Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book review: Irving Howe, storyteller of ideas

Nina Howe, editor A VOICE STILL HEARD : Selected essays of Irving Howe

Reviewed by ADAM KIRSCH
One of his best essays, “New Styles in Leftism”, foresaw the terminus of the 60s revolution as early as 1965: “Some of the people involved in that movement show an inclination to make of their radicalism not a politics of common action, which would require the inclusion of saints, sinners, and ordinary folk, but, rather, a gesture of moral rectitude. And the paradox is that they often sincerely regard themselves as committed to politics – but a politics that asserts so un-modulated and total a dismissal of society, while also departing from Marxist expectations of social revolution, that little is left to them but the glory or burden of maintaining a distinct personal style.”
“When intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine”, Irving Howe quipped when explaining why he founded Dissent, the independent leftist quarterly, in 1954. The Eisenhower era was not hospitable to left-wing politics, and Howe’s phrase is often repeated at the intellectuals’ expense, as if it were a confession of their irrelevance. But that is not what Howe meant. He went on to write: “But starting a magazine is also doing something; at the very least it is thinking in common. And thinking in common can have unforeseen results”. How could an intellectual continue to function in the absence of the conviction that ideas are not just playthings – as they sometimes seem – but the tectonic plates whose slow, invisible movement can change the face of the earth?
In this conviction, as in many other ways, Howe stands as one of the archetypal intellectuals of the American Century. As Morris Dickstein writes in the introduction to A Voice Still Heard, a new selection of Howe’s essays and reviews: “in any consideration of the man of letters, political critic, or the public intellectual in the second half of the twentieth century, it would be hard to find a more exemplary or embattled figure than Irving Howe”. When Robert Lowell titled a poem “The New York Intellectual”, he could refer to “Irving” and trust that his metropolitan readership would immediately get the reference:
“Did Irving really want three hundred words, such tact and tough, ascetic resonance, the preposition for, five times in parallel, to find himself “a beleaguered minority, without fantasies of martyrdom”, facing the graves of the New York Intellectuals, “without joy, but neither with dismay”? This art was needed for his final sentence; others see the entombment with dismay.”
The majestic peroration referred to by Lowell can be found in Howe’s essay, itself titled “The New York Intellectuals”, which appeared in Commentary in 1969. Writing when he was forty-nine years old and Partisan Review had entered its fourth decade, Howe tried to sum up the achievements of this influential and much-mythologized group. The New York Intellectuals, he explained, were what resulted when the intellectual energy accumulated by generations of downtrodden Eastern European Jews, like “a tightly gathered spring, trembling with unused force”, suddenly broke free in the first American generation.
Born in poor immigrant neighbourhoods of New York – the Lower East Side, Brownsville, the Bronx – in the first decades of the twentieth century, these writers discovered or forged for themselves a new sensibility, “the union of politics and culture, with the politics radical and the culture cosmopolitan”. And in the pages of their house journal, Partisan Review, they created a new kind of essay, characterized by “a flair for polemic, a taste for the grand generalization, an impatience with what they regarded (often parochially) as parochial scholarship, an international perspective, and a tacit belief in the unity . . . of intellectual work”.
Howe was, of course, describing himself, as well as Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling and other leading lights of the circle. But he saw himself as the eulogist of a movement that itself had been belated; the New York Intellectuals, he emphasizes, “came late”. Their politics were shaped by the Russian Revolution and their literary tastes by high modernism – that is, by events which took place in their childhoods. By the time Howe reached City College in the mid-1930s – the public university, mediocre but free, where many ambitious Jewish immigrants sent their children – left-wing struggle had degenerated into a war of words between sects. Characteristically, the sect that drew Howe was not the Communist Party, larger in numbers and faithful in support of Stalin’s USSR, but the Socialists and then the Trotskyists. In such groups, he could preserve his intellectual independence while still feeling himself to be on the right side of history.
From the beginning of his career, then, Howe was used to being in the minority, indeed in the minority of a minority. And it was in these college debates – impassioned, sometimes day-long fights over current events and Marxist doctrine, conducted over cheap meals in the school cafeteria – that Howe began to develop the style on display in A Voice Still Heard. It is a style that excels in lucid abstraction, forensic vigour, historical perspective and strength of conviction – a prose whose ideal seems to be irrefutability. You can hear what Lowell called its “tough, ascetic resonance” in that hortatory conclusion of “The New York Intellectuals”, in which Howe summons his ageing peers back to the barricades:
For the values of liberalism, for the politics of a democratic radicalism, for the norms of rationality and intelligence, for the standards of literary seriousness, for the life of the mind as a humane dedication – for all this it should again be worth finding themselves in a minority, even a beleaguered minority, and not with fantasies of martyrdom but with a quiet recognition that for the intellectual this is likely to be his usual condition.
As Howe laments, however, the radicalism of his circle mellowed with age, as many of its members turned into mere liberals, or worse, neoconservatives (such as Irving Kristol, an erstwhile comrade of Howe at City College). Howe was perhaps the only one of the New York Intellectuals to remain as committed a socialist in the 1980s as he was in the 30s. Even so, his definition of socialism inevitably changed, from a revolutionary doctrine to something more like an ethical calling: “moral protest largely beyond the political process, and social reform largely within it”, as he describes it in the essay “Why Has Socialism Failed in America?”. “Whether some such alliance of forces or union of impulses might still be created in America is very much a question. I do not know, but think it a project worthy of serious people.”
Essential to understanding Howe’s politics is the fact that he was a literary man as well as a political one. The fusion of the two, the refusal to forsake the life of the mind for any party line, was a badge of the New York intellectuals’ humanism... read more: