust, Howe undertook a heroic effort to save a language and a literature that had been consigned to destruction by Nazism. In the course of his work as translator and editor of Yiddish texts and historian of the immigrant Jewish world, he endowed the idea of secular Jewishness with a special twilight beauty; but he could not rescue it from its inevitable demise, and ceased to believe in its future long before he died.

Literature was to prove Howe’s most powerful and compelling object of desire; and he shielded it from political manipulation. In the forties he defended its autonomy against the onslaughts both of Stalinists and fellow Trotskyists; in the sixties his defense of its integrity brought him into (fruitful) conflict with the New Left and helped him to see the need to conserve the very idea of the university from the political designs of “guerrillas with tenure.” In the eighties he took up arms on behalf of literature against the gaggle of pedants and theorists who professed literature but were jealous of, or even hated, it, and who—in contrast to the vivid, articulate, and witty Howe—could not write English.

What is his legacy to us? He came to view all three of his loves as “lost causes.” Two of them, socialism and secular Jewishness, really were; the third, humane literary study, may yet prove to be.  But to chronicle, as Nina Howe’s anthology helps us to do, a devotion to lost causes, forsaken beliefs, and impossible loyalties is also to chronicle a kind of heroism. Irving liked to say that “one of the arts of life is to know how to end.” Taken out of context, this might seem a counsel of stoical resignation to the inevitable. In fact, it was just the opposite. He said it when writing about the American Yiddish poets who refused, out of a sense of honor and a strength of will, to admit the bleakness of their future. However desperate, they would confront the world with firmness—and that quixotic utopianism is what Howe meant by knowing how to end. If the world of American letters cannot emulate his intellectual heroism and tenacious idealism, it should at least remember them.

Edward Alexander is the author of ‘Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew’ (Indiana University Press) and ‘Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe’ (Transaction Publishers).

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Jewish Star.

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